The identity trap and alt. ways to work with gender dysphoria

In this video I talk about ways to work with gender dysphoria for those that want to work with gender dysphoria in ways other than transition and medical intervention, and also for those who still have some gender dysphoria after transition and medical intervention.

Transcript:

So, hello, this is my second video and I am going to talk about ways to work on dysphoria other than medical interventions or transition. So, the reason for this is that first of all not all gender dysphoria requires transition or leads to transition. I think this idea kind of become pervasive and it’s not really true. However, there are people who do benefit from transition medical treatment. There’s evidence that shows that at least many people do experience reduction in their gender dysphoria but not everyone. Also, even among those who do undergo gender transition often still have dysphoria. I’ve known many trans people over the years and many of them may have felt like their transition was a success or beneficial but still suffer from these issues.So, the ideas that I’m going to describe here could be beneficial either if you are looking for ways to work on gender dysphoria without going through this process or maybe you might feel good about transition but want also to have better ways to work on stuff. So, we describe a number of ideas. Not all these apply to everyone. So, just sort of choose the ones that apply to you.

So, the first thing i want to talk about is the identity trap. For whatever reason in the last
20 or 50 or 30 years in Western thought we really got into this idea of identities, particularly in academic circles. This idea that we have identities and multiple identities and that identity is really important and that we need to find an identity and form an identity and discover our identity. In general, I think this is not a very good idea at all. I think it is a pretty toxic idea for several reasons. One of the first things to understand about it is that it is not a human universal.  It is a particular cultural point of view of this particular time. If you look at Western philosophy you don’t see people talking about identity very much at all. You don’t really see that until very recently that people were thinking of things in that context.

If you look at Eastern philosophy, you do sometimes see some talk about identity. In Buddhism and maybe Hinduism as well, but it is in a negative context. It is about the traps of identity and about how identification actually gets you away from your true self. We say that these identities are your true self, which is exactly backwards in my view. So, we can talk about this in a few ways.

So, one of the issues of identities is that they really connect to tribalism. Any time you have an identity which is also a group identity, such as identifying as white, or identifying as male, or female or gay or straight or black or any of these things, it creates a sense of us and them. So, there’s people that are in our identity group and people that are outside it and then this leads to tribalism. I think identities originated based in tribalism and evolution where we were part of a tribe and there was an us and a them. We kind of needed an intuition to know who were our people and who were not. So, this creates a lot of divisiveness, and makes it hard to hear things that are outside our tribal view.

Once we identify with a tribe, for example if we identify as trans we are now in that tribe, and so we take this worldview as being true, and other worldviews are rejected. This creates a lack of flexibility and a lack of ability to take in outside information. Once one identifies with something it becomes very difficult to change that. This happens in other contexts too, like in psychology and psychotherapy for things other than gender issues. For example, if you are working with someone who is depressed, sometimes they identify with their depression. They will say being depressed is who they are and that they are that kind of person. In this case it is much more difficult to work with them, and in fact they’re very unlikely to even come to therapy in the first place because they see their depression as who they are.

So, the first thing you have to do is convince them that the depression is not what they are and to try to externalize it which is very difficult. There’s a real difference between identifying a trans vs. saying “I am somebody who has gender dysphoria”.  I think it is a useful exercise to think of yourself as someone who has gender dysphoria vs. a person who is trans because that can lead to more options.

The problem is that adopting identities can increase distress and this is sort of what you see in some of the Eastern philosophy such as Buddhism.  One of the things that we want to do with mindfulness is to loosen the sense of identity – to see that for any identity we are more that that, or that we are outside of that, no matter what it is. There’s actually an exercise I think comes from Hinduism where you say “I’m not this, I’m not that” to take off these identities.  Who would I be if I was not trans? Who would I be if I was not cis? We go through the process of taking off these identities to see what’s underneath.

This idea is in some of the newer Western psychotherapies as well. For example, ACT, where we have this idea of “self as context” which is a being state, vs. “self as content” which is a concept. Identities are essentially concepts, so not authentic being. With identities we are involved with concepts, and acting from rules in our head. So, we’ve been acting from rules in our head, and this is different from acting from our authentic self, which is more like a being state. It is something that is more organic and not rule-based.  It is what we feel in the moment. Once we are in the rules, we’re dissociated from what is in the moment. The rules are a kind of shortcut, they might describe us in some way, but they aren’t what we are in each moment which is ever changing.

You actually see this when people do adopt a trans identity. People read a transgender internet group, and then come to a point where they accept this identity, and the their distress actually increases. If their distress increases when they take on the identity, then the reverse of that is to disidentify and see if that lowers distress. It can be just an experiment to take on that identity and then take it off. If identifying increases your stress and disidentifying decreases your distress then maybe that is the right way to go, but it is something that you have to experiment with yourself.

The second thing that I want to talk abut is “cognitive traps”.  So there are a lot of these going on in the community where you adopt a belief system that leads you in a kind of spiral towards greater and greater identifying. This is encouraged in various ways. For example, the idea that “if you have dysphoria it means you’re trans”.  If you say you feel some discomfort about your gender and you aren’t sure; they will say that means you are trans because cis people don’t feel discomfort about their gender. So any discomfort you feel confirms the trans identity. Especially if you are someone who by the process of identifying increases your dysphoria. Then you are going to be in a spiral, so now you have more distress and confirms you are trans even more. So, these things activate a spiral.

That’s what I mean by cognitive trap, it is this feedback loop that makes things worse and worse. So then the antidote is the reverse process, like saying this story doesn’t necessarily mean that you are trans, and I am just a person with gender dysphoria. So then, you can see if maybe that will reduce your distress and you can begin to reverse the loop.

Another kind of distortion is found in one of the tests the community will frequently put out.  They ask “If you would prefer to be the other gender, then that means you are trans and must transition.”  That is not true, because that is not the actually choice you are making by transitioning. These interventions are only partial and so the real choice you are making is between having a more normative body of your natal sex, or undergoing a kind of partial gender reassignment and being in a trans body. You can make that choice, and for many people that might be right choice, but you can’t make the choice of changing your body fully and becoming fully the opposite gender because that is not possible with today’s technology. So that is one thing to really consider. You have to be in touch with the reality of the real choice you are making.

One reason to let go of the identification is that if you don’t identify with the gender dysphoria it can be placed in context with rest of your life, and you can consider whether you will cause other problems that are worse.  So then the question of the choices that you make is based on a holistic view of yourself. It is not just gender, but is based on everything.

Another trap that exists is for people who experience erotic fantasies of feminization of some kind. Not everyone with dysphoria experiences this but some people do. Then the community will say “that fantasy is proof that you have this essential identity of trans” which also leads you into the identity trap I talked about.  You don’t choose what your fantasies are like.  You have a certain sexuality generally which doesn’t change, but you do choose how you identify. For example, you can choose the meaning you place on your sexuality, but not the fantasy itself.  You can choose the meaning you place on it. You can say “well, I just have this fantasy”, and maybe you can enact that fantasy with a consenting adult or maybe you can not enact it all.  It’s a question of what choice is best for you.

The danger of these fantasies is they can lead you away from the ability to form healthy romantic relationships.There’s nothing wrong with the sexuality per say, but it is a question of whether it can lead you to connect to another person or if it leads to a kind of self-absorption. If it prevents you from connecting to others, then that is a problem.

Sometimes people have a kind of dual sexuality where they have both erotic feminization fantasies and a more heterosexual male sexuality as well. In that case it really depends. You might find somebody you can enjoy both these things with but in some cases only one of them will lead to successful relationship, so I think it is better to choose what will lead to relationships and love and all those kinds of things.  The problem is not about what is normal at all, it’s not about heterosexuality being normal, that doesn’t matter. It is about whether it is functional and can lead to connection.

Sometimes,there can be obsessions and compulsions around these things and if that is the case then the idea of obsessions and compulsions are something that is generally understood in psychology so it can be something you can work with somebody about. Seeing someone who knows about those issues could be helpful. When I talk about choice the goal is to empower you to have as much choice as you can in this process. Some things we don’t choose. We don’t choose our feelings. We don’t choose our erotic fantasies but we do choose our responses to them. This is true in theory, but in practice people don’t always have choice. Maybe because there is something really distressful interfering.

Some people have trauma issues. I’m not say all gender issues are caused by trauma at all. That is not what I’m saying, but if you do have trauma that can interfere with the choice process. So again, that is something to work on with someone who specializes in trauma potentially or you can read books about it. So, another thing I want to talk about is what I call gender schemas, where you have some ideas about gender that are distorted in various ways.  Distorted may not be the right word, more like rigid. The idea that one sex is good and one sex is bad. Like men are really good and women are really bad or women are really good and men are really bad.  Or maybe that it is unsafe to be a man in the world and safe to be a woman in the world or vice versa.  That is something that you might have to work though and it might not be conscious. In my case it wasn’t something conscious at al but a visceral sense that it was unsafe to be myself and man rooted in all the bullying I suffered.  It was really unsafe to be male and be myself, even though I was completely surrounded by many feminine men and never had a problem with them. It was just for myself it felt unsafe. One remedy to this kind of rigid view is to really recognize the within-group diversity of men and women. For example, to see how men and women are both very diverse groups. There are all kinds of men and all kinds of women. Maybe to look to role-models who are more atypical members of their gender and are similar to you.

Another idea to look at is the universality of suffering. One of the views of the trans community is that gender dysphoria is a very unique kind of suffering. That is an isolating view and contributes to making your world smaller and also contributes to being more attached to identity and the identity trap and increasing suffering. One thing that reduces suffering is to see the universality of it. Even though our suffering is unique in various ways it also universal. We all in some ways want to be something different than what we are. Envy or a sense that other people have the thing I need to be who I want to be in the world. In the Eastern practices, such as the Buddhist practices, we generate compassion by acknowledging the universality of suffering and we start with easier people like our friends because we want good for them because they are suffering, and then we go to neutral people, then we get to our enemies and we see they are also suffering, so they are the same as us in a way.

By seeing ourselves as being part of a universal human experience it reduces the loneliness and reduces that sort of special character of the gender dysphoria which makes it feel like no one else suffers the way I do.  So this gender dysphoria is really unfair and feels really lonely.  It reduces that.  I’ve said this once before and some people said it was trivializing gender dysphoria which is definitely not what I am trying to do, because it is not trivial. It can be very severe and intense even leading some people to suicide because it is so intense. However other kinds of suffering are like that too, they can also be so intense as well.  Seeing the universality of it can help to reduce it. We’re all humans in this boat together.

Finally, the last thing is living according to values. Really discovering what your values really are.  This is known to be helpful because if we are focused on living our values we are focused on expanding ourselves, expanding the world and expanding who we’re helping. This helps us get out of the kind of self-absorption that can be really toxic and also helps us to endure suffering.  I think one of the ideas that comes with the ideology around gender dysphoria is that we are not supposed to have pain and not suffer. This is not true, we all have pain. The question is how do we live despite that and how do we face this pain. How do we say despite our anxiety or fear or pain or anger we are going to live according to our values. This makes life more fulfilling and rewarding.

The Greeks had this distinction between hedonia and eudaemonia. Hedonia was simple pleasures such as having a drink or playing games or dancing and all of these things. They are important in moderation, but in excess can lead to this over filled feeling. There is point where they are good and then as you get more of them they become less satisfying. Then there is the idea of eudaemonia which is the meaningful kind of life. It represents living according to virtues and living according to values. It is always good and does not lead to burnout. That’s a question to ask about transition. Is it living according to your values or not. Is it creating a greater good? If it enables you to live according to your values it is a positive step. If it is shrinking your world, like a couple of other people have said then it is negative. If it shrinking your world and making it harder to live according to your values, then it might not be the best path and that is something to sort out. Again I’m not saying all these medical interventions are bad, they can be good or harmful. So, that is all I have for today and hopefully I will do more videos in the future. Thank you.

 

12 comments

  1. Thank you for this. Really enjoyed your talk, and found it especially good on the dangerous idea that our lives should be without suffering. Recommend Alex Howard’s ‘Philosophy for Counselling and Psychotherapy’ if you haven’t already seen that.

  2. Gender dysphoria is basically a phase. Trans people almost always outgrow it, it’s just a question of when. It’s part of growing, learning, and exploring. Sometimes a person can’t accept themselves as they are, so they try to become somebody else. You could have a feminine side to your personality, but it doesn’t mean you’re female. You could have a feminine demeanor, but you are still not a female. In the end, most trans people come back home to their birth gender, because it’s who they really are. -Alex

  3. Just wanted to say this is compassionate and wise and piercingly intelligent and has expanded my world. Thank you so much for this.

  4. Thank you for your insightful ideas. Do you have more advice about social aspects of gender dysphoria, especially related to gender roles? Should we keep some things hidden or suppressed if they do not lead to connection or leads to disappointments or aggression? Or is it equivalent to constructing a false self?

    1. The social aspect is based on expectations and assumptions. People have certain expectations and assumptions about us based on age, skin color, gender etc. All people have to deal with this to some degree. There is often a trade off between social conformity and expressing ones self and how you address the trade off can be different in different contexts. This is partly a necessary component to being part of a social species. You can choose to not conform with those expectations but there are trade offs.

      Adopting a role is not the same as constructing a false self. The difference is that you are consciously aware of playing a role, versus being trapped in a role. It is important to find some outlet for the vital parts of ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we have to express them all in all contexts. It is natural to be a different person at work than with friends for example. Also, it is impossible for us as mortal beings to express all of our possibilities, that is part of the limitations of life.

      1. Thank you. I agree that a sufficient outlet is important. Otherwise it is easy to get trapped in an unhealthy role. I also agree with you that compassion is an essential ingredient in the process of relieving and preventing dysphoria and all suffering. It’s an antidote to anger, hatred and other destructive emotions and ignorance.

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