Recently 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, Identity Issues Topic Expert Contributor
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