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Take Note: Transgender counselor Dr. Stacee Reicherzer on healing "otherness"

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Dr. Stacee Reicherzer

Dr. Stacee Reicherzer is a transgender counselor and educator who is working to heal “otherness.” She has worked with trauma-focused care over the last 15 years of her counseling career and currently serves as clinical faculty for Southern New Hampshire University. Dr. Reicherzer is the author of "The Healing of Otherness Handbook" and is leading a series of workshops at Penn State framed around her book. She talked with WPSU’s Lindsey Whissel Fenton about how her experiences with childhood bullying inspired her to write "The Healing of Otherness Handbook" and about what all of us can do to live more authentic and inclusive lives.

Find more on Dr. Stacee’s work here.

Here's that conversation:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Dr. Stacee Reicherzer is a transgender counselor and educator who works to heal otherness. She spent the last 15 years of her counseling career working on trauma focused care, and currently serves as clinical faculty for Southern New Hampshire University. Dr. Stacee is the author of The Healing Otherness Handbook and is leading a series of workshops at Penn State framed around that book. Dr. Stacee, welcome to Take Note.

Stacee Reicherzer 

Thank you, I'm so very glad to be here.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Something I love on your website bio is that you lead with you; like, all the things that make you a beautiful and unique human. You describe people in places and activities you love and then you get into your professional accomplishments. So, in keeping with that theme, before we get into your work, especially your work on healing otherness, would you be so kind as to share some of those things? What are you passionate about? What brings you joy?

Stacee Reicherzer 

Thanks for the question. I have a great deal of passion for, you know, my life right now. It's just an exciting moment. This is a vibrant time for us as we are learning how to heal from the pandemic. And I say learning to how to heal because we're healing things that we didn't ever know were possible. So, part of my own learning is discovering again, just how much I enjoy living in a place like Chicago. There is right now, the sort of a renaissance, if you will. So, I'm enjoying just being out right now. I feel like it's a very stressful moment. Yesterday, I went to the movies. And I thought my gosh, this is just a wonderful thing. This was, this is great. I was at the opera on Saturday night, saw a live drag show on Sunday night. And I thought these are great experiences to be able to have, once again, I'm just so glad that this is, this is here. So, what I what I find myself doing is really cherishing these moments, these things that I yearned for, and didn't even realize how much I was yearning for until they were taken away. But it's… I feel like I'm just savoring a delicious meal bite by bite. And that makes me very, very happy.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

That's wonderful. So, you, you've mentioned healing, and I want to get into the work you do. And if you're willing, I'd like to talk about some of your formative experiences that led you into doing this work of healing your own othering and becoming the compassionate human being who would also want to help others do the same. But, before we do that, we should probably clarify when you say otherness or othering, what does that mean?

Stacee Reicherzer 

Well, the way that I understand otherness is that it is a profound experience, of being cast out for one’s differences, whatever those differences are. And, cast out, means a lot of things, it means that we were that we were bullied, we were ostracized, we were isolated, perhaps we were treated with violence, emotional and/or physical, because of some characteristic that we possessed, which was different from those of the dominant group. For example, of course, there's, there's this profound story that's the original sin of America, which is, which is slavery and colonization, and the attempted genocide of Native Americans. It's a profound, profoundly disturbing and and ultimately problematic form of otherness, that that is, that has had legacy effect and that is continues to be perpetuated in racism. And and colorism and many other forms of othering for BIPOC peoples, but it's also an experience of being cast out because of gender or sexual orientation or how those things are even perceived. So, I think about my own story of of being cast out, because I was a gender non-conforming little boy growing up in South Texas in the 1970s. And just what that was to be told that I was different in so many different ways, and so many ways that we're really assaulting, to, to who I am. It's… othering is about the experience of being made to feel somehow less than because of one's one's body, one’s mobility, how one just appears physically in the world, and how one moves through it. Neurodiversity is certainly another big one. And I think about how many times I heard somebody with dyslexia or ADHD, being just profoundly othered in their classroom experiences, sometimes by teachers themselves, because they couldn't study like other kids did. They didn't they… their minds just didn't operate in the same way and so they were wiggling, they were agitated, they were whatever was going on. And they were shamed for it. And sometimes the teacher would rally the other kids around and really create this massive otherness experience. So, certainly that the the rules that have existed for girls and boys, the rules that have existed for dominant religious groups, there's so many ways that can people have been othered. But it really comes down to an individual being cast out and being treated as somehow less than unworthy, damaged, ugly, or some aspect of their being. So, there's a lot of different ways that people have experienced otherness and their realities. And these things are really quite damaging to our long-term development. So ,that's the thing that I discovered in the thing that I've actually wanted to write about to help people address and heal from in their lives.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Before we get into talking about then how that shows up for us internally, this begs the question for me is, is othering always intentional? Or, you know, just does, I guess the perception or you know, how it's received… the impact outweigh the intent in this space? So if somebody makes a comment that maybe they aren't consciously trying to diminish or humiliate, but they are calling out a difference in a way that makes the receiver feel less than or feel some kind of way, is that still othering if there's no intent behind it?

Stacee Reicherzer 

Well, sure. And, you know, I realized I just made a statement that othering is done with it with an intent to demoralize and I think there's a… the truth is that there are a lot of ways that this stuff happens, perhaps innocently. But there's a lot of discussion right now of just what it means to be sensitive to language and what's used. But I think about even just the role of news and media and what it means to take things in about people who are like us, I can't tell you how many times I felt othered, just by the fact of reading something that was going on that was profoundly disturbing, you know, legislation that was passed, for example, to restrict same gender couples from adopting, that goes, and that’s still in some states, you know, and you know, those kinds of things in that, where that lands for me as a queer person is that just still hooks, this old messaging I have, that I'm somehow less than, I'm somehow inadequate, I'm somehow not quite a full human. And this is an important piece to this, because somewhere long ago, from all those external messages that I received, and that other people who are listening to this received, we started to listen. And we started to believe the messages that we were begin being given, we started to internalize these. And we began to hear within her own mind's ear, if you will, just a lot of things that weren't always there even we started to develop our own rejection sensitivity to where we would sometimes see message and read it in a certain way that perhaps wasn't intended, and take something as rejection that somebody hadn't intended as rejection. So, so what started us off as something external became internal. And then as a result of that, we began developing these sorts of ways of doing and being in the world to navigate around this experience of being othered of being cast out. If you think about like a child who's being bullied on a high school out on a school campus, that child is going to very quickly learn an entire map system around the campus to avoid the bully, they're going to know when the bullies are going to be at what time and they learn how to avoid it. While our brain does very much the same way in order to avoid re-experiencing the pain, we really start to think and live our lives in a way that is going to keep us from re-experiencing this ex… what we expect to be an external form of others. So, we work twice as hard to prove our worth. We end up let… we end up not listening to ourselves when we do start to experience the pain and notice that there's something painful No, no, we're not really going to do this. We've got to we've got to keep going. We've got to keep moving, we've got to keep existing. And, these are these are part of what happens. It's just a really significant level of internalized shame for our differences that then gets us moving in a very specific way and existing to try and avoid re-encountering these other experiences.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

So, we put up a lot of guards, it seems like, you know, if we follow that track of once we start internalizing these messages, where can that lead us? Like, how does this continue to show up in our life in our health in our overall trajectory, if those messages seep in, and especially maybe unconsciously, and we're not doing this work of healing or otherness?

Stacee Reicherzer 

Well, we start, you know, fear becomes a very central part of our experience, and we start really living in fear an awful lot. So, we develop rules of fear, that will then guide so much in our behavior. So, the rules that start to exist for us are things like you better tone it down. Because we're afraid that if we're too loud or too visible, we're going to be seen, and we're going to have another negative experience. So, we start to really over-edit ourselves, just in order to exist. And I think about how, you know, there's a lot of information, for example, a lot of discussions that black women in America have provided about straightening hair, because of just the negative perceptions they encountered. When they weren't natural, I think about the experiences of gay men, for example, and toning down whatever is thought of his gayness, which is really, you know, oftentimes gender expression. And, you know, trying to appear straight-acting is the term that sometimes it's used to certainly understand as a trans woman. But toning down, is the effort to really appear, according to the script that this dominant group has written for us. And that's a big, big piece to this. So, we do we do that we exhaust ourselves in the process, because if you think about all the work that goes into that, and into creating a vastly different persona, we can imagine just what that does to the individual who's doing all this lifting. It's a, it's a lot of work, to show up as somebody else's expectation of who we're supposed to be. And that's really what happens with otherness we and along the way, we deny ourselves the acknowledgement of how truly painful this stuff is how much we resent having to do these kinds of things. And we tell ourselves, “Oh, we shouldn't feel resentful. I mean, the past is the past.” But in truth, if you don't deal with this stuff, it just sits there. And in fact, if you follow an emotion, like resentment and say, “I really resent that I've had to go through this humiliation throughout my life because of because of my body size. Because of this, this physical quality about me, I really resent this…” if we can follow resentment, resentment can truly tell us a great deal, in that. It's an emotion like every other but resentment can tell us about things that we're, we're yearning for, that we may not be receiving at this moment. And so sometimes that can lead us to some really important life decisions and life changes. So, I think that there's a place of learning that can really occur from these experiences of profound pain that come along with being cast out.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Dr. Stacee Reicherzer, a transgender counselor, educator, and author of the Healing Otherness Handbook. Dr. Stacee, you used the word earlier, “exhaustion” and you've said of your own experiences with othering and the fallout from these experiences that quote, “The challenge of pretending to be unbothered became one of the biggest hurdles of my life.” And that just took my breath away because I just felt that statement so much like not only did you carry the weight of being othered, but then this burden of having to exert this extra effort to hide it.

Stacee Reicherzer 

Well, you know what, thank you for that. Because it's such an interesting thing in in my particular corner of queer culture, but there's there used to be a lot of people who says, “Oh, I can't be bothered, I can't be bothered,” you know, and I would hear girls say, “Well, does this face look like it look like it cares what people think of it?” You know, there would be so many ways that people would, would work so very hard to demonstrate being unbothered. And there's a good reason for this. Because in a world where a person has been preyed upon has been horribly mistreated, the notion is to appear strong in order to just get people to leave them alone, and to leave us alone I should say. So, if we can appear to not be bothered by what people are saying, to just let these things about bounce off of us to laugh them off, ought to do all these kinds of things, then it's a social trait that suggest to the world. Yeah, I don't care what you say, I don't care what you throw at me. You don't get to define me you don't matter at all. And the truth is that that is an exhausting way to live. It is exhausting, because as much as we might tell ourselves that it's very difficult not to let this stuff get into our head to not let this stuff sink us. Because I know for myself, having had humiliating experiences on the street, and having to appear unbothered, unblemished by it. And everybody looks and thinks, “She stays strong, that she can just hold her head up and dignity while somebody is calling her…” I recognize that as I came home, and sometimes just melted from the experience, or what just be in it, and reliving it for days on end, that in fact, that's the exhaustion of it, that that was what it was to just finally, try and have to take off this armor and realize the armor was sometimes all that there was. So, those are things that are real, and that are just such a part of our experience. It takes a lot, just to move through the world, and to have to endure this stuff, and to be the one who's quick with equip who was able to respond to these different situations. So, exhaustion is for me, a hallmark of otherness.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

We've been talking a lot about how to recognize otherness or that the impact of otherness, but your work moves beyond that. Your book is titled The Healing Otherness Workbook, So, once we begun this, this difficult work of recognizing our past wounds around otherness, where do we go from there?

Stacee Reicherzer 

Well, it's a great question. And actually, it’s The Healing Otherness Handbook. So, the place to begin is, is simply to really notice this, this pile of stuff that we're talking about. And you know, anybody who's listening to this is probably conjuring their own memories. And you know, asking about it right now. And that's the place where we begin with it. And I offer four tools for change for transformation here. And the first of these is clarity, to really begin noticing this experience to really observe whatever aspect of it one is needing to work on. So, if one is needing to work on, for instance, the the rule of fear that is you must work twice as hard, then that's a really very useful thing for us to examine, then, that's a place to begin with clarity. So, my focus is very much using a mindfulness based cognitive therapy style. So, I want the individual to begin with, with a mindfulness exercise. And so, clarity is truly an act of meditating on an aspect of our experience, in this case, the notion that we must work twice as hard. And what that's been like what that's done to really notice the exhaustion because we don't often acknowledge these things to really notice what we've done how hard we've worked to, to climb a mountain and, and just kept climbing and kept climbing, believing that that mountain top was just up above the clouds, and then, and then realizing that that, in fact, we never really do reach the top, but that we just keep on in a continuous state of trying to prove something and just noticing that is a very important thing. And the next, the next tool I offer is compassion. Because I think, you know, when we start waking up to the stuff that we've done, our tendencies, we can really get very mad at ourselves, we can get really angry that we did this, that we allowed ourselves to be duped. Sometimes we encounter these parts of our lives, and we see that we did things to harm other people. We see that when we were in a place of great pain, we enacted something that was really very harmful to another person. And it's hard to sit with that and hold that and so with compassion, I give an exercise to give a lot of exercises to this but I want people to be able to hold the part of themselves who has just really worked so hard and who wwas trying in very difficult circumstances just to keep existing and to hold that part of them and compassion to offer themselves some of the loving kindness that they would offer to someone they care about or even someone in in a in a movie or on television. You know, I think people fall more easily in love with characters and in something they're watching on Netflix than they do with themselves in their own stories, and that's what I really want people to be able to, to change. And that's, that's really important for so yeah, the next the next tool I offer is creativity. And, and it because it's not enough just to discover this stuff, but to recognize that in fact it does illuminate a possibility. And creativity is really that that part of ourselves that we need to be able to foster even if individuals don't think of themselves as creative beings, to instead of just going down that, that I can't I'm not creative, not creative person going down that route, to instead, identify a path forward if they were to listen to what what that unexpressed need is what that unmet need from all of this time might be, then then they can really create a new solution, they can start finding a new path forward doesn't have to be anything big sometimes it can be really just a small a small triumph, a small space in their lives that they can, they can map out and then the fourth of these is, is Sass and Sass is the audacity it's the power, the the decision to do it. And I named it for a transsexual girlfriend of mine of blessed memory named Sassy St. James. And Sassy grew up in very, very difficult circumstances. She was a Mexican American, and lived in the projects in San Antonio, Texas, and began living as trans in the late 70s. Which you can imagine what that must have been like when you think about just these intersections of being trans in a place like San Antonio, which is just quite a very conservative city, and this was certainly true in the 70s. And coming out of poverty, and being a brown-skinned person that and, and she chose the name Sassy as a stage name for herself. Because she really talked back. She was she was always very comical, very glamorous, very willing to be herself and to really use her own platform as one of clapping back at a very homophobic and transphobic culture of the time. So, if Sassy can do what she had to do during the times when she had to do them, than I think the rest of us could probably do a great deal as well with our own lives and our own experiences of happiness.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Is this a one and done? Like, “Oh, I’ve healed my otherness. I'm now my authentic self, and I'm never going back.” Are there things that, even as we start to do this healing, you know, that might trigger us into retreating into some of those old wounds and patterns?

Stacee Reicherzer 

Yeah, I think it's that otherness, that that the work itself is one of continuous focus. And this is such a thing for us. In that we, we began this work and we create these new pathways and we create this new possibility for ourselves. But there's this shadow self that will still try to show up this inner saboteur that tries to get us to, to disbelieve in in the possibilities that we're creating and tries to suck us back into these old ways of thinking and being. So, the thing I would say is that when this stuff tries to revisit, or we recycle it, because we're reencountering it or we're encountering otherness, among a group that we thought might be more accepting or more approving, then not njust moving back into, “Oh, well, it's just same old same. Oh, I guess it's just going to always be like this…” but to instead stay in the fight and stay in the in the space of recognizing that there's, there's something we know, it's possible within us, and there's something that's possible to create and sustain, change. And if we can, if we can keep moving with it and keep doing this work, then that's really what's going to offer us some a method for continuing and transformation. And I do believe that. And I believe also that, to the extent that we can do these with others, and that we can have conversations and mobilize with people around us, then we can really create some opportunities for very transformative and very peacemaking types of communities. I think that there is a great potential to use our shared experience of otherness, trauma, as one of oclarity and ultimately social change.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

And that brings us to a final question. You talked about community and transformation as a word you've used several times, so as we do this work of healing ourselves, how does that that internal work then transform our ability to show up for others?

Stacee Reicherzer 

Well, you know, I, I'm gonna use myself as an example here because when I was beginning my own journey with this, I only had my own life, and I only knew my own experience of otherness, it was a lot to recognize, but I came to see that as I did a lot of healing work in my own life, and in sought to encounter and address these, these experiences of otherness. I thought, I think I know something now that maybe I can help others, when I see them going through something similar course that led me to become a therapist, and, and really helped shape the work that I did later on with a lot of people, but I think when we have, have really done a great deal to, to address this experience in ourselves, but we see other people very differently. So it first of all, moves us away from a tendency to other people to, to bully, to gossip, about to ostracize or to do something else that would harm another individual in an isolating way. I think we move away from that tendency, but also, we recognize that there are people around us who have been damaged in similar ways that we have, and we, I think, forgive perhaps a bit more easily, when they act from a place that reflects that damage. And we, I would hope, except the individual and help the individual recognize that there are places where they get to be free, and that that place of freedom may one day be a space of transformation, because being accepted finding a place where one gets to be exactly who they are, and be seen for that is in fact a very, a very loving act of helping free another individual from, from the torment of their own otherness. So, I believe that it helps us become much more, not just simply inclusive, but I think truly more, more loving citizens, I think we just act more responsibly, more thoughtfully, more graciously, in our engagement with those around us and with our whole planet, I just think we do a better job of recognizing and saying, “Doggone it, being human is hard. And, and this particular human is really struggled in a particular way. And I see that and I don't want to contribute to that struggle. I'm going to work against it. But I'm also going to recognize this human for what they may be needing for me. And I hope to be able to somehow fulfill that I'm not gonna be a rescuer. But I'm going to be someone who invites this person to feel accepted to feel cared about to know that they matter and have impact in the world.”

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Dr. Stacee, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Stacee Reicherzer 

It was my pleasure. I had a great time.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Dr. Stacee Reicherzer is a transgender counselor and educator and author of The Healing Otherness Handbook. For more on Dr. Stacee's work, visit WPSU-dot-org-slash take note. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.

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