Relaxing gender schemas

In an earlier post I referenced the role of schemas in transgender identity development. As I also referenced earlier, I believe integration is something to be aimed for, which will relax gender dysphoria. As Jung said, when a person disowns part of the self, a compensatory attitude is created in the unconscious. Eventually, if this polarization persists it will get stronger and stronger, and eventually there can be a kind of flip where the unconscious attitude takes over, a process called enantiodromia. I think this phenomena can most clearly be seen in midlife MTF transitioners who often live a very masculine life prior to transition, and then say that they are really women and that the masculine identity was just a lie and a shell and the female self is their true self. Jung also said that midlife is a time when the unlived life comes to the forefront. Sometimes, younger people just skip that part, as I did.

In my eyes, they are partially right and partially wrong. They are right in that the masculine shell is a false self, and is causing pain and suffering that they wish to alleviate. Or it would be more accurate to say it is a partial self, as all false selves are. The false self is nothing but an attempt to express truth in the best way the person can. Unfortunately flipping the polarity is just expressing a different partial self and doesn’t solve the problem. It might make things better. It might also be easier to integrate the masculine aspects into a female identity than the reverse, in essence doing an end run around whatever schema the person has around gender. I know for myself this was true. I could adopt an identity as a somewhat masculine, nerdy woman and be comfortable with that. I was never socialized to not be a nerdy woman, and that was mostly accepted in the social circles that I ran in. However, I was always restless as there was a part of me that knew this was not quite true, no matter how much validation I received. Adopting an identity as a somewhat feminine male on the other hand was completely not okay and terrifying, because I suffered constant violence for that throughout my childhood and it felt primally unsafe.

In more modern psychological terms, this is a rigid gender schema, where the person feels they cannot be themselves and be a certain gender. Bringing the female identity from repression to the center can allow these repressed aspects to now be expressed. That is an attempt to move towards health, but does not relax any rigid gender schema that exists.

In order to relax these schemas, a corrective emotional experience is required (and probably many depending on how entrenched things are). This means a visceral experience of a counter-example. A mere intellectual understanding is not sufficient, although it is a beginning. For me, it was important to find several different positive experiences of men being warm and kind, so that I could be comfortable being a man. Some of these experiences included a boyfriend who was able to accept all of me, a kind male therapist, some male therapist friends and some men in my spiritual practice. Also, it was important to work with the traumatized parts of myself that suffered all of the bullying when I was a child, which seemed at the time only happened to me because I was a boy. This can be slow work, and is best done with another. It is difficult to do this work alone but possible.

One way to begin to counteract this is to create a resource, which is an internalized representation of someone who embodies this counterexample. You can visualize them, think about what they might say in certain situations, and make them into a figure in your psyche. I would often think of what my boyfriend might say or what my therapist would say in a given situation. I have been reading some writings by the Dalai Lama recently, and I think about him too, or the Buddha. They can be real or fictional. I also use my body as a guide and move in the direction of what creates greater peace in my body.

It is possible that you may have distorted schemas about both men and women, in which case repeating this process with women is important too. This is something that I am working on now, as I have found that doing this work on my relationship to masculinity has uncovered a whole another layer of my relationship to femininity, as I want to learn to relate to women in a healthy way as a man.

All parts of the psyche are valid

After this discussion, I was reminded of something very important, which is that all parts of the psyche are valid and contain a good intention, even though the strategy that they use to meet that intention may ultimately prove destructive. The strategy can be destructive because it was generated at an earlier time when the person had less resources, or because it is too extreme or too absolute. Parts lack a holistic perspective and are concerned with what they are concerned with. Often they are concerned with protecting vulnerable parts from pain. Their concern is valid and needs to be integrated with the psyche as a whole.

Jung was one of the first psychological authors to write about parts, which he called complexes. Jack Molay has an excellent series on transgender and Jung here It was indeed my readings of Jung 10 years ago that first knocked loose my transgender identity. I remember reading this quote in particular, that Jack also quotes:

“In homosexuality, the son’s entire heterosexuality is tied to the mother in an unconscious form; in Don Juanism, he unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets. The effects of a mother-complex on the son may be seen in the ideology of the Cybele and Attis type: self-castration, madness and early death.”

I began to wonder if I were taken over by the anima and not in my true self. At that moment I felt my body relax and that I could indeed be a man. However that did not last, as there was too much pain and I could not stay in that place. It was only years later that I was able to stay in that place.

Jung was a product of his time, and he did not separate homosexuality and transgenderism, further he definitely took a stance that all alternative sexualities and gender expression were pathological. Even his own writings were mixed as Jack further quotes:

“The growing youth must be able to free himself from the anima fascination of his mother. There are exceptions, notably artists, where the problem often takes a different turn; also homosexuality, which is usually characterized by identity with the anima. In view of the recognized frequency of this phenomenon, its interpretation as a pathological perversion is very dubious.”

What is important in Jung’s writing is that he details how to relate to these parts of the psyche. Indeed they should not be repressed, they have important things to say. Jung believed that the individuation process involved dialogue and integration with these parts of the psyche. That applies in the transgender case to any kind of cross-gender self. It is not a delusion, but a part of the psyche with valuable resources that has something to contribute.

However, Jung also warned against identifying with an archetype or complex. He warned of the potential of these figures to unseat the ego and rise to the head of consciousness. When this happens it can lead to inflation or other psychological issues. In Jung’s psychology, the ego is the captain of the ship, but is itself a servant of Self.

Self is the part of the psyche that is nonjudgmental, ultimately empty, and full of compassion. This idea also occurs in Buddhist thought. Anyone can have an experience of this state through the practice of mindfulness.

Later parts-based psychologies such as IFS and Voice Dialogue emphasize the importance of being in connection with this Self state in order to promote healing. Frequently we become “blended” with a part and mistake that part for the whole. This is something that is continuously happening and when it does happen we can return to connection to Self. Indeed an important part of my own work as a therapist, is to stay in connection with Self and avoid being flooded by a part so that my agenda does not contaminate the client’s healing.

So in summary, I do believe that cross-gender figures in the psyche are real and valid and have an important contribution to make. Indeed it is that process of dialogue and integration that leads to growth. I do however believe that care should be taken to remain connected to self and not be hijacked by a part. Only through practice can one discern the difference between these states. I know that for me being hijacked by a part feels dissociated and like I am not quite in my body. I also feel uncentered and conflicted.

I do believe it is possible that the road to individuation and growth can lead to transition, if so it should lead to an increase in embodiment, an increase in connection, greater peace, and greater compassion. Transition is often framed as an attempt to become more at home in one’s body, and that is how I thought of it at first. It just never led there for me.