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How can I honour others' pronouns when they are triggering to me?

Content note: This question includes discussion of verbal and emotional abuse.

Q: I believe in honouring the pronouns people use as a way of showing respect. However, I find it really difficult to use one set of pronouns in particular. I was verbally and emotionally abused growing up and was called it/its as part of this abuse. To me, these pronouns are integrally associated with dehumanising and demeaning treatment, so I find it very hard to see them as pronouns that could be used respectfully. I also find that being asked to use these pronouns triggers memories of my own abuse and is very distressing. How can I respect and honour that other people's experiences of these pronouns are different from mine, while also protecting myself?

S: First, I'm so sorry you were treated that way; that's horrible and it makes sense that you've got triggers that are difficult to navigate. I can give some suggestions for reframing your thinking, but what I think you probably need is to work with a therapist on this. It doesn't sound like the sort of thing that you can logic yourself into reacting differently to, given your experiences.

You've already actually said the core point: other people's experiences of these pronouns are different from yours. The negative reactions you're having are about how this language was weaponized against you specifically, not about anything inherent to the pronouns themselves. When someone goes by these pronouns, using them actually accomplishes the reverse with the same words to what you experienced. Using people's pronouns correctly validates and humanizes them, and refusing to do that--whatever your personal reasons--has the opposite effect. That actually might be what was happening to you in the abusive situation: someone was knowingly calling you by language that didn't apply to you, with intent to reject your personhood. That act of violence is where the harm lies--intentionally misgendering and mispronouning isn't okay to do to anyone, trans or not. The words used to enact that harm just depend on who the target is and what language does or does not apply to them.

Like a lot of triggers, the thing itself--in this case the particular pronoun set that was used to dehumanize you, which it did because those aren't your pronouns--isn't what harmed you, but it reminds you strongly of what you went through. And that makes sense! But you can't refuse to call people by their correct pronouns, there's nothing inherently harmful about this particular pronoun set, and it's also obviously not good for you to relive your experiences when someone around you uses this language in a respectful way. So you need to address your response just like you would for any other trigger that is connected to something harmless that you can expect to come across in daily life. And how to do that is, unfortunately, probably a lot of work with a therapist. I'm sorry I don't have an easier answer for you!

K: I agree with everything S said above. Your feelings are absolutely understandable and I'm sorry you went through that. I get why using it/its pronouns for others would feel uncomfortable, activating, and triggering to you. Additionally, I am glad that you seem to understand that your experiences with this pronoun set don't give you a pass to not use them for people who it is a correct pronoun set for. I likewise agree that the way that you protect yourself is to treat this like any other trigger; you need to unpack your trauma and work on managing your emotional response(s) so that it does not negatively affect you, and so that you do not negatively affect others. If therapy is accessible to you, I highly suggest going that route for addressing this.

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