conceptualized self

Systems Thinking, Fantasies, and their Relationship to Gender Dysphoria

Basically everyone agrees that many people who transition MtF have erotic fantasies of being feminized or becoming female. Where there is a difference is in the causal relationship between these fantasies and dysphoria. The trans community believes that these fantasies are a sign of a repressed female identity and a sign that one is “really trans” and must transition. Otherwise, according to the community, these fantasies will persist and get worse and worse until they become overwhelming and the only alternative is transition. Critics of the trans community tend to take the reverse position, that the fantasies are driving the gender transition and therefore dismissing transition as the product of “delusion” or “fetish-driven behavior”. People that are questioning are caught in the middle and I see numerous people questioning “whether they have a transgender identity or a fetish”, attempting to determine which causes which.

In psychology we often apply systems thinking which holds that there is often mutual causality. This applies to many psychological issues. In other words, A -> B, and also B -> A. A classic example of this is in depression. Social withdrawal exacerbates depression, and depression increases the tendency for social withdrawal. This is a reinforcing feedback loop which has the danger of spiraling out of control. This is also one of the things that makes it difficult to treat. One of the ways in which we might try to break this feedback loop is to give the depressed person homework to be social even if they don’t feel like it. This is an attempt to create the reverse feedback loop, social engagement -> less depression -> more social engagement. How easy or difficult this is to do depends on the severity of the depression, it can become almost impossible in severe cases.

Likewise with depression, we encourage the person not to identify with the depression. Rather than saying I “am depressed”, it is better to say I “have depression”, or I “am feeling depression”. This externalizes it and helps the person see that they are more than the depression. This is the process of “defusion” as referenced earlier

I think there is similar feedback loop in the relationship between feminization fantasies and the schema that eventually develops into a transgender identity. It is not A -> B, or B -> A, but is A B. This forms a reinforcing feedback loop that eventually can become overwhelming. The fantasy serves an important function in the psyche, perhaps escape, anxiety relief, or even simple release. However like all anxiety relief mechanisms, over time tolerance develops and it requires more and more energy for the same effect. This process can be accelerated by using such things as porn, seeking more and more extreme stimulation. Dysphoria and the impulse to transition increases in times of stress.

After this happens, a process of identification can begin. The community even talks about this. People go from “I sometimes fantasize about being a woman / have dysphoria” -> “I think I am trans” -> “I am woman”. When this process happens dysphoria increases, it doesn’t decrease. This is reification, which is the reverse of defusion. The community celebrates this process and claims that it is inevitable so you might as well accept it. I’ve even seen people say that if you “think you might be trans then you are”. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think it does reach a point that is very difficult to come back from, but I don’t think it is inevitable in the earlier stages.

How can you try and reverse this process? Identification can be reversed by delusion referenced above. If there is a feedback loop, you can potentially create the reverse feedback loop by working on either of end of the loop. On the fantasy end, you can gradually reduce the intensity of the fantasies, and abstain from porn. Since the fantasies are serving an important role in the psyche something must take its place. Ideally something healthy like more connection, more community, good work in the world, exercise or other things that you find nourishing. Working at the end of the loop with the schema, means working through trauma or making rigid gender schemas more flexible by expanding what it means to be a man or a woman to include all of yourself.

I think people really are letting go of a false self in the process of transition, the trick is not to just adopt a second one.

Relieving dysphoria using the three-part model

In the three-part model I described three different components that combine to create the conditions that contribute to gender/sex dysphoria. In order to create flexibility and relieve the suffering of dysphoria each of these components must be addressed.

Narratives are constructed. (This is not necessarily a conscious process). In order to gain flexibility in constructing narratives, one must first realize that one is not their narrative. One is not their story. A common issue that is one mistakes oneself for their story. In ACT this is known as “fusion with the conceptualized self” the antidote for this is defusion. It is no wonder that many detransition narratives contain mindfulness as an important component, because it is this that is precisely this practice that can help with defusion. Once one is defused from their narrative, they might be able to see an element of choice, and how it is just a story, and not the absolute reality.

Trauma & Schemas can be healed. Healing these can be a long process and there also ways to cope. Coping with trauma involves learning how to deal with triggers, returning to the body when dissociated, learning grounding exercises and educating oneself on trauma and its effects. Healing from trauma can be done by processing the trauma through a technique such as EMDR or Somatic Experiencing These components include non-verbal, preverbal and somatic components so require more than talk therapy. Guided imagery and parts-based work can be helpful here. The aim is integration. Sometimes people talk about having a “female self” and a “male self” which they experience as figures in their psyche. These also can be integrated through parts-based therapies such as IFS.

Erotic Imprinting cannot be changed, it can only be managed. This is where we find activities such as compulsive cross dressing, autogynephilia and porn addiction. Testosterone exacerbates this issue. This can become compulsive. I believe one of the reasons that some MTF people feel relief on anti-androgens/estrogen is precisely because the reduction of testosterone provides relief from compulsive sexuality. Anti-androgens are used to treat all kinds of unwanted compulsive sexuality. It is important to note that preferring certain hormones is only proof of preferring certain hormones, and doesn’t necessarily mean anything to one’s identity. There is no requirement to transition just because one doesn’t like testosterone. Likewise there is nothing wrong with eliminating / reducing testosterone if it improves your quality of life.

These practices are helpful whether one transitions or not. The goal is to create choice where before there was compulsion. One of the primary stresses of being transitioned is being misgendered. Trans people often take this as a threat to the very self. I know I used to. This is also a product of being identified with the conceptualized self. When one is identified with the conceptualized self, this identification is very vulnerable and needs constant approval from others. Letting go of that through defusion can help one to accept that some people will never see you as your target gender, and that is just their perception and doesn’t effect who you are. This can also help one to accept the reality that one can only partially change their sex, which is another common source of pain.