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.

How I returned to myself

I thought I would give a brief overview of how I returned to myself and let go of my transgender identity.

My story was pretty typical at the beginning.  I had fantasies of being female in childhood which then become eroticized in puberty.  During my teenage years, I didn’t think there was anyway I would ever actually transition, but then when I got to college I discovered some of the beginnings of transgender culture on the internet and transitioned at age 19.   I eventually had SRS at 24.  From the outside I was pretty well-adjusted. I still have the letter from one of the psychologists that evaluated me for SRS describing me as a “well-adjusted professional young woman”.  From the inside my life was a wreck. I was in an abusive relationship, my body was twisted in knots, hormones made it so that I couldn’t think clearly.  I was not a very healthy person.

Right before I got SRS I was required to be off hormones for 3 weeks, without the influence of the estrogen, it felt like coming back to myself after a 5 year strange dream.   I had quite a few doubts about having surgery but I wasn’t able to stop, there was just too much momentum. All of the friends I talked to about it encouraged me to do it. After all, I had been wanting it a long time. I remember thinking it wasn’t possible for me to return to being male, as I had already eliminated my facial hair and “could never be normal”, this seems ridiculous in retrospect.  Afterwards, I felt like I had to just go with it and what was done was done.

I settled into life but I felt something was missing.   My body was still a twisted wreck and it was very frustrating to me.  I tried things like yoga and massage and that would help but it would only be temporary.  I briefly explored meditation but then moved into the pagan community.  I loved paganism and was able to have ecstatic experiences and connect to parts of my unconscious.  This was the beginning of my ability to heal but it was not an embodied practice nor was it particularly relational.  I discovered later that these two things were important for my healing.  I was still looking for something but not finding it there.

I eventually discovered dance and embodied practice. I started out with 5 rhythms and eventually branched on to biodanza and doing partner dance. When I began to do partner dance I was so disconnected from my body I wasn’t able to trust another. Biodanza was particularly helpful because it involved learning how to connect to others. Connection and attachment require connecting to embodied instincts. Gradually my body began to thaw. I also had a relationship with someone who was able to see me for who I was regardless of whether I put on a false self or not.

I also began therapy, not with any intent on working on gender issues, but rather the intention on working on relationships and connection. Then I eventually went to school for my masters in psychology. During the 1st year my body began to have a shaking motion. I wasn’t sure what this was and briefly thought it might be a neurological issue. Luckily, I happened to be surround by somatic therapists at school, and they suggested it might be a trauma release. This continued on and I eventually realized that was my body’s masculine instincts starting to unwind and be released. My body confirmed this by unwinding further.

Eventually I decided to experiment with getting of estrogen, and much to my surprise that seemed to fix a lot of my issues with social anxiety, and desensitized my nervous system so I didn’t feel so fragile. I stayed off hormones for three months and then tried testosterone which made me feel really amazing and euphoric. The euphoria only lasted a few months but I continue to enjoy much better mental functioning and a sense of vitality. I decided to do what was best for my body and listen to it.

Although this also caused several new issues. My body was re-masculinizing which was scary. There was a part of me that found that to be very terrifying. I did work in therapy using IFS and EMDR and discovered a lot of this fear was related to feeling that men were evil and that it was unsafe to be a man. Once I healed from that I was able to gradually become more and more comfortable with being perceived as male.

I also experienced a surge in erotic fantasies about being female, which were similar to what I experienced as a teenager. These threatened to have an obsessive quality but once I healed from the trauma, they were only contained in my fantasy life. I tried to resist them which made things worse, but eventually learned how to accept them and acknowledge that they are just fantasies and I don’t have to identify with them. I think this part is unchangeable and will always be present. However presenting as male feels like a letting go of affectation, and that I am able to just be who I am without pretending to be something else.

I am still not done with this process. I still have yet to change my legal id, which causes various problems as I present as a male and have a clearly female name on my id. I also find it awkward to be around people that have known me as a woman, it feels on some level they have seen me enacting a fantasy and I feel shame about that, even though I know that I had no way to avoid it without the knowledge I have now.