This article by Dr. Schwartz posted on the 4thWaveNow blog discusses the need for caution when working with transgender children. In particular, one thing he talks about is looking at the things that children are saying about their gender symbolically rather than literally. He says that differences in treatment philosophies arise from which lens the clinician views the child’s gendered self, as a literal truth or a symbolical one. In particular he says the following:
“It is possible to respond to children in a manner that is either organized around their literal narratives, or around psychological interpretations of those narratives, which themselves take into account such inner contradictions and perplexities as described above. Toward which path the clinician leans may be strongly influenced by the degree to which he or she shares the child’s apparent view of gender, that is, holds the assumptions of essential gender, or not. Simply put, if you believe gender is an internal reality, you will likely be guided or motivated to accept a literal hearing of the child’s narrative, since it matches that view. The child’s self-presentation may then seem straightforwardly comprehensible enough to guide you in clinical decision making. On the other hand, if your prejudice is to hear any claims about real, inner gender as necessarily—necessarily because you do not believe gender is real in the sense described above— composed of symbolic or metaphoric representations, then the child’s story instigates an active interpretive process, and clinical decision making proceeds differently”
Later on he goes on to say:
“There is much more to children than what they say. We owe to them a deeper listening than a literal one.”
This article is talking about children, but much of what he is saying applies to adults as well, who also have symbolic psychological processes, which just might be a little more buried. Giving this kind of deep listening and taking the time to do so is something that is not happening much with therapeutic work with gender issue currently. There is a sense of “well that is just your identity, and it shouldn’t be questioned.” This kind of deep listening also takes time, and is not something that can be done in a couple of sessions of therapy.
Indeed, I think this focus on taking gender thoughts literally is precisely what makes cross-gender roles in modern Western culture different from those of other cultures. Lots of cultures have cross-gender roles of some kind, but only in the West do we have the idea that one literally becomes the other sex, and that indeed the whole point of transition is to do just that. This also brings with it the idea of “passing”, proving your membership in the identified sex by becoming indistinguishable from natal members of that sex. This is also something that is not considered part of the gender-variant roles of other cultures.
If taking gender dysphoric thoughts and feelings symbolically, seems strange or a form of denial, it is helpful to see that this is something that we do all the time, and in fact it is quite important that we do so.
Consider being angry at someone for wronging you in some way. You might feel anger, and have the associated thought “I am going to kill that person”. Taking that thought literally would cause a great deal of trouble. There are lots of responses that you can have to the feeling of anger, and the thought “I am going to kill that person”, some of them healthy and some of them are not.
One possible response to the anger is to feel shame, that you are a “bad person” for having such angry thoughts, and a good person wouldn’t be angry and have the thought about killing someone. This would just add to the emotional pain and would not do anything to assuage the anger.
Another possible response is distraction, to pretend that it isn’t happening and distract yourself. This sometimes is a healthy response, as the emotion might be too overwhelming to deal with right now, or be related to some temporary chemical issue like meds or hormone levels. However, it does nothing to meet the underlying need of the anger, and even if something is heightened by brain chemistry issues, there still might be a real need underneath that. Anger is an important signal and shouldn’t be ignored. Distraction shouldn’t be an always thing, and many mechanisms of distracting from feelings escalate over time, such as numbing behaviors like drug use.
Another possible response is to try to repress it, saying “I’m not really angry”. This tends to only strengthen it.
It is also possible to construct an identity around it. “I’m an angry person, that is just how I am” This will make it a lot harder to work with as you take it as an essential part of your identity rather than as an emotion. This will also strengthen it.
Another response is to accept it, this doesn’t mean you literally do what it says, but that you acknowledge and accept it. The function of anger is to provide energy to deal with an obstacle. There is likely a real obstacle that needs to be dealt with in some way. Once you have acknowledged and accepted the anger you might get some insight into what that is, and sometimes it is obvious. Once you know you can act appropriately to meet that need, perhaps there is different way to meet the need, or perhaps you have to negotiate with that person, or perhaps you do need to engage in appropriate consequences for them. This can be hard in the moment of course. The important thing is that the anger is a real signal of your real needs and is not always unhealthy.
To take dysphoria symbolically is similar. There is a feeling of dysphoria, which is distress and dissatisfaction combined with thoughts such as “I should be a woman”, or “I am a woman” or “I hate being a man” “Being a man is disgusting”, etc. Like anger, this distress is on a spectrum and can go from mild to quite overwhelming. To take it literally, is to go through transition / hormones / surgery. This may be the right thing, but it is not the only thing. There are other responses besides taking it literally.
Shame and repression have similar effects here that they do with anger, and denying it by saying “I’m really a manly man” or something like that and attempting to live that will also make things worse. Dyphoria points to the fact that something is wrong and needs to change, it is an emotional response that says something is wrong. The associated thoughts give a proposed solution, but like the “I want to kill this person” thought, it is not necessarily the case that they be taken literally. Constructing an identity around it also strengthens it like with the anger.
The question is what are the underlying needs? They may be sexual, but they may not be, and I think it is ultimately the psychological needs that drive one to transition (vs. just having a fetish) Ironically, one of those needs might be to avoid the shame of having a fetish. In any case, there are real and valid needs that are underneath the dysphoria and it is important to meet them. It is only important that they be met somewhere in your life, it is impossible to meet all of our needs in all aspects of our lives, and indeed we must make compromises in order to have relationships and connection with people, and that is the single largest determiner of happiness.
Sorting this stuff out is something that can take time, and indeed something I think there needs to be more of. Yes, adults at least should have the right to transition, and transitioning does improve some people’s lives. However I think there is the need for more exploration, I sure wish I had that. I was approved for hormones after just 2 sessions of therapy, working out everything took 150 sessions.
Here is a story of someone who worked through things symbolically. Here is a
story from a man who work on integrating his own feminine side but wasn’t transgender. I also recommend the site Transcend Movement in which he talks about a similar process of working through things symbolically. I am not saying that everyone can deal with their gender issues through such a process, but I am saying that more people can than currently are.