Identity is not the same as authenticity

I have been again thinking about identity, because it seems to lie at the heart of all the recent discussion of transgender issues. I have also been thinking about how the way we treat identity with respect to gender dysphoria is very different from that with other conditions. In fact, the way we treat identity with respect to gender dysphoria is the polar opposite of the way we look at most other conditions. In many different contexts, I was taught the importance of not making an identity out of someone’s condition.

For example, we try not to say “schizophrenic” instead we say “person with schizophrenia”. We try not to say “a depressive” and instead say “person with depression”. However, with gender issues it is the reverse, we are encouraged to say “trans person” rather than “person with gender dysphoria” and also to affirm those identities.

The reasons for this disidentification process are several. One is to avoid distorting our perception of the person so we do not see them as just their condition. We must remember that they are so much more than that. Another reason for this practice is to avoid stigmatizing them, so they are not seen as being just that particular condition, they are a full dynamic human being with many different parts

Another reason for this, relates to the person seeking to work with their condition themselves. When someone identifies with something it becomes frozen. It is much harder to treat someone for depression if they identify with it. If they say “being depressed is just who I am, it cannot change.” that is much harder to work with that than someone who says that they “have depression”. One technique for those who are too identified with their depression is to externalize the depression. We try to get them to see the depression as not their whole self, and to perhaps say “that is the depression talking”. This tries to bring their whole self into the picture, rather than just the depression, as the rest of the self can get lost when an identity is formed.

I have talked about identities as self-concept in the past. However, another important aspect of identity which I neglected is group identity. A lot of identities involve identification with a group. When people talk about identities they are often talking about things like race, class, national identity, political identities and certainly gender. Group identities divide us into groups. They say who is “us” and who is “not us”. The desire to be part of a group is a very basic human desire. We are tribal creatures. However, when group identities come into play, they tend to override objective reasoning. There is a sense that our group is right and the other group is wrong. Reason is no longer used to explore the truth, but is instead used to support our moral position. Arguments become moral, rather than rational, and moral reasoning trumps objective reasoning. This is part of what makes discussion of trans issues so difficult. Identity comes into play, and discussion becomes very difficult.

Another problem with group identities is that they can result in a loss of individuality. Connecting with a group and being a part of a group can be such a good feeling, especially if it is a group of people that reflects parts of oneself that have not been reflected before. A lot of my own impulse to transition 20 years ago arose in part from my encounter with the community. It felt so good to encounter people that shared the same feelings about gender that I did, as my gender feelings felt like a deep secret that I would never share with anyone and did not share with anyone “real”. Talking to people who had the same feelings and could relate to my experience was so great. I do think it played a role in my adopting the transgender identity. I am not saying that I adopted this identity due to peer pressure, as the reason I adopted this identity also related to the deeply held feelings that I had. It is rather the intersection between my deep feelings ,and the group that led to my development of this identity. I think this is true of most identities, they are the intersection between biological factors, temprament, and social identity. Cross-gender feelings exists in all cultures but how they are expressed is different depending on cultures. In one culture one might be considered a shaman, in another an abomination, in another a transsexual. Cultures and subcultures say these feelings mean certain cultural identities and the ultimate expression lies at the intersection between the cultural ideas and the internal feelings.

In a way, there is something strange about talking about people “discovering their authentic identities”, because I actually see authenticity as something that opposes identity. I see it as something that lies beyond identities. Identities freeze things into place, and are almost like heuristics. They are shortcuts for who we are, that help explain who we are to others, but are always partial. So, affirming someones identities, is in a way taking them away from authenticity. It is not surprising that many of the people who write of detransition cite mindfulness as an important factor, because mindfulness is precisely a method for loosening identities and the holds they place on us.

I am not trying to say identities are all bad, indeed they are important. They are important because they allow us to feel a part of a group. They are important precisely because they act as heuristics. If we had to feel authentically into each moment of every day that would be a very slow, inefficient process, and probably quite difficult to pull off. Also there are problems associated with lack of stable identity, such as borderline personality disorder for example. Like Jack Engler said “you have to be someone before you can be no one”. Sometimes being authentic can be very difficult or impossible due to the pain associated with it, that can be a reason to live in identities. There is nothing wrong with that, it can be what is right for that time and it can serve an important protective function. Exploring identity is generally seen as part of normal adolescent development, because it relates to being in the world and playing roles in society. However, it seems like we have taken to reifying identities and mistaking them for the person themselves, when they can only be an approximation.

Can transition be the best solution? Yes, but I believe the answer lies under identity and not in identity, because that is where the creativity lies. So, I think it would be much better when looking at these issues to see someone as a person with gender dysphoria, rather than a trans person or a potential trans person. The same applies when exploring one’s own issues. This means the whole person doesn’t get lost and many solutions are possible. It also changes the question from “determining if someone ‘is’ transgender” to determining what the best way to move them towards wholeness.

Identity fusion predicts gender reassignment surgery

Here is an interesting study which talks about identity fusion and its connection with transsexualism. Abstract pasted below. Full text here (via

Transsexuals vary in the sacrifices that they make while transitioning to their cross-gender group. We suggest that one influence on the sacrifices they make is identity fusion. When people fuse with a group, a visceral and irrevocable feeling of oneness with the group develops. The personal self (the sense of “I” and “me”) remains potent and combines synergistically with the social self to motivate behavior. We hypothesized that transsexuals who felt fused with the cross-gender group would be especially willing to make sacrifices while transitioning to that group. Our sample included 22 male-to-female (MtF) and 16 female-to-male (FtM) transsexuals. Consistent with expectation, those who were fused with their cross-gender group (1) expressed more willingness to sacrifice close relationships in the process of changing sex than non-fused transsexuals and (2) actually underwent irreversible surgical change of their primary sexual characteristics (vaginoplasty for MtF transsexuals and hysterectomy for FtM transsexuals). These outcomes were not predicted by a measure of “group identification,” which occurs when membership in the group eclipses the personal self (the “I” and “me” is subsumed by the group; in the extreme case, brainwashing occurs). These findings confirm and extend earlier evidence that identity fusion is uniquely effective in tapping a propensity to make substantial sacrifices for the group. We discuss identity fusion as a social psychological determinant of the choices of transsexuals.

I was excited to see this study, because I have been talking and thinking about identity fusion and its role in transsexualism. It was great to see that someone was studying this. Some in the reddit trans community even talk about the process of fusion, talking about how you go from “I sometimes fantasize about being a woman / have dysphoria” -> “I think I am trans” -> “I am a woman”. They talk about it as if it is inevitable, its not. That is fusion in action and can be reversed by the process of defusion.

A quote for the main body of the study:

“we showed that fusion was also a potent predictor of the steps that aspiring group members take to become group members.”

You can see this phenomenon in action as people become more identified with the community and their views shift, often very quickly as documented here. People who are starting to question, in just a few weeks become determined to take hormones as they become identified with the group.


Furthermore, whereas past researchers (Smith et al., 2005) have identified variables (e.g., gender dysphoria) that motivate transsexuals to eschew their natal sex, our findings identified a variable (identity fusion) that appears to motivate transsexuals to embrace the cross-gender sex.

This again supports the idea of multiple factors being involved, and fusion being part of the motivation that leads to transition and ultimately surgery.

This study primarily talks about fusion from a group perspective the person’s identity with a group. This is something I have neglected but have come to see the importance of it, particularly after several conversations with Deborah. Part of having a identity is a sense of belonging with a group of people that seem like you, and belonging to the tribe is a key factor in human motivation. Feeling like there are people like you is so exciting, especially afar a long time of feeling that you are the only one.

Part of my own experience was similar to this. My dysphoria actually went away during my late teen years when I was dating and having some success socially. It came back when I went to college, and I still remember how powerful that feeling that there were other people like me when I encountered one of the early online forums for trans people. It was like “wow, people can really do this, and there are people like me!” That feeling of belonging after such long periods of not belonging was so powerful.

This study found this effect occurred in both FTM and MTF transsexuals, but only measured gynephilic FTM’s and androphilic MTFs, but I suspect that shouldn’t make much a difference.

The measure of fusion also measured specifically fusion with cross-gender identity. I would be interested in a measure of fusion with the community itself also. I suspect the effect would be even stronger.

Also many people report that their dysphoria increases upon deciding they are trans.This process of fusion could be a mechanism for that. Identifying with the group itself can propel people along the path. Likewise taking a step back from the community can reduce dysphoria, here is an example of someone experiencing relief by taking a step back from the community.

I think it shows the importance of taking a step back and taking things slowly after the heady rush of first being exposed to the community, and reading as many different perspectives as possible.

There are no identities lurking in the shadows of the psyche

Some people theorize that people can have a “repressed transgender identity” and that the process of deciding to transition is a question of determining whether one has such an identity. This frames the process of transgender identity development as a discovery process. If one has cross-gender feelings one needs to discover whether they are “really” transgender or it is from another cause. This idea is false and also dangerous, because once someone identifies with something, it becomes reified and leads to one acting from one’s self-concept rather than organic desire. Identities are constructed, not discovered. This is nothing special to transgender identity, it applies to all identities.

We see this idea in multiple contexts of religion and psychotherapy. In Hinduism there is a meditation called “neti, neti” or “not this, not that”. This is a process of seeing that one is separate from all identities/concepts. Mindfulness practice can help one be in the “observer self” the part that is distinct from all identities. Identities should be held lightly. Here is an essay from Paul Graham on the same topic, and here is an exercise on defusion from identity.

The queer community encourages the opposite of this process. It encourages the construction of more and more identities, inventing a blizzard of new terminology that is ever changing. It is not surprising that this happens, because the queer community is a haven for marginalized and vulnerable people and those struggling with their sexuality. Retreat into concepts is a way to keep one safe. People are where they are and need to do what they need to do for safety. However the retreat into concepts has a cost of disconnection from the instinctual desires of the body. It is particularly dangerous when these narratives involve the idea that one must change their body to be whole.

It is my belief that the adoption of transgender identity itself is at cause for some of the dysphoria people experience. I have known people who for 40 years have been mostly okay with being perceived as one gender, but after transition experience that perception as life-threateningly distressful. The only change here was that they adopted the transgender identity. For myself, I was pretty okay with being perceived as male as a teenager, and then when I transitioned that felt horribly threatening, after letting go of my transgender identity I am again okay with being perceived as male.

At the queer counseling center I worked at, one of the directors told me that there was a 400% increase in transgender clients in the last few years. I believe this is because the queer cultural explanation of cross-gender feelings has changed. Rather than people saying “you must be gay/lesbian” they say “you must be trans”. I see disturbing parallels between “lesbian until graduation” which was a common idea when I was in college, and the explosion of young people identifying with the FTM-spectrum identities. The difference is that “lesbian until graduation” can be an adventurous time in college, while “trans until graduation” has permanent severe consequences as changes cannot be completely undone.

When people speak of encountering a “female self” or a “male self” this is a very real part of the psyche. However it is not an identity! It is instead what Jung called a complex or what is referred to in IFS as a part. These are very real things. In IFS, identifying with a part is referred to as being blended with that part. This is considered to not be an ideal state, instead if one can remain in the observer self referenced above, one can see that they are bigger than this part and allow it the appropriate place in their psyche. It is quite right that they should not be repressed. However, there is a middle way between repression and identifying, that is simple acceptance.

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.