schemas

Expanding maleness to include myself

This last week I attended a training in couples therapy. It was good to see some people that I knew and to be in a large group of people that were dedicated to learning how to help people have better relationships and ease their suffering. Afterwards, I went out to lunch with several of the men from the training and I reflected on how it was good to be part of a group of men dedicated to helping others, and learning more about how to promote connection.

It made me think how different these men were than the view of men that I see on my internet feeds. Men as brutes, men as barbarians, men as violent, men as abusers, men as narcissists, and men as violators. Yes, all of these types of men do exist. A lot of us have been abused by men in one way or another, and adopt this view of men. It was my deep internalization of this idea of men, and male culture that made it feel unsafe to be seen as a man or to be a man in the world. It was as if becoming a part of male culture was to participate in violence, either as perpetrator or victim. That childhood experience was deep-rooted and governing my behavior. Now I can clearly see there are lots of different kinds of men, and lots of different male cultures. I knew this in my head of course, but not viscerally, and it was the visceral part that required healing.

I think that is a task all of us with gender issues must face whether detransitioners or not, the fact that there is still some aspect of the birth sex that remains. Long-term transitioners write about this too. Anne Vitale has written about this. Kate Bornstein has written about this too. I don’t think detransition is required, but I think wholeness requires some integration and acceptance of maleness. It is only possible to partially change your sex. Suffering comes from the discrepancy between how you would like the world to be and how the world is.

I see some of the the gender critical trans women I know struggling with this. Trying to accept their maleness and the desire to transition and present as a woman. Also struggling with the political and social ramifications of doing so. After all, how can you simultaneously accept your maleness and maintain a vision of males as horrible and evil? I would suggest that to the degree that you see yourself as male, you are the very example of how a male can be considerate and thoughtful. You are so concerned with the potential negative effects your transition might have on others that you are willing to forgo your own happiness, and to deeply explore how you can be comfortable in the world and still considerate of others. This is a sign of your good heart. So, such things are possible for males.

It is funny sometimes, I find when people refer to my blog, they often refer to me as a “they”, rather than a “he”. Almost like I have to be some outside of gender being. I am not that, I just expanded maleness to include myself. And if you have found any of my words useful, helpful, or kind. Know that they have come from a male. Technically a straight white male even!

What was toxic for me was not expressing femininity, what was toxic for me was attempting to hold my body in ways it wasn’t meant to be held in order to attempt to convey the idea I was female to people. Holding my shoulders in and my hips out, pitching my voice higher than its natural resonance. These things were toxic. Adopting a female role, wanting to be beautiful, desiring to participate in more feminine cultures, expressing myself in ways that our culture says are not okay for men, there was nothing wrong with any of those things.

Integrating the feminine – a non-transgender perspective.

Below is an article from therapist Jim Moyers that illustrates some of the ideas I have been talking about with integration. He describes his relationship with his inner woman and how he was able to heal by befriending her and letting go of his toxic conception of masculinity which did not suit him. This did not manifest as cross-dreaming or any kind of transgender impulse but manifested in a different way. Nevertheless, the way he describes his journey has a lot of parallels to mine. He even invokes the myth of Attis and Cybele which was a myth I resonated with in the past. I have pasted his entire article below.

Impotent Rage & the Myth of Attis

An earlier version of this article was published in the Men’s Journal, Summer 1986 and reprinted in Yevrah Ornstein, editor, From the Hearts of Men (Woodacre, CA: Harmonia Press, 1991).

A number of years ago, in an undergraduate class on Hellenistic religion, I encountered the strange story of Attis. This complex myth, brought from Asia Minor to ancient Rome, exists in several differing, and rather bewildering versions. To simplify it somewhat, Attis was a young man with whom the Great Mother goddess, Cybele, was in love. Ignoring Cybele’s passion for him, Attis attempted to marry a mortal woman. Enraged by the snub, Cybele disrupted the wedding, driving Attis into a mad frenzy in which he castrated himself. His intended bride was killed by Cybele, and Attis bled to death from his castration. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attis for more details.)

While most of my classmates regarded this tale as another bizarre example of ancient mythology, I was fascinated, although not quite sure why. Only later did I realize that the myth of Attis represents a kind of impotent male rage that I knew all too well from first hand experience. I have also come to realize that this kind of blind, destructive rage is involved in many instances of domestic violence.

From early in my life, I had periodic outbursts of uncontrollable anger that seemed to come from someplace outside myself. In a sort of possession state, I would feel as if something that was not me had taken control. Fortunately I never did serious damage during these outbursts, but they would leave me, and anyone who happened to be in the vicinity, shaken and wondering what had happened.

The outbursts continued into adulthood. After my marriage my wife was often the object of my rage. While I normally felt a great deal of love for her, when in one of these states I was aware only of hatred. I several times came close to physically attacking her. Neither she nor I had any idea where this terrible thing came from or what could be done about it. I only knew that I seemed to be incapable of controlling it, and was very ashamed of my inability to do so. If a man was supposed to always be in control of himself, I clearly was failing to live up to expectations.

In my late twenties I began psychotherapy. While I didn’t go into therapy with the conscious intention of dealing with my angry outbursts, they did, of course, come up despite my resistance to talking about them. With my therapist’s support I began to explore what I experienced as a shameful aspect of myself. After much careful and painful examination of these seeming possession states, I came to realize that they were triggered by something, often a critical remark by my wife, that I construed to be some sort of attack on my competency as a man. I would desperately try to defend my image of myself relative to the masculine ideal that I unconsciously believed I should match, denying what I took to be feminine (because it was not part of my idealized masculine image) weakness. But since my wife’s critical observations were generally pretty accurate, refuting them was difficult. Despite my struggle to stay in control of the situation, my sense of powerlessness, and panic, only increased, further threatening the illusion of myself as a strong, competent male, making my attempts to defend that self-image all the more frantic. Unable to either win or give up my defense, I would suddenly find “something else” in control, completely unmanning me.

According to my wife, I would behave “like a hysterical woman” during these episodes. This of course did nothing to booster the masculine self image I was striving to maintain. My refusal to admit the existence of “feminine weakness” in myself paradoxically made me into the embodiment of the very traits I was trying my best to deny. Attis was driven to castrate himself; I was rendered impotent to control anything, especially myself.

My therapist, who had a Jungian orientation, introduced me to the idea of the “anima,” the feminine element within a man’s psyche. Jung’s ideas about masculine and feminine have been challenged as sexist and have been modified as ideas about gender have become less rigid. But I continue to find Jung’s idea that traits associated with the opposite sex tend to be unconscious within an individual’s psyche useful in both my personal experience and my professional work as psychotherapist. Just as with any aspect of one’s self which remains unconscious, when a man refuses to acknowledge his feminine side, it is apt to act as if it were an autonomous entity, taking control of him against his will. The anima-possessed man, according to Jung, behaves like a “second rate woman,” unconsciously acting out the negative characteristics he associates with the feminine from which he seeks to distance himself. So I acted the part of a stereotypical “hysterical woman.” It is interesting to note that the priests of Cybele, who followed Attis’ example of self-castration and dressed as women, were called “counterfeit women.”

In exploring the background for my rage, I realized that the idealized image I had been trying to emulate had little correspondence with who I actually was. My masculine ideal was formed around a childhood image of the rugged frontiersman who was equal to any task, always knew what to do and did it without letting his feelings show. There was no room for “womanly weakness” in such a heroic figure. But I do have many personality traits, which I have come to recognize are actually strengths, that are traditionally thought of as feminine. If I was going to be Davy Crockett (my childhood hero), I certainly couldn’t put up with such “shortcoming” in my masculine persona. In the service of an unrealistic masculine ideal, I tried to deny who I was, only to be reminded of my real identity in a most forceful and unwelcome way.

As I learned to more consciously acknowledge my other, feminine, side, the “anima attacks” became less frequent, eventually virtually disappearing. When I stopped attacking my inner woman as it were, she stopped attacking me. We became partners instead of opponents. Giving up my need to live up to an idealized and unrealistic male image, I actually became more of a real man, in contrast to the illusionary ideal I had been trying to preserve against all evidence to the contrary. I was better able to use both my masculine and feminine sides without being overpowered by either.

Conscious recognition of the feminine is not the same thing as unthinking surrender (as men so often seem to fear) to the power it represents. Attis’ mistake was not one of refusing Cybele’s demands; it was rather a failure to consciously deal with them. The myth seems to indicate that he didn’t say “no.” He just tried to ignore her, with tragic results. If one is to truly become a man, free from unconscious control by the anima, he must make an active decision to face and deal with the demands made on him by the feminine, especially those of the Mother, in both her personal (in the form of his actual mother) and archetypal forms.

All boys first encounter the feminine via their mothers. Attis’ father was unknown to him. This is often the case in myths of the hero (Attis is a type of failed hero). Men tend to form their identity as men more in relation to their mothers than their fathers. In order for a boy to identify himself as male, he must first realize that there are some radical differences between himself and his mother. At the same time, it is often his mother who tells him in so many ways spoken and unspoken what he must do to be her “little man.”

In order to be a “real man” then, a boy must somehow form an identity for himself as someone distinctly different from his mother while at the same time winning her approval by living up to her image of the ideal male, something his father, being only human, may well have failed to do. A mother overly involved with her son may elevate him to a sort of semi-divine status, a danger reflected in myths of the divine son-lover (such as Attis) who never achieves full manhood. Caught between the need to be differentiate themselves from mother while also needing her approval, it is no wonder so many men are confused about their relation to the feminine, both within their own psyches and as represented by the women in their lives.

In the Grimm’s tale of “Iron Hans” (see my “From Wildman to King”) a little boy frees a caged wild man with a key that had been placed for safe keeping under his mother’s pillow. As the fairy tale indicates, the key to unlocking primal male energy often comes through some sort of transgression of the mother’s authority.

It was very important for me to be a “good boy” for my mother. I was told that I should “be like Jesus” (another divine son-lover figure), an impossible ideal if there ever was one. I thought I had escaped this demand when I married someone from a very different religious background with whom I could and did do things my mother’s “good boy” would never do. But at times I still heard my mother’s disapproving voice, often mistakenly thinking it came from my wife.

I discovered that I had never consciously faced and dealt with my mother’s expectations of me. I tried to ignore them as Attis tried to ignore Cybele. But, again like Attis, I found myself overwhelmed and reduced to impotence, helpless before the power of the unacknowledged mother whose voice I continued to hear.

Cybele was the Great Mother goddess, an archetypal, non-human entity. We often make our mothers into goddesses (and goddesses are not always benevolent beings!), giving them an importance and power which does not belong to the human beings they really are. If we are to reclaim the power we have thus given away, we must see through the image of the Great Mother, in both her nurturing and devouring aspects, that we have projected onto our mothers as well as other women in our lives. It is impossible for a mere mortal man to have a sense of his own power if he is in a relationship with a goddess.

As I struggled with my mother issues, much to my surprise I discovered that she was actually quite different from the image I had formed of her. She really did not demand that I remain forever under her power, threatening to withhold her love if I do not do so. She was simply another human being, with good and bad points like all other human beings.

I must admit that I still do not always see it this way, but these days I manage to more often see through my projections than I used to. In the early days of my marriage, I often projected the critical maternal voice, the trigger for my rages, onto my wife. But I also hear that voice less often. Anger I may feel towards her now tends to be more clearly related to what is actually happening between us than with what I used to imagine was happening. As I withdraw my image of the archetypal mother from my real mother, I also withdraw my anima projections from other women in my life. My relationship with my wife, a relation Attis was unable to establish, is more real. In taking back the power I had given up in an unequal relationship with the archetypal Great Mother, I am able to have a fulfilling relationship as a real man with a real woman who is my equal.

© 2008 James Moyers May be reproduced with source credited.

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.

Erotic Imprinting – Overview

Erotic imprinting is a key component in transgender identity development. This is also a factor is cross-dressing, cross-dreaming and other cross-gender behavior as well. Unfortunately, psychology currently has no way of changing erotic imprinting. Particularly in natal males, it acquires a fixed character and once that happens it cannot be changed. However, the situation is not completely hopeless. Erotic imprinting can be managed, and sexual behavior is like any behavior it can be conditioned (for good or for ill).

There is a critical period for erotic imprinting. John Money suggested this occurs between ages 5-10, but no one is sure of the exact ages. In particular, we know that younger brains show more plasticity, so the imprint window might still be open in early puberty. Erotic imprinting is similar to other imprinting such as language acquisition, where there is an imprint window. This is why people who learn languages at a young age do not have accents, but those that learn them after the imprint window has closed do.

In particular trauma or any strong events in childhood can override erotic imprinting. This is what John Money referred to as a “vandalized love map” Such overwriting can be total, but is usually only partial. This creates a kind of dual sexuality where a person has a typical sexual imprint (hetero/homo/bisexual) as well as some fetishistic scenarios that turn them on. These dual sexual imprints compete. This if found in many other sexual imprints and is not specific to gender issues. There is also a dynamic competition which is life long. Fortunately, one does have some control in this scenario, and a person’s actions have some say in the relative strengths of these two imprints.

There is good reason to favor the original imprinting. One is that imprinting is like to be more functional in finding relationship partners. The function of sexuality is to connect us to others, and the original sexual imprinting is more likely to succeed at that. It is also more likely to be in harmony with one’s organic sexual needs. Your Brain on Porn suggests a way to determine what your organic needs are in case things are confused.

Also if one’s sexual imprinting has been corrupted through trauma, to allow that side to dominate is to allow the traumatizers to win. There is something empowering in choosing connection. It is also possible to find partners where one can connect to both sides of their sexuality at once, however this can limit one’s choice of partners.

We see this dual sexuality play out all of the time when MTF-spectrum people are struggling with gender. The cross-gender feelings can go away when one finds a new partner and come back after the limerance has passed. They also tend to increase in times of stress. If there is also a negative schema present, the erotic fantasy can act to discharge the tension caused by the schema (schema avoidance). This also strengthens the schema, creating a feedback loop. The fantasy is never enough, and there is risk of escalation.

If one has this dual sexuality, the side one feeds is strengthened. There are two traps in managing erotic imprinting. If one wishes to manage an erotic imprinting they do not wish to enact, it should neither be fed or repressed. Both of these give energy to it. Simple acceptance is best. An example of repression would be to attempt to suppress fantasy or deny it. These thoughts should be accepted with curiosity, as is described here

Neither should this side be fed. Feeding is seeking out ever increasingly intense porn or enacting the fantasies in compulsive ways with others. This will strengthen the fantasies and lead to the dopamine-based escalation we see in all porn addictions. Porn is like alcohol, gambling, or any vice, okay in moderation, but unhealthy if it fits a pattern of escalation. Unfortunately, today’s porn is very powerful and is more like meth than alcohol. Not only can it lead to wasting lots of time, it can shift sexual tastes. This is different than the imprinting I referenced earlier, this is conditioning. Conditioned responses will reverse if porn is stopped, but imprinted responses are permanent.

This is just an overview, and I will discuss more in future articles about methods for managing sexual imprinting.

Why schemas are a better explanation than identities

In my previous post I discussed why I believe we don’t have innate identities that are waiting to be discovered. This does not mean that there aren’t real subconscious processes in the psyche that can lead to transgender identity. I believe the root of this are what is known as schemas. Jeffery Young created a system of therapy called Schema Therapy after he found that some of his clients were not being helped by cognitive-behavioral therapy, and he wanted something more for those that weren’t getting better.

Young identified an “Early Maladaptive Schema” as “A broad and pervasive pattern comprised of memories, bodily sensations, emotions and cognitions regarding oneself and one’s relationship to others, developed during childhood or early adolescence, and elaborated through one’s lifetime.” Further “EMS’s develop in the pre-verbal period and are deeply entrenched patterns, central to one’s sense of self. Usually self-perpetuating”

Young identified 18 different schemas that he had discovered but it is not an exhaustive list. Gender schemas are not on his list, but I believe that schemas related to masculinity / femininity are at the core of many transgender identities. Young identified 3 different coping strategies that are used for unhealed schemas. These strategies are schema overcompensation (fight), schema avoidance(flight) and schema surrender(freeze). These strategies can explain some of the phenomena we see with MTF transitioners.

The first strategy is schema overcompensation. This involves reacting to the schema by acting opposite to the schema. If a natal male has a schema about inadequacy, he can compensate for this by becoming hyper-masculine.

The second strategy is schema avoidance, which involves some kind of numbing behavior to cope with the schema. Trauma-based erotic imprinting like AGP or feminization fantasies falls in this category. Also addictions fall in this category, this can be drinking, gambling, porn, or compulsive sexuality. These are self-soothing behaviors or stimulation seeking.

The third strategy is schema surrender, where one gives into the schema. For example, concluding that one cannot be a man and therefore is really a woman.

Unfortunately schema coping strategies are not healing the schemas. Further, they tend to require increasing levels of stimulation for the same effect. This is what we see with gender dysphoria, as it tends to be progressive and increases over time if nothing is done.

Some of the phenomena we see in MTFs with gender dysphoria can be explained by the tendency to switch between different coping strategies as one or the other doesn’t work. One thing that is surprising to some observers is that some of the people that transition are often quite masculine as men. For example, military careers are over-represented in MTF transitions. When this person announces they transition, they typically declare something like “their male self was just a shell, and now they are becoming their true self.” In my mind this is partly true and partly not. They are quite right that they are letting go of their false self that is the product of overcompensation, but they are moving to a different false self of surrender. True healing would involve healing the schema.

Likewise crossdreaming, porn, sexual compulsivity or drinking, can be a mechanism for schema avoidance. We can see this clearly is a coping mechanism because it responds to real world events. Often dysphoria will diminish when life is going well, and accelerate in response to stress. People often transition is response to a life crisis of some kind. Also switching to schema surrender can alleviate the need for schema avoidance behaviors. So people sometimes quit addictions after transition, and claim the addiction was a way they coped with not being their true self.

Unfortunately to the degree which one is merely moving to a different coping strategy rather than healing the schema that relief is likely to only be temporary. People still continue to feel dysphoria after they transition, and transition does not heal the dysphoria, but only temporarily abates it as it tends to remain no matter how many procedures are done. This is because there is no amount of compensation that can permanently cope with a schema without healing the schema.

The good news is that schemas can be healed. Healing schemas requires long-term therapy, and according to Young requires a multitude of strategies, from cognitive, to experiential, to behavioral , to relational. I believe the ability to heal the schema depends on how far it has progressed. When a person reaches the point that they are feeling suicidal if they don’t transition, it is going to be very difficult to heal the schema. I think early intervention is important here, and that though it is extremely difficult to reverse a full transgender identification, I do believe it is possible to prevent cross dreaming or AGP from turning into full-blown transsexualism.

I do think transition is a legitimate strategy for dealing with dysphoria, however it should be the strategy of last resort. A person should transition if it improve their quality of life. However, the costs of transition are so high, both socially and medically. I support full civil rights for transgender people, but also see transition as the least desirable outcome. I don’t believe these two positions are contradictory.

A three-part model of transgender identity development – Overview

Transgender issues are often framed as a question of essence. Some people have the “trans essence” and need to transition and express their true selves in order to be happy. Other people do not possess this essential nature and therefore it would be wrong for them to transition. Any detranstion is because the person was mistaken about their essence and “wasn’t really trans”. People who come out as trans describe it as “figuring out they were trans”, that they looked into themselves and discovered the trans essence. This framing is dangerous, because it leads people to believe they must transition to be “true to themselves” rather than it being in their best interest. It also leads to some confusion in thinking about these issues.

I frame this issue as three different components that interact with each other. These components are narratives/identity, schemas/trauma and erotic imprinting. Narratives are stories, they are high-level structures in the neo-cortex, and therefore are the most mutable. Schemas are lower-level structures, they contain non-verbal components and are felt viscerally. This makes them more resistant to change. Erotic imprinting has to do with the biological components of gender identity and tends to be the most unchangeable.

Narratives / Identities

Narratives and identities are stories we tell about ourselves and use to explain ourselves to others. These are abstract concepts that by necessity are incomplete. They help us to say, I am like this group and I am not like that group. Narratives are also culturally-specific and cannot be innate.

It is not possible to identify as trans in a culture that does not have a concept of trans identity. It is possible to engage in cross-gender behavior in any culture. Likewise gay identity is recent Western concept, but same-sex attraction and sex have occurred in every culture.

Cultural narratives interact with personal narratives and influence cross-gender expression. Many cultures have cross-gender roles, but only in Western culture is there the idea that one can actually become a member of the other sex. Other cultures with cross-gender roles consider people in those roles as a member of a third category,and their roles often have characteristics of both gender roles.

It is because of this Western conception that being trans in our culture often means attempting to convince people that one is a natal member of the sex associated with their gender identity, rather than merely expressing oneself in ways typical of their gender identity. Further, self-expression and individuality are highly valued in Western culture, and therefore it is considered important that a person be true to themselves and express themselves fully.

The way cultural narratives interact with personal narratives can be seen in recent shifts in queer culture. There has been a large explosion since the mid-2000s of people identifying as FTM or genderqueer identities. This is because the queer cultural narratives have shifted. People who might have identified as a butch lesbian in the 1980s might now identify as trans men in the 2010s. They might have the same feelings, but become exposed to different cultural ideas of what their feelings and experiences mean.

Finally narratives can be arbitrary. Healthy narratives are connected to lower-level functions in the psyche as well as the material world. However this is not required. If the material world is unsafe or harmful in some way, an arbitrary narrative can be a great escape. This process can be clearly seen in some of tumblr queer culture. This is not to say that narratives are unreal, they have tremendous influence. People have died by the millions in fights over which narratives are true, just look at the Crusades.

Trauma / Schemas

The second component of my model is Trauma and Schemas. Unlike narratives which are verbal constructs made up of words, traumatic memories contain pre-verbal components and include feelings and body sensations. Such memories are undigested, and when an event happens that reminds someone of the traumatic memory, they will get triggered, which means it will feel as if the traumatic memory is occurring in the present. These traumatic memories can even be completely disconnected from any verbal components and the person may have no idea what the original event was. A person that is triggered may dissociate, have flashbacks, feel intense body sensations and intense feelings. Once triggered it often takes time to come back as a person cannot simply decide to not be triggered.

Schemas are rigidly held patterns that often originate in childhood. They are formed over time and also have non-verbal components. Schemas tend to act as filters and shift our perception of the world, emphasizing events that fit the schema and discounting events that do not fit the schema.

Az Hakeem, a researcher and psychotherapist that works on trans issues, identified rigid gender schemas as being common among transgender people. Further, he found that transition does nothing to change these schemas.

Common schemas I have seen with trans people, include “Men= bad, Women=good”, “Men = unsafe, Women = safe”, or schemas involving inadequacy as a man for MTFs.

It is important to note that these schemas can be disconnected from the rational mind, and often hold a child’s view of the world. A person can have a quite sophisticated view of gender in their rational mind, and simultaneously be imprinted with one of these rigid schemas. Even if their rational mind disagrees with that imprinting. One of the schemas I had to work through comes from the bullying I suffered as a child which I associated with being male. So I had a schema that being a man in the world was unsafe, while being a woman in the world was safe. Even though this did not make sense to me rationally, certainly as an adult that lived as a woman, it was still a visceral feeling that I had. I simultaneously held the schema that men were evil and did not want to identify with them. Letting go of these two schemas was crucial to my healing.

Schemas and trauma can be worked with through therapy although they are resistant to change.

Erotic Imprinting

The third component is erotic imprinting. This includes biologically hard-wired attractions, primitive sexual instincts, sexual orientation, turn-ons, and how we like to have sex. These operate quite differently in natal males and females, and this component creates the differences we see in MTFs and FTMs. I believe the first two components function similarly, but this component functions differently.

Erotic imprinting is not necessarily genetic, and trauma can play a role in erotic imprinting, however in adulthood it is generally unchangeable, although a lot of research shows that females have more fluidity in this area than males do.

Some of what is called sex dysphoria fits into this category, although trauma and schemas play a role in that as well.

This is just a basic overview of my ideas, I hope to have a series of posts on each of these three components and how they interact. Some of these things are changeable and some are not. Breaking things down can help expand options for people dealing with gender dysphoria. I do believe transition in a valid option, but it is not the only option, and not always the best option.