Why schemas are a better explanation than identities

In my previous post I discussed why I believe we don’t have innate identities that are waiting to be discovered. This does not mean that there aren’t real subconscious processes in the psyche that can lead to transgender identity. I believe the root of this are what is known as schemas. Jeffery Young created a system of therapy called Schema Therapy after he found that some of his clients were not being helped by cognitive-behavioral therapy, and he wanted something more for those that weren’t getting better.

Young identified an “Early Maladaptive Schema” as “A broad and pervasive pattern comprised of memories, bodily sensations, emotions and cognitions regarding oneself and one’s relationship to others, developed during childhood or early adolescence, and elaborated through one’s lifetime.” Further “EMS’s develop in the pre-verbal period and are deeply entrenched patterns, central to one’s sense of self. Usually self-perpetuating”

Young identified 18 different schemas that he had discovered but it is not an exhaustive list. Gender schemas are not on his list, but I believe that schemas related to masculinity / femininity are at the core of many transgender identities. Young identified 3 different coping strategies that are used for unhealed schemas. These strategies are schema overcompensation (fight), schema avoidance(flight) and schema surrender(freeze). These strategies can explain some of the phenomena we see with MTF transitioners.

The first strategy is schema overcompensation. This involves reacting to the schema by acting opposite to the schema. If a natal male has a schema about inadequacy, he can compensate for this by becoming hyper-masculine.

The second strategy is schema avoidance, which involves some kind of numbing behavior to cope with the schema. Trauma-based erotic imprinting like AGP or feminization fantasies falls in this category. Also addictions fall in this category, this can be drinking, gambling, porn, or compulsive sexuality. These are self-soothing behaviors or stimulation seeking.

The third strategy is schema surrender, where one gives into the schema. For example, concluding that one cannot be a man and therefore is really a woman.

Unfortunately schema coping strategies are not healing the schemas. Further, they tend to require increasing levels of stimulation for the same effect. This is what we see with gender dysphoria, as it tends to be progressive and increases over time if nothing is done.

Some of the phenomena we see in MTFs with gender dysphoria can be explained by the tendency to switch between different coping strategies as one or the other doesn’t work. One thing that is surprising to some observers is that some of the people that transition are often quite masculine as men. For example, military careers are over-represented in MTF transitions. When this person announces they transition, they typically declare something like “their male self was just a shell, and now they are becoming their true self.” In my mind this is partly true and partly not. They are quite right that they are letting go of their false self that is the product of overcompensation, but they are moving to a different false self of surrender. True healing would involve healing the schema.

Likewise crossdreaming, porn, sexual compulsivity or drinking, can be a mechanism for schema avoidance. We can see this clearly is a coping mechanism because it responds to real world events. Often dysphoria will diminish when life is going well, and accelerate in response to stress. People often transition is response to a life crisis of some kind. Also switching to schema surrender can alleviate the need for schema avoidance behaviors. So people sometimes quit addictions after transition, and claim the addiction was a way they coped with not being their true self.

Unfortunately to the degree which one is merely moving to a different coping strategy rather than healing the schema that relief is likely to only be temporary. People still continue to feel dysphoria after they transition, and transition does not heal the dysphoria, but only temporarily abates it as it tends to remain no matter how many procedures are done. This is because there is no amount of compensation that can permanently cope with a schema without healing the schema.

The good news is that schemas can be healed. Healing schemas requires long-term therapy, and according to Young requires a multitude of strategies, from cognitive, to experiential, to behavioral , to relational. I believe the ability to heal the schema depends on how far it has progressed. When a person reaches the point that they are feeling suicidal if they don’t transition, it is going to be very difficult to heal the schema. I think early intervention is important here, and that though it is extremely difficult to reverse a full transgender identification, I do believe it is possible to prevent cross dreaming or AGP from turning into full-blown transsexualism.

I do think transition is a legitimate strategy for dealing with dysphoria, however it should be the strategy of last resort. A person should transition if it improve their quality of life. However, the costs of transition are so high, both socially and medically. I support full civil rights for transgender people, but also see transition as the least desirable outcome. I don’t believe these two positions are contradictory.

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