Gender Identity, Shame, and the Search for Authenticity

man's shoe and woman's shoe on floorRecently I was walking through the grocery store, stopped in the deodorant section, and found myself dismayed. The women’s deodorants didn’t appeal to me at all—too pink, too delicate, too flowery-smelling—and I couldn’t bring myself to pick one up. Yet my other options, the men’s deodorants, were distinctly off-limits. What a fraud I would be, were I to even pick up one of these black, musky-smelling containers of sweat-defying deodorant. So there I was, stuck in the middle of a decision that seemed so silly and small yet so huge at the same time.

Maybe a similar monologue has run through your head, or you’ve heard a similar story from someone you know or love.

We live in a society that demands for us to choose, around every corner, what box to check. For those who have begun to understand that gender may be an ambiguous presence inside them, making sense of what’s true on the inside and what’s fabricated from the outside is a difficult process. Even coming to terms with that nagging sense that you may not be like most other people is a feat of grand proportion. If you’re reading this and this describes you, just know that you’re not alone—more and more people are discovering a similar thing about themselves.

Gender identity is a term that describes the way you relate to your gender most authentically. Gender expression is the way you choose to outwardly express this sense of identity (and note that these two things can be different). When we talk about gender identity, questioning, and the process of working through this, we’re talking about finding what’s true for yourself on the inside, reconciling this with your biological sex, and any expectations the outside world may have for your gender expression.

There are many different ways to identify and express yourself, and so finding what feels authentic for you can be a much larger process than simply determining whether you feel more male or more female. For many, ambiguity plays a central role in how they identify, and making a cut-and-dry statement about identity is nearly impossible. Others feel very clearly that their most authentic experience is to live as another gender.

Ultimately, it’s important to understand that gender is complex and cannot be reduced to two polarities. I’ve been exposed to different ways of visualizing gender, including as a spectrum, a continuum, and a web; all highlight the fact that there is a lot of space for you to explore in the realm of gender. Wherever you find yourself, if it feels right, is absolutely acceptable.

In my work with people who are exploring the complexity of gender in their lives, we often start with the question of where to be amidst this grand universe of gender. When do you feel most authentically you? What aspects of different genders do you like or dislike? Do you like being different, or would you rather be able to fit in more? Is androgyny appealing to you? Do labels help or hurt you? These are a launching point for many, many other questions and discussions surrounding the idea of gender and how it plays out in each individual’s life.

At different points along the process it becomes necessary to focus on the internalized sense of judgment, shame, or oppression often present in people questioning their gender identity. We all have it, no matter who we are, simply because we live in a society that generates phobia based on gender ambiguity. We have all been led to believe that there is something wrong if a person either can’t be coded into a gender, or if a person is clearly expressing themselves as the “wrong” gender.

As much as we intellectually understand that there is nothing wrong with these scenarios, something inside us wells up with a very uncomfortable and deep sense of shame that can be challenging to transform. Unraveling these feelings so that we can clearly see that it’s a product of faulty messaging and not about us, nor our fault, is paramount to developing a sense of empowerment.

If you’re experiencing some of this shame, or simply a feeling of wanting to keep everything hidden, what do you do?

  1. Shine a light into the dark recesses of your experience. Shame builds on itself when we don’t talk about things, so the simple act of sharing your story with someone you trust can be monumentally freeing. This experience can reinforce two things: that you’re a normal human who embodies basic goodness, and that you don’t have to feel overpowered by your shame. In essence, you have control.
  2. Talk with someone who can help you analyze the external and internal messages you’re holding about yourself. Our minds fill in the blanks with reasoning when we feel something but don’t know why. So when we feel put off because someone gave us a strange look, or because someone misgendered us, our minds go into a flurry of activity to help us make sense of our feelings. We come up with a reason for their reaction, and often times this reason is based upon messages we’ve encountered in the world. Often they were things we were led to believe early on in our lives about who we are, whereas other times the messages are things we’ve taken in as a belief because if we didn’t believe them, we would be too disconnected from society. Our psyches ultimately want connection, and things that threaten that connection are formed into aspects of the self that need repair. We assume that something needs to be repaired, or that there’s something wrong with who we are. In both cases, there is a message about the self that needs reframing, and this is where the deeper work of therapy can be really helpful.
  3. Practice being with these uncomfortable feelings. Again, this is where working with a therapist can be invaluable. We need to develop our own ability to tolerate the deep discomfort of shame, and until we do this we won’t be able to transform these feelings into something positive. Learning to tolerate discomfort is a subtle and sometimes slow process that requires compassion, patience, space, and the presence of someone who can be a helpful guide.
  4. From tolerance to acceptance. Gender roles and norms haven’t changed much in the last several hundred years, and some of this is attributed to brain-based gender differences. New research is being done on the brain structure of people who identify as transgender, and there is evidence to support the idea that the brain structure of transgender people is different than that of people who are cisgendered (people whose gender identity is congruent with their biological sex, i.e., a biologically born female who identifies as female). There’s also a growing camp of researchers who argue that culture and nurturing actually shape the way we behave. So, if we assume that both of these sides are valid, we can put to rest some of the questioning around why and concentrate on the idea that what’s right for you is right. Once we can accept this and discern fabricated ideals from true ideals, we can move through the world from an empowered place where being different than the norm is totally worth it. Being in this place is what connects us to others, and this connection is what effects change in society.
  5. Have a good vent about the superficiality of gender messaging in our society. Complain away! There’s a lot that needs changing, and at the very least you can look at all of these things with someone who gets it. Most people can relate with the feeling of being placed in a box that doesn’t fit who they really are.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Winchester, MA, LPC, therapist in Boulder, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Toni B

    Toni B

    November 22nd, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    i guess I have such a hard time understanding this whole gender confusion issue because i have never experienced that kind of confusion myself. I have always known I was a girl, looked like a girl, played and dressed like a girl and have never wanted to be anything other than that. It has to be hard when you know that you are one way and look one way on the outside and yet oyu feel something totally different on the inside. How do you even go about explaining these feelings to someone like me who has never thought about being anything than what I am? It gets so confusing and I know that if it is hard for me then I really feel for those who experience this first hand.

  • anonymous

    anonymous

    November 23rd, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    Never really felt like I was made right, difficult to look in the mirror and see one thing but to know that that wasn’t who I am on the inside. And always having others tell me that what I am feeling is wrong. How can it be worng if I know in my heart that this is who I was supposed to be?

  • Amy

    Amy

    November 24th, 2013 at 9:36 PM

    Toni,

    I admire that you’ve been transparent in saying something that I think a lot of people feel, namely that they just don’t understand what people are talking about with gender identity and the confusion around that. I believe it is an incredibly difficult thing to articulate to people who have never had an inkling of a thought around their gender being “right” for them. Most people feel completely congruent in their gender expression and identity, and what they were born with is how they identify, no questions asked. For the minority of people who experience a discord, however, between their biological sex and their internal identity, it is a very visceral and confusing experience that is just beginning to be acknowledged by our society. Simply naming this discord can be a great relief for people. I believe that every individual’s experience is unique, also, and that as a cisgendered person it’s important to remain open and curious to these different experiences, first and foremost. Everyone will have a slightly different way of explaining their experience, and we all have to remember that what’s true for them is true, end of story. Thanks for your comment and open-mindedness… and keep asking questions!

  • Amy

    Amy

    November 24th, 2013 at 9:42 PM

    anonymous,

    You are the true judge of your experience… not others. If your gut is telling you something about who you are and who you’re supposed to be, trust that and know that other people aren’t experiencing what you’re experiencing and therefore cannot fully understand your truth. There are a lot of people who feel similarly to you, and I encourage you to find groups or other resources in your area that focus on gender identity or transgender support.

  • Trey

    Trey

    November 25th, 2013 at 4:41 AM

    There must feel like there is always this big disconnect in life when you experience these feelings. And finding the courage to live life accordingly? I can’t imagine the pain that this must cause to families too, because they have always thought one way and yet there is something completely different that continues to present itself. Lots of confusion and questions no matter which way you turn.

  • anonymous

    anonymous

    November 26th, 2013 at 4:54 AM

    @Amy- thank you for those kind words. I guess I have been living so long in the shadow of the words that I have always heard, that something is wrong with me and that I am a freak, that it is hard to break free of those thoughts that I have also come to think about myself. I think that sometimes it would be easier if I lived in a larger city and could somehow find a way to blend in or there would be more groups out there designed to meet with people like me in mind but where I live this just isn’t the case. But I am searching for truth and will not give up, but it is hard and the encouragement from people like you make me know somewhere that there is hope and love even when it doesn’t always show itself.

  • randee

    randee

    November 29th, 2013 at 4:15 PM

    I have often felt confusion in my own life, I would reckon that everyone has at times, but never about gender. My problems almost seem mundane and dare I say normal when compared to issues such as this. But you get past them, you move on and move forward, knowing in your heart that you are who you are and no one can tell you otherwise.
    I am through with the days of letting what other people think about me and think that I should be define me and my actions.I hope that this community can find the same for themselves as well, because it is all to freeing when you can move beyond others’ expectations and unrealistic demands.

  • guy smith

    guy smith

    December 4th, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Never really felt like I was made right, difficult to look in the mirror and see one thing but to know that that wasn’t who I am on the inside. And always having others tell me that what I am feeling is wrong. How can it be worng if I know in my heart that this is who I was supposed to be?
    You are the true judge of your experience… not others. If your gut is telling you something about who you are and who you’re supposed to be, trust that and know that other people aren’t experiencing what you’re experiencing and therefore cannot fully understand your truth. There are a lot of people who feel similarly to you, and I encourage you to find groups or other resources in your area that focus on gender identity or transgender support.

  • Laurie

    Laurie

    August 23rd, 2016 at 4:55 PM

    I am the mother of a transgender teen girl. I am happy for her because I see how much more content she is now, more settled in her own being. I see her blossoming and becoming.
    If you are troubled and anxious about transitioning, please let me offer a mother’s hug and blessing. May you one day receive one from your own mother.

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