Disowned Gender, Disowned Selves

This world tries to tell us who we are. Among other things, it assigns us a gender and tells us to conform to it. Some of us hold on to who we are anyway. For others, some parts get lost. A little trans girl may learn to pretend she is a boy, and that “boys don’t cry.” A young trans boy may learn to believe he is a girl, and that “girls should be quiet.” These messages are bad for cis people too. But this article is about how, in coming to terms with a different gender, trans people often encounter qualities like these that they once attempted to reject in themselves. (For a more general overview of disowned selves, look at this or another Voice Dialogue article, from which I get this framework.) Insofar as they and others are now able to accept these qualities in themselves and their new gender, this process can be freeing and affirming. The trouble is that disowned qualities often appear to come from outside the self. Even qualities that are clear to others from childhood can be perceived as new or extrinsic from the inside (although it can also be the case that a tendency that’s natural inside you and was rejected isn’t showing in your behavior). That may lead to:

1) Impostor syndrome. Questions from budding trans people about not really feeling like their preferred gender are common.

2) An essentialized view of gender. The disowned gender comes to stand for the disowned qualities. “Now that I’m a man, I don’t care what people think of me.” “My feminine side is coming out and I’m so much softer.” This doesn’t mean the qualities or gender aren’t real, just that the apparent connection between them is a psychodynamic and cultural product.
Since cis people have disowned qualities to reclaim but not necessarily a disowned gender, it’s understandable that associating, for example, softness with women feels like the wrong direction to them. A cis woman is called to reclaim the fullness of her hard edges within a womanhood that’s wide enough for all human qualities. But it’s also understandable why trans people find it a helpful framework to associate their repressed gender with the qualities they disowned as part of society’s construction around gender.

3) Heightened dysphoria. Projecting your heart’s desire makes it appear both more distant and more idealized than it actually is. You see the qualities you lost exemplified so seemingly effortlessly, compare yourself to that display, and, with the projected qualities invisible to you, find yourself wanting. The “other,” in an object relations sense, comes to represent “the ultimate ____,” and to be put on a pedestal. Of course it rubs salt in the wound when others recognize that other person’s gender or desirability and not yours. But people often find that no amount of validation really heals it.

The more you have engaged in a pattern of repression, the more unconscious content you’re likely to find when you pull it up. Older trans writing is more likely to frame the desired gender as a separate self, and occasionally describes transfemininity in terms of a Jungian anima, or inner woman. Today most trans women would say that the bulk of their psyche is female. Those who don’t see it that way usually struggle to feel valid. Rather than taking the past accounts as incorrect, I take them as coming from a perspective of greater repression. The Jungian shadow is whatever you repress, and trans people in past generations could be extremely repressed for many years.

That doesn’t mean repression “ruins” your gender in the long term. For one thing, once you’re able to stop repressing it, it’s no longer deeply repressed. For another, in my post-Jungian opinion, the “anima” is just a set of associations your mind made; it doesn’t contain the essential quality of womanhood. It doesn’t even contain the same things for everyone raised in the same society. Jung’s original conception is full of biases absorbed from the culture around him. I consider a broader concept of “disowned selves” in general to accomplish the best of both worlds.

It may feel invalidating to hear terms like projection used in relation to gender, but it’s actually good, validating news. It means whatever you feel like other people have and you don’t is actually inside you. Hal and Sidra Stone of Voice Dialogue write: “Projection is like a bridge that reaches from us to the other person or object. We then are able to walk across this bridge. And once we are on the other side, we find not just the other person, but we also find our own disowned selves.

From the same article: “Unconscious contents in us are constantly jumping out of us and landing on other people, objects and ideas. You walk by a store that carries Indian jewelry. You see a squash blossom necklace and you feel that you have to have it, that it belongs to you, no matter how expensive it may be. You are filled with all kinds of new feelings as you gaze at it. You have projected an aspect of your own spiritual nature onto the necklace. It may actually be a beautiful piece of jewelry, but the magic that you give it is the magic of your own unrealized spiritual/ creative nature.”

They’re talking about everyone, just to be clear. We might be able to redirect our projection away from that particular necklace, if, for example, we consider it culturally appropriative or we think we could never afford it. Or we might just choose not to voice it or act on it. But the most that will happen is our unconscious feelings will go somewhere else, until we reclaim them. In that sense, your strong feelings have more in common with all kinds of people than you think.