Authored by Tamarra Evans-Sluga, ACMHC Therapist
Salt Lake City recently hosted the 5th annual Circling the Wagons Conference, themed “Can I Hear You Now?” In a statement from their website, “Circling the Wagons conferences are safe places for LGBTQ/SSA (same-sex attracted) Mormons and their families, friends, ward members and allies to meet together to express themselves authentically and share their personal stories.” The Circling the Wagons Conference utilizes a model of effective communication as outlined by Circles of Empathy: “Circles of Empathy are small discussion groups that help participants sort through their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs while practicing empathy and healthy interpersonal boundaries. They constitute a practice, or a way of approaching the religious/sexual/gender conflicts through self-reflection, open-ended conversation, and empathetic support.”
Faith communities aspire to promote an environment of inclusivity, however; oftentimes identifying as LGBTQ conflicts with teachings of the faith community in which the individual exists. This is a conflict within the individual that is very difficult to manage, and having productive conversations around this conflict may seem nearly impossible, as this tends to be emotionally fueled.
LGBTQ youth are at an increased risk for mental health difficulties, including suicide. LGBTQ identifying youth represent a disproportionate amount of youth suicides as well as homeless youth in Utah. (For publications, research, and statistics regarding LGBTQ youth and public health risks visit the Family Acceptance Project online). The Mama Dragons (visit the Mama Dragons on Facebook) have reported a sudden spike in LGBTQ youth suicides in the state of Utah since November 2015, which coincides with major changes made to LDS policy that effect LGBTQ identifying individuals. Quite frankly, being able to have these difficult conversations around LGBTQ and religious conflicts could be a matter of life and death.
“Seek first to understand…then to be understood.”—Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
The point is not to be right. The point is not to bully the person who has an opposing view into submission. The point is not even to come to an agreement. The point is empathy. It is not only the job of a therapist to empathize. It is even more so the job of family, friends, neighbors, church leaders and lay people alike to empathize. Circling the Wagons teaches skills that can be used during any difficult conversation.
It is important to be aware of our own physiological responses. An increased heart rate, sweating, or shaking are some indicators that we are under stress. This stress response happens in the primitive area of the brain; it is a survival mechanism warning us of danger, not unlike what a caveman being chased by a mammoth might experience. Can you remember the last time you had a difficult conversation? What physiological responses did you feel happening in your body? Interestingly enough, when we are under stress, the area of our brain responsible for executive functioning does not operate so well. Our reasoning, working memory, flexible thinking, etc. are all hindered. Basically, when stress runs high, reasoning runs low, and the conversation may lose itself to over-emotionality and knee-jerk reactions.
Once you are aware of that you are having a strong stress response, what can you do about it? You can ground yourself with some simple exercises. It may sound silly, but go to your happy place in your mind. If that place is the beach, go there. Pay attention to your five senses, down to the very last detail. What does the ocean smell like? Can you taste the salt water in the humid air? What is the temperature of the sand beneath your feet? You may need to ask to be excused from the conversation for a few minutes to ground yourself. When you re-enter the conversation, remind yourself that you are there to be an empathic listener.
Of course, these skills take practice. Also, all individuals involved in the conversation need to commit to using these principals. Conferences like Circling the Wagons present a great opportunity to practice these skills to navigate very difficult conversations. Hopefully, participants can take what they learn and use them in their homes within their own families.
To access LGBTQ affirmative counseling for your child contact SLCo Youth Services at 385-468-4500 to make an appointment with a counselor. Other LGBTQ affirming resources: Utah Pride Center, Mama Dragons, TEA of Utah, PFLAG, The Inclusion Center, Equality Utah, LGBTQ Affirmative Psychotherapists Guild of Utah, Affirmation, Circles of Empathy, The Family Acceptance Project.
Salt Lake City Suicide Hotline: (801) 261-1442