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.

“Trans women are women” and RFT

When people say “trans women are women” what are they trying to say? Why does it matter? A lot of arguments around these issues have people going back and forth about whether trans women are women or men. People argue that “trans women are women” because identity, or perhaps brain sex and people argue that “trans women are men” because socialization, or physiology or biology etc.

First, we can talk about what gender identity isn’t. Looking at the gender bread person, a common model used by queer theorists to delineate the different components of gender we can see all of the things that it is not. First, it is not biological sex. It does not have to do with chromosomes, or breasts, or vaginas, or penises, or hormones. Second it is not sexual orientation. It does not have to do with who you are attracted to. Third, it is not gender expression. It has nothing to do with whether one’s behaviors are stereotypical of males or females or anything in between. It is indeed nothing to do with behaviors at all! So, it has nothing to do with your body, or your attractions, or your behaviors. Then what is left?

What is left is the concept of “woman” itself. So, when someone is saying their gender identity is that of a woman; they are saying that their self-concept is that of a woman. More concisely, “me = woman”. Likewise by saying “trans women are women”, they are saying “trans woman = woman”. What is going on here is the equating of two concepts. This is what it means to identify with something in general; you could say “me = American”, or “me = Democrat” etc. Other writers have noticed similar things and ridiculed gender identity as being essentially meaningless because it just has to do with a concept. However, it is not trivial at all. That is why people on all sides of the debate are so interested in arguing whether “trans women are women” is true or false. Why is this question so important to both trans people and their detractors? This question reveals something fundamental about human psychology, as is explained by a theoretical model known as “Relational Frame Theory (RFT)”.

Unfortunately most of the writing about RFT tends to be rather obtuse and academic. If you are a psychology nerd, I recommend the following video series on RFT by psychologist Joseph Rhinewine. Here are another two articles.

RFT is also the theoretical framework underlying ACT, and ACT is more accessible. This same psychologist has some great videos about ACT as well, and you can also read more about it here and here

Fortunately, we only need a few concepts from RFT in order to understand why it can be so important for someone to equate themselves with the concept of woman (or man) even when it has nothing to do with behaviors or bodies.

Arbitrary vs. non-arbitrary properties

The first of these concepts is “arbitrary vs. non-arbitrary properties” An example of a non-arbitrary property would be size. Some objects are smaller than other objects, and some objects are larger than others. This is a non-arbitrary property because it is universal. Everyone would agree that one object was larger than the other, if they measured accurately. It is also possible for an object to have arbitrary properties assigned to it. Take the example of a nickel. It has the non-arbitrary properties of being round, being made of metal and a certain size. It also has the arbitrary property of being worth 5 cents. People of all cultures would see the nickel as being round, mental and of its size. Only those that learn the meaning of the nickel being worth 5 cents would assign that value to it.

A dime has the arbitrary property of being worth 10 cents yet is smaller than a nickel. If you ask a young child which is more valuable, he will say the nickel is more valuable. Only when he learns the concept of value, and has achieved the level of maturity to understand such concepts will he see the dime as more valuable than the nickel. This ability is something that enables humans to create culture and all of the advances of civilization.

When I talk about objects I am not talking just about physical objects, I am also talking about words, sounds, concepts and ideas.

One property that is very important to understand is that the psyche does not treat arbitrary properties and non-arbitrary properties differently. They have the same psychological value.

Relational frames

All of these objects are related to each other through relational frames. Relational frames describe how two different objects are related to each other across various dimensions. An example of a relational frame is the “relational frame of comparison”, which ranks objects according to a certain dimension. We can say a nickel is greater than a dime in the dimension of size. We can also say that a dime is greater than a nickel in the dimension of monetary value. Another important relational frame is the relational frame of equivalence, which says two objects are equivalent, in English this is denoted by “being verbs”.(is, am, are)

Derived stimulus functions

One uniquely human capability is derived stimulus functions. This means that we automatically derive new relationships based on existing relationships. For example, if someone had never seen a quarter, and I were to tell them a quarter was worth more than a dime, they would also know that a quarter was worth more than a nickel. I would not have to teach them that. Looking at the relational frame of equivalence, when an object is equivalent to another object, we automatically derive that it is equivalent to all other objects that object is equivalent to.

The transformation of stimulus functions

The transformation of stimulus functions means that any psychological association with a given stimulus will also be carried over to any related stimulus. For example, say a person loves to eat ice cream. A natural response to a food that someone likes is to salivate. This person will also have a similar reaction to imagining ice cream or even potentially the words “ice cream”. Say this person hears the words “uachtar reoite”. This will likely have no effect, unless the person speaks Irish and knows those are the words for ice cream. Later, if the person learns this association, these words can acquire the salivating response.

These associations are not always conscious

Another thing that is important about these associations is that they are not always conscious. They might be unknown to the person that has them. A clever test that psychologists have come up with to test these associations is the Implicit Association Test This test measures these associations by comparing reaction times to different paired concepts. For example, a person with implicit racism will have a longer reaction time if they have to pair images of black people with positive words, than if they pair images of black people with negative words. These tests show that implicit racism is rampant even for those that don’t have conscious racism.

how does this apply to trans issues?

Lets return to the statement “trans women are women”. In terms of relational frames, this is saying that “trans woman = woman”. Here we are talking about the concept of trans woman and the concept of woman, we are not talking about bodies or behaviors. So all this is saying is that the concept of “trans woman’ is equivalent to the concept of “woman”. On the surface, this seems like a meaningless statement, however it has profound implications both in the psyche of people dealing with gender issues, and in how trans people end being treated.

First, looking at the identity component, if “me = trans woman” and “trans woman = woman” then “me = woman”. Why this matters is that because of derived stimulus functions, if “me = woman”, then “me” is also equivalent to every other concept that is equal to woman. So if someone has the association “woman = caring” or “woman = good”, then if “me = woman” then “me = caring” and “me = good”. Also due to the transformation of stimulus functions, the person’s self-concept then acquires all psychological associations with those concepts as well. Also, if one has the common association “woman is opposite of man”, then they acquire the inverse of all psychological associations with the concept of “man” as well. So if “me = woman”, and “man = brutal”, then “me = not brutal” etc. Some people identify as non-binary or gender-queer, which is saying “me = not woman” and “me = not man” or in some cases “me = woman” and “me = man”.

These networks also interact with rule-based behavior. People internalize various rules, which can be expressed in an if..then format. These are “shoulds” and “oughts”. For example, “before bed, you should brush your teeth”. These rules can also pertain to particular classes, “men should not show their feelings”, “women should be sweet and submissive” etc. Not following your “shoulds” causes psychological distress, and if they conflict with your impulses that will be a source of tension. It is important to note that these rules can also be held unconsciously and contradict with conscious beliefs. For example, a person can believe that it is okay for men to show their feelings, but simultaneously have an internalized sense that is wrong for a man to do that. This is very common.

If one holds the rule “men should not show their feelings”, this rule only applies if you also hold “me = man”. There are two ways to eliminate this association (actually three but we will get to the third one at the end). The first ways is to eliminate the rule “men should not show their feelings”. The second way to eliminate the association “me = man”.

Not only does this matter in terms of sense of self, it also matters in terms of treatment from others as well. People who hold the association “trans woman = woman” will act differently to a trans woman than those that hold the association “trans woman = man”. It is possible to hold either association, because here we are dealing with concepts which are arbitrary objects, and not non-arbitrary objects like breasts, penises, hormones, chromosomes and vaginas. It is important to see this, because if you hold one of these associations strongly, the other is likely to seem ridiculous or offensive.

Again, the psyche treats the non-arbitrary objects and arbitrary objects the same way. Also, even though the concepts of man and woman are arbitrary objects, they are almost certain to be associated with the non-arbitrary objects like breasts, penises, hormones and vaginas. Most people hold the association “woman = vagina” and “man = penis” also. Even those who consciously hold the belief that “trans woman = woman” and that woman is about identity and not bodies, are also likely to still hold the “woman = vagina” association unconsciously as well. Not, to mention that these associations also interact with low-level instincts which have a lot to do with bodies. This can lead to dissonance, as the remaining masculine characteristics of the body (in the case of trans women) contradict the identity me = woman. This causes dysphoria and distress and leads to the desire to change the body and eradicate those characteristics. However as this is not completely possible, it is likely that dysphoria will remain. In addition, the person is likely to seek validation for “me = woman” in order to affirm that side of the contradiction. However, like the body changes, this validation does not remove the basic conflict it only serves as a temporary salve.

This was my experience of transition, the dysphoria did not end because this basic conflict remained. There was never any peace, and it was so primally important that I be validated as a woman, and it was never enough. Likewise, I was still uncomfortable with my body because it still contained masculine characteristics, and there was no amount of surgery that would fix that either. In fact, it is the adoption of the trans identity itself that greatly increases dysphoria for this reason, even as it simultaneously solves other issues.

how to apply these ideas

There a few ways to apply these ideas in order to reduce dysphoria and the suffering from dysphoria. When I was describing some of the various associations, such as “me = woman”. I was careful to use “me” rather than “I”. That is because there is a hidden additional association there, which is “I = me”. Meaning the association of the being self “I” with the conceptual self “me”. This association is not essential, and indeed causes numerous problems. The practice of mindfulness makes it possible to weaken this association, and see that the being self “I” is indeed distinct from the conceptual self “me”.

ACT identifies mistaking the conceptual self “me” for the self as a source of psychological difficulties. By practicing mindfulness and defusion exercises it is possible to reduce this association. It is not surprising that many detransitioners who are are still dealing with dysphoria report meditation as being beneficial. A couple examples of these exercises are here and here A good ACT self-help book is “The Happiness Trap” by Dr. Russ Harris.

Another way to reduce distress is by uncovering and eliminating some of the rules (shoulds, oughts, and musts) that you hold about gender. These absolutist shoulds are known to cause distress in all domains, and gender is no exception. A form of cognitive-behavioral therapy known as REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) takes this as one of its core principles. There is a great book called “Three Minute Therapy” that describes some of these ideas in a self-help way.

A third way is to relax some of the psychological associations with gender. I have talked about this in ”relaxing gender schemas” and also here and here Men and women are both diverse. Men are cruel and kind, oppressive and gentle, nurturing and cold. The same is true of women. If you are holding a deep psychological association such as “men = bullies” or “men = unemotional”, it is helpful to meditate upon examples of men that have the opposite characteristics. Having friendships with such men is helpful as well. Something experiential is best, whether visualization or experiences of real life people. Men range in diversity from Martin Luther King to Stalin and everything in between.


Nothing I am saying here about trans identity is special to trans people. The things I am saying are about identity in general and psychology in general. Transgender and gender dysphoria are very human conditions. I am definitely not saying that trans identities are different than other identities and therefore are pathological. I am saying they are a human response to a human condition. The point I am trying to make is that transition is not the only solution to these difficulties, not to eliminate it as a solution entirely.

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.