From compulsion to choice

I have been reading the excellent book Search Inside Yourself this week and it reminded me of several ideas that are applicable to managing gender dysphoria. The book was written by a Googler, who was one of their first employees. He also is a student of Buddhism and helped to develop a course about developing greater happiness, emotional intelligence and productivity at Google. In this book there is a chapter about managing emotions which is quite good, and I believe directly applicable to managing gender dysphoria. This is also a good book for engineering-types who want to learn more about happiness and emotion.

The beginning of the chapter states the theme of moving “from compulsion to choice”. Indeed this is a general theme in psychology, where we would like to relieve people from compulsion and move them to a place of choice. To have the freedom of choice is healthy, and to be ruled by compulsion is unhealthy. We still need to have compassion for wherever we are in that process! Beating yourself up for having compulsions will make things worse, and it is isn’t your fault.

However, the trans community often glorifies the reverse of this. One is supposed to be motivated by dysphoria, and indeed if one’s dysphoria is so crippling that one must transition, this is a sign that one is “really” trans. We also know from psychology that positive motivations lead to self-actualization, and the trans experience is often ruled by negative emotions, a way to escape from pain. Yes, sometimes pain is so great that it must be dealt with, however fear-based and pain-based motivations are not the way to flourishing. I have indeed met two people who transitioned, and felt it truly was a choice. They could be okay with their birth gender, but just felt it would be better to transition. These two people also seem to be the most well-adjusted and flourishing trans people I know.

He also discusses what to do with difficult emotions. He quotes the Dalai Lama, who says “while we can not stop a thought or emotion from arising, we have the power to let it go, and the highly trained mind can let it go the moment it arises.” Indeed it is the same with dysphoria. We have no control over these thoughts and emotions arising, but we do have control over our choices and how we manage them.

He suggests two things that make these emotions stronger, one is “treating them like a boss and obeying their every order.” The other is “treating it like an enemy and wishing it to go away.” Treating them like a boss, would mean simply obeying one’s dysphoria whether it is in your best interest or not, or even identifying with it and mistaking it for yourself. This also includes feeding it with porn and escalating it. Treating it like an enemy would be overcompensating, trying to press it by acting opposite to it (like the common way we see MTF spectrum people react to dysphoria by attempting to become hypermasculine and join the military or something), or to use numbing behaviors such as drugs or drinking to attempt to repress it.

The middle way is to be curious about it and treat it like a friend. Just acknowledging it and trying to understand it. Maybe letting it stay for a while, but neither feeding nor suppressing it. Such an insistent part of the psyche might well have an important message, but this doesn’t mean you have to slavishly obey it, you get to choose.


  1. As a transgender Buddhist I heartily agree but do not favour the word “choice”, but only because it is not as simple as chocolate or vanilla. It is more a case of choosing which path of dysphoria (as a cis or a trans) you will be following. With dedication to the path you do choose, you may eventually arise at a state of equanimity towards your state of being. In either case you are neither fighting or being swallowed whole by a compulsion. You are just gradually coming to the realization that discomfort, unease and sometimes suffering is part of everyone’s life. Trans people just have a form of “suffering” that is a bit less common.

    1. It is certainly not as simple as chocolate and vanilla and I don’t mean to trivialize it in that way. However I do think it is important to create whatever flexibility you can and to know that you are not your feelings.

  2. I love this post. I wanted to transition as far back as I can remember. Indeed, my teens were spent in libraries reading as much as I could find on the subject. Born of old world parents, I knew I would hurt them and most likely never see them again, so I got married to fix the problem. Obviously, that didn’t work. I have blogged about my ways of dealing with the ever present thoughts of transitioning from male to female and making my body feel whole. I deal with it by keeping myself close to many TG friends, exercise, proper diet, keeping myself busy with long work hours and membership in public service organizations, and reading books written by female authors.

    I have many friends, and several locally, who have fully transitioned from male to female. Like you, I have a few who are quite happy in their new life but, sadly, most seem to be very unhappy due to loneliness, and being abandoned by friends and loved ones.

    Although many will deny it, with will power and motivation (in my case, career and family) you can keep your female side alive and not buried, while continuing to live in a body you should have never been born in.

    I am featuring this post on T-Central.


    1. Thanks for featuring my post, I appreciate it.

      Quality and depth of relationships is the single most important non-genetic determiner of happiness according to the research, and that is a very important thing that shouldn’t be trivialized. Yet some people see choosing family over transition as not being a valid choice. That is by far my biggest regret over all of this, is the difficulty in finding romantic relationships. I have had partners, but don’t have one currently, and it has been difficult to find them. Of course friends and loved ones shouldn’t abandon one for transitioning, but it will happen and that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

  3. Ithink you are quite right when you note that there is a baby still in the bathwater of the relationship many just hastily toss aside. There are any number of reasons why even with real love, a relationship may fail. Disclosing your true nature may irrevocably slice open all the conflicts that you have been managing to paper over in your relationship. In our case, this may be what makes the equanimity to put love ahead of self actualization impossible.

  4. completely agree with the balanced approach! it is neither a friend nor an enemy ; it just IS. You can learn to deal with its ebbs and flows and manage it….thanks for this great post!!

  5. Hello! I decided to share my pessimistic thoughts about trans-things.

    I have clinically diagnosed OCD, and just some month ago found out I’m bisexual. It was a horrible experience to me. Then after I had somewhat came to accept it, I started to think whether I’m even a man – anything seemed possible. I’ve never had gender dysphoria and never questioned my gender but I had long hair as a child, and there was one instance when I was 16 that I read about androgyny and wondered if I’m androgynous since I thought I was more emotional than other boys.

    I found that if I dream of being a woman it’s somewhat exciting and liberating. The fantasies felt like dreaming of getting a new smartphone or being rich or travelling to some foreign country or something nice like that. Also I could imagine myself as a woman having sex and that too felt like I maybe could want to try it, as it was a bit sexually arousing.

    I panicked and went to google around the topic and stumbled into trans communities and in a matter of hours I somehow had “noticed” that my body is not the one I wanted to see myself in in the future and that I’ve been a fraud and been suppressing my feminine side and that I will become suicidal and if I don’t transition, as transitioning is a holy passage of rite that will get you to your holy “true self”. Everything else is just denial, repression and suppressed guilt. Androgyny is too just a phase in the middle, before one has realized his/hers “true nature”. If you feel good as a man one day, it’s because you have been raised that way and not because you really want to be a man. It is forbidden to analyze why one could want to be a woman in his early 20s, and how those wants could be handled in a way that one could continue his life like before. Instead you have to analyze why you were never a man in the first place, or why you resist change or something.

    I became nearly suicidal, not because I really thought my gender to be wrong, but because I thought I couldn’t maybe be happy if I don’t transition. I actually started to feel that I miss something in my life, something which I just noticed in a revelationary manner. Maybe also my OCD and anxieties about my appearance are all because I was born in the wrong body.

    Now I identify as androgynous because it feels more secure than identifying wrongly as a 100% male and can’t really believe I could be wholly a woman. I have always lived relatively happy as a man, but I don’t really know anything anymore and get horrifying anxiety attacks every few hours or so.

    Many trans communities seem to be essentially totalistic, and biased. If I went to start a thread on these forums of my confusion I guess I could be diagnosed as transgendered or something. People throw their intuitions around these communities as if their “true selves” also included being a prophet. They often have heavily biased views, little or biased knowledge, and no common sense.

    Also those communities do not accept the fact that people get interested in all sorts of things, want to be all sorts of things in different times. The strong pressure put on transition, huge expectations about the ‘rite’, will create urges and wants and will no doubt attract many people, not all of them really needing it and probably not worse off without. Some seem to know this and try to secure their place as a transsexual with assuring everybody that they have really been the other gender already in childhood.

    1. Yeah, this definitely happens and you can see the process happens if you follow the history of some people’s posts on the forums. There is something romantic about the process of transition, it gives you a quest, meaning and a step by step process to get there, and it can seem like the solution to life’s problems.

      I am starting to think it is important to study the people who question their gender for a bit and then stop. I know several of them, but they never identify as trans completely and don’t show up in any studies.

      You describe this process really well, there are also some studies showing a relationship between OCD and at least cross dressing, and that treating the OCD can make it go away. I don’t think OCD causes all forms of gender issues by any stretch, but they can be related.

  6. Yeah I agree! I think the obsession over gender is something that needs to be treated first. I’m obsessed with wanting to be female. Does that make me female? I’m not sure and many people would answer that differently. I know that I am more unhappy the more I identify that way, then I try to just be a happy male and that makes me feel badly too. If I let them just be thoughts and feelings that’s a wiser approach

    1. “If I let them just be thoughts and feelings that’s a wiser approach”

      Maybe, maybe not. I do not identify as trans. In fact, I do not “identify” as anything. I am who I am and that is about all there is to it as far as I am concerned. Now, having said that, there are those around me who see me in certain ways. My husband for instance, sees me as his best friend and lover. My neighbor down the road sees me as a sister, friend and neighbor. One of my neighbors up the road sees me as a PIA because I am always hitting him up for money to fix our shared road.

      How you see yourself is what matters. If you “identify” as trans*, (however you might choose to define that most nebulous of terms), you might find yourself trying to conform to some ever changing definition of who you are. Worse yet, if you buy into that most common of mantras, you might find yourself as the ever long suffering martyr. IMHO that is a losers’ POV, promulgated by those who made all the wrong choices for all the wrong reasons and are trying to justify their own miserable existence. Again, not my first choice.

      “I’m obsessed with wanting to be female. Does that make me female?”

      In a word, no. The question you need to ask your self is, why? Why do you want to be female?

  7. I agree! I try to practice mindfulness and see the suffering in obsession. I have an obsession about being female. Does that make me female? Maybe, maybe not. Either way minimizing the obsession would be healthy. I try to tell myself “well if I am female on the inside, then it would be impossible to actually be female, if I’m not than I’m a man with a desire and an obsession many people have learned how to manage those.” In fact the Buddha would say that the attachment is the source of the suffering. If there were a way to detach from gender identity than that would greatly minimize dysphoria

    1. “If there were a way to detach from gender identity than that would greatly minimize dysphoria”

      I am not sure. I think what needs to be discovered is the actual source of your dysphonia. I certainly think that getting away from the identity paradigm would help. Remember, gender is fluid. It is a social construct which varies wildly from culture to culture and also historical perspective.

      Is it your gender role which makes you unhappy? Is it those expectations of our society for the male of the species, or is it your actual physical structure, your morphology?

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