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Transitioning in the Workplace: Don't Ignore Emotional Hangovers

During the "ask us anything" section after an LGBTQ awareness training that Kim and I did for a corporation, one of the HR people asked me a question, "What can we do to support you as a transgender nonbinary person at work, Alex?"

At the time I was so struck because we had just spent a total of 4.5 hours in training together discussing things like allyship, implicit bias, explaining the ever-expanding LGBTQ language, and micro-aggressions that queer people face in a workforce that is dominated by heteronormativity. I paused, unsure of what direction to go, trying to get underneath what it was that I felt she was really asking. This question came within minutes after I just shared my own coming out experience at work and it must have been why I felt myself bristling at her totally reasonable question in the space that is set up to "ask us anything". I answered with: Just listening...keep showing up.

Meanwhile, I told myself the same thing. I had some thinking to do. It's been weeks since that training and I finally named what it was: I was enduring repeated emotional hangovers after coming out transgender and nonbinary. Here it was someone at an organization, who was participating in the work, asking me what I needed. I realize it was so difficult to name because I wasn't even acknowledging how traumatic coming out at work really was. I don't believe workplaces mean to create more trauma during a transition but it happens. All the time. Writing about it now I'm finding it emotional but the difference is I have moved into a space of witnessing simply what it was.

Let's define "emotional hangover". First, if you have ever experienced (unfortunately) a hangover from drinking alcohol, it's not fun. After a night of drinking and partying, you may have woken up the next day with a headache, some nausea, dizzy, fatigue and if you had a choice, you probably didn't leave your house. You did some things to take better care of, zoned out on a movie, drank lots of water, ate healthy food, and maybe took a few aspirin to take off the edge. The reality is no one can fix or help you out of a hangover. It is what it is. You have to wait it out.

After we share something that requires a tremendous amount of emotional energy, the aftermath takes on a similar effect: an emotional hangover. It's defined as what happens after a serious or traumatic event. Feelings can linger after the event or point of sharing. I would include coming out at the workplace a serious event.

Maybe we go in more like this: When one of your employees shares that they have decided to transition, (not that this dictates their level of "trans-ness") remember they are giving you a piece of their heart. There isn't a measure for being transgender just as there is no measure for being cisgender. We are who we are. Transgender people, when they share their truth with you, that is a serious co-responsibility. They are releasing the ways they've held back and finally allowing themselves to breathe in the kind of air that makes them feel free. They are giving themselves the gift of showing us on the outside what is on the inside. And frankly, it is a gift to everyone else as well. What we find so uncomfortable is someone else shining their light. Why? I think that's for us to answer for ourselves. Transitioning despite this heteronormative world is a radical act of self-love. It is a joyous occasion that is an essential ingredient to healing.

When shared I was transitioning, I felt so raw, so exposed that I just didn't know how to tend to nor knew how to express my own needs. All I had were these pieces of me finally ready to be seen. Life felt heavy and untethered. Everything was hard and better than I could have imagined. I wanted the discomfort to stop and my resilience to grow. Funny thing is, we can't have one without the other.

Managing my emotional hangovers in the beginning stages of my transition showed up in different ways. One way included I began to tighten up my boundaries. Honestly, I was just not as present nor socially available. It may have looked like I had shifted into survival but really I was learning how to finally internally shift into thriving. It also showed up how I moved through the facility. Some days going in and out of work became a tuck-and-roll operation to limit my exposure. I just couldn't hold any more than I already was. I was waking up to myself and as it does, healing comes with a cost to life around you. Show your heart to yourself and you can bend to the bleed. Show your heart to others and watch them reveal how deeply they've accepted or rejected their own.

It would take days for me to circle back to employees who said hurtful things to me because I would have to give myself time to stand back up after the punches. Asking for an ally became pointless because I wasn't experiencing anyone doing the work to understand how to show up for a transgender nonbinary person. They handed it back over to me like be your own ally, we don't want to change what we're doing here.

The desire to hide was intense which was another symptom of the hangover. Everything felt right. Everything felt real yet I had to cocoon. Owning who I am, and being a public figure in my community, I was learning how to harness my own energy to find balance. Self-betrayal was a pattern I was aware of and it needed to be excavated and tossed. Self-betrayal was me leaving my heart behind in order to make someone else feel more comfortable.

The nature of being a fitness instructor gave me the stage (literally) to create the kind of safety I needed from time to time and gave me the courage to continue to discover my own form of transgender joy. I used the stage as the platform it was to control what I could. I couldn't stop being transgender. I couldn't stop being nonbinary. I couldn't stop people from staring, gossiping, or saying harmful and hurtful things. I could continue to hone and deepen the sense of loyalty to my authentic self which contributes to the communities to which I'm a part. What took me years to understand as I started began working as an LGBTQ awareness trainer was dismantling my own arrogance, thinking I could create change on a systematic scale all by myself.

Brene Brown's research supports that as humans we are feeling machines who think but we are conditioned to operate like thinking machines who feel. It's safe to say that we are all tired of the head down-keep working-don't stop-be perfect-don't fuck up-guard your heart-don't-show-your-humanness type of operating and calling it strength. I say that as someone who tried to keep up with this and failed. I don't think it's a sustainable way of living.

When one person transitions, everyone transitions whether they realize it or not. The entire operating system at work shifts. Any kind of transition towards truth inevitably causes a disruption in the toxic parts of the system which ignites emotional hangovers. When I say disruption, I don't mean this to harbor a negative response. Disruption can be positive and actually is required when leaning into love and care for your transgender and nonbinary employees. As more people share themselves with the world, the disruptions are an opportunity to reflect if the system we are working with is really the best way forward. Who is getting left behind? Are you contributing to making their emotional hangover recovery longer...or shorter? Working to establish a sense of harmony and belonging is an energetic upheaval, an investment upgrade, and we must learn to accept the invitation to connect.

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