Exploring the Feelings of Gender Dysphoria

When you are feeling gender dysphoria, what exactly are you feeling? Is it a simple feeling or physical sensation, or is there more going on? Is there some… frustration? Confusion? Envy? Grief?
While I am not transgender myself, I am LGBT+ (bi and by some definitions asexual) and have been in contact with the community and close friends with trans people for many years. Taking everyone’s feelings seriously is important to me, and the trans movement’s honoring of feelings is why I chose to support it, even if those feelings include hating me and my cis privilege sometimes!

The ache of not passing — or barely passing. Do they know? Will they think less of me? Take me or my gender less seriously? Will they hurt me? If I could just shrink my jaw, my breasts, my hips, my height… Not passing is very literally “sticking out.” Unfortunately, those dangers can be real. But they’re also shared. People carrying a lot of weight on their bodies, people with certain disabilities, and racial minorities can all have little choice but to stick out sometimes.

Try: Take your safety seriously, but do what you can not to let your body bear the full weight of society’s hate. You may find it helps to take time totally away from the possibility of human judgment, such as in nature. No chance of someone coming to talk to you, no hint of websites where real humans hash out a worldview. Or you might find that it’s better to stay busy and easier to go places with a friend, chatting to take your mind off things, knowing for sure that one person respects your gender, and having backup if something goes bad.

Feelings about gender run deep for many people, and become mixed with all kinds of things, and can change. And none of it seems to be reflected at all in the uncomplicated cis experiences and ideas of gender you hear about. (That doesn’t mean cis people don’t have other very complicated feelings and struggles, just that they aren’t aware of an analog in their experience for this particular one and therefore don’t understand it.) However, that may be for a different reason than you think. Studies show that high percentages of cis people have fantasies and feelings about being another gender. So what they don’t understand may be the magnitude and importance of your feelings.

Confusion is no surprise in that landscape, either, with no sharp line on the spectrum between “cis” and “trans.” It’s unrealistic to expect an objectively correct label. Labels help us communicate, which can be life-changing, but they’re still just people dividing up in different ways a gender space that exists in more dimensions. Not having a clear description of these feelings is the natural state. The trans community has only recently started to create language and concepts around it, and there are certainly concepts yet to be discovered.

Notice: How the framing of “figuring out your identity” creates pressure. Identity sounds important, right? Identity theft is really bad. How are you supposed to think of yourself if you don’t know what your name and pronouns are? But even when your gender is in a state of total limbo, you still exist and have preferences and a personality and, hopefully, human connections. It may help to use a gender-neutral nickname for a while and remind yourself of something else that’s important to you: “I’m Red and Red loves to draw.” Aside from self-concept, gender is just a matter of what (clothes, pronouns, etc.) makes you happy and unhappy, and those things will always show themselves in time (even if it’s not very consistent — you might be genderfluid, and that’s okay). There can also be other things that make you happy in the meantime. (If there aren’t, that needs some attention too.)

Perhaps the most discussed, doubt is a stage many people had to pass through before addressing gender dysphoria at all. Today there are lots of great articles about how you don’t need complete certainty to experiment with gender. The Null HypotheCis points out that it would be just as hard to prove that you’re cis beyond a shadow of a doubt as it is to erase all doubts that you’re trans. Regardless of what you believe about “real trans” and “fake trans,” trans people don’t “own” any gender-related behavior. First steps like binders or breast forms, clothing, makeup, and pronouns are not service dogs that need special exemptions, they’re just things you can choose in life. In fact, unless you’re really reinforcing certain stereotypes or being pushy with other people, visibly trans people benefit when you experiment with gender, akin to the “curb cut” effect.

Ultimately, you can’t fully separate gender from feelings. One reason some people call themselves “transsexual rather than transgender” is to put it only in the realm of the body, because things in the mind are always a little bit fuzzy. But even if you take a hardline stance, you’re relying on subjective self-reports. Given the reality that we don’t have the ability to say for sure whether someone is transgender, it’s not fair to say someone who doesn’t feel certain ways can’t alter their gender presentation for their own reasons, even if they really do just want to be special or to be more popular on Twitch.

Of course, it is fair to say people who aren’t completely certain should be aware of the possibility of regretting medical procedures. It’s a big decision to get to choose, in some ways, your body for the rest of your life. Although previous generations’ transgender experiences were harder in other ways, they didn’t have to worry about picking a bodily gender at the age of 16. It’s no wonder it feels like a big deal.

Try: It’s good to read some detransitioners’ stories, but if you catch yourself in an unhealthy binge or doubt spiral, you need to step back. Your own answer isn’t out there somewhere else to find. (It’s not “out there” for a professional to give you either! People who detransition are often ones who had a trans narrative projected on them by an authority.) Give yourself some mentally quiet space and focus on…

  • Trying different things to experiment with the feelings you’re having without attaching yourself to a single model — maybe what’s happening is the thing people call “trans,” or maybe it’s something else, like “my aesthetic,” or “my alter ego,” or maybe you’ll have to make your own totally new model of what being non-binary means to you. In a perfect world, what kind of narrative would you want to be offered?
  • Thinking about something unrelated to gender for now and letting it resolve in your unconscious.
  • Getting in touch with self-awareness in general. Imagine your thoughts slowing way down until they stop. What do you notice in the quiet? If there were something under that particular thought, what would it be? Never be afraid to look into your feelings. The worst that can happen in this case is certainty: “I’m not really trans, now I have to stop” or “I’m definitely trans, now I have to transition.” But you’re still allowed to transition no matter how you feel or to take time coming to terms with it for as long as you’re comfortable.

Envy in the context of gender dysphoria tends to develop over time. Those who remain closeted come to resent those who don’t, and those who transition compare themselves more directly to cis people as their transition progresses. Some people are also more prone to envy than others. Don’t worry, that doesn’t make you a hateful person. It’s a feeling that we can choose to act on or not. Even intense envy is most often invisible to others or read as other forms of disgruntlement or interest. We can also choose to let our envy guide us to sensitivity to others’ envy. Not a lot of people can do that on purpose!

It’s not uncommon to come to envy nearly every member of an entire gender. This is obviously a very painful state of affairs and can lead to isolation. Some trans people specifically envy cis people, trans people, childhood experiences, or certain features they really desire.

Notice: With any kind of envy — not just among transgender people! — the object of our envy feels more valued, loved, or rewarded than it actually is because we’re unconsciously projecting our own attention to it into the world. This is part of why the grass is always greener on the other side. Some of this attention belongs on the outside world, but I bet some self-love is also bundled up in there. Self-love feels a bit different from both self-acceptance and self-admiration. Part of it is realizing and being able to feel that that other people have positive views of you that are as real and solid as your positive (or envious) views of others and are still there even when they aren’t saying them. (It doesn’t matter if you would envy you. Other people don’t have to judge you in the same way.) In this case, there are people somewhere who, if they talk to you when you’re expressing yourself fully, can’t help but see your gender and the inner truth that you project. If you can find and spend time with those people, you’ll start to internalize that.

“It’ll feel so free and easy when I can take my shirt off in the summer.” Or, for those transitioning in the other direction, with apologies for the sudden whiplash: “God, I wish I had nice breasts.” Or, more neutrally, “One day I’ll pass and can go anywhere and no one will question me.” Non-binary people might have their own ideal, or conflicting desires. Binary folks sometimes do too, such as sometimes wanting to be “thick” or “built” and sometimes wanting to be thin. That’s normal — many cis people compare themselves to multiple conflicting ideals too.

Longing can be distracting and consuming. It takes you out of the now because that’s what it’s designed to do — the now is painful, so we think about something else. Happy people do a lot of looking forward to things, but if you don’t have the experience of getting things you’ve looked forward to much, this is a broken cycle and you feel unsatisfied.

Try: That means it’s not your fault you’re thinking this way, and it’s tough to focus on and improve your “now,” but also that it’s important! Foundational fat acceptance article The Fantasy of Being Thin talks about how many things in life people put off until their body feels acceptable, appropriate, deserving, fixed. Of course, fat acceptance advocates don’t believe their bodies are unacceptable, inappropriate, undeserving, or need to be fixed, whereas trans people have defended their right to feel some of those ways. But fat acceptance advocates also make the point that even if your body did need to be fixed, that wouldn’t mean others should treat you badly or that you shouldn’t be happy.

Are there elements of the picture you long for that can be separated from the fantasy, in the Fantasy of Being Thin sense, where all the factors are perfect? For example, right now you can’t take your shirt off in the summer. But can you go to the beach anyway? Can you feel free and easy, and not overheated by your binder and top, when you’re in the water? Can you have a great time with your friends and take your mind off things? Note how this exercise brings up other things that are missing, like maybe you don’t have a group of friends you enjoy hanging out with. Coming to terms with that can be depressing, but acknowledging the problem didn’t create it. It just means you can fight for your happiness on more than one front. And, yes, it’s common and normal these days to have several fronts to fight on.

Frustration builds when desires are left unexpressed and unfulfilled, including when others don’t respond to you the way you wish they would. It feels like running up against a wall. Sometimes that represents a real social barrier. Other times we imagine more of one than there is.

Part of what’s so frustrating is the feeling that others’ desires are expressed and fulfilled. Thinking in terms of cis and trans people encourages the thought that most of the world has strong and vital gender desires fulfilled every day. But people vary both in kind of gender and intensity of gender. People who transition are likely to have both a strong and a different-from-assigned sense of gender. People who don’t have a strong sense of gender may have other deep desires. (It’s also possible to be cis and not get much gender validation, such as by being isolated, or by looking or acting too much like a different gender.)

On a blog that has since been taken down for the author’s own reasons*, one trans person wrote, “Many trans people talk about dysphoria as if it is some mysterious thing, that cannot possibly be comprehended by others. Having experienced gender dysphoria, I actually think it is a very ordinary thing. It is the discrepancy between how one would like the world to be and how the world is. You want your body to be one way, and it is a different way. You want to be treated in one way and you are treated in a different way. You want to be seen in one way, and you are seen a different way. This is really a universal experience, shared by all human beings. I find it helpful to see that, it helps to create empathy and compassion, rather than separation and isolation.”

*Based on those reasons, I believe reproducing this quote here to be unobjectionable. If I find out otherwise, I will remove or paraphrase it.

Notice: Who else is not getting what they care very much about? You can probably name a group whose marginalization includes frustration, such as disabled people who can’t go to a place they would like to. But don’t stop there and don’t get into the “oppression Olympics.” This is a universal experience, remember? People in unrequited love, people whose kids don’t talk to them anymore (even if some of them deserve it!), people who are huge fans of a TV show that gets cancelled, people who want to be popular on YouTube. My personal favorite is people auditioning to become princesses at Disney World. Their passion is boundless. Can you imagine if your favorite thing had a park the size of Disney World? And most of them don’t even get their foot in the door. (The vast majority of cis women will never meet the appearance requirements to do that either, by the way.)

Judith Butler said about grief that “I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself.”
“If only…” If only I were cis, if only I had realized earlier, if only my parents had accepted me, then I could have been happy… right? This is a powerful feeling that must be worked through. However, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth. Lots of people who had those things are miserable, some of them even for similar reasons. The depths of teenage girls’ body hate could fill volumes. You might be surprised how conditional cis guys’ masculinity can feel. I’ve heard tales of trans women who started hormones early and still didn’t pass, people discovering after transition that their dysphoria was really non-binary and they went too far, and, yes, people whose relationship to gender changed and made them regret a medical decision, even with no warning or history of gender fluidity. Gender is a complex and mysterious thing, right? Detransitioners often feel a lot of grief too. There may not have been a surefire choice you could have known at the time.

Try: Warning — grief work is one of those things that brings things up. Take it slowly, use your best judgment, have someone with you if you trust them to both handle its impact on themselves and support you in the way you need, and don’t do it if you don’t feel ready.

Adam Blatner says about grief: “Just as the body heals if certain conditions are met, so will the mind heal. A bodily wound will heal if:(1) the foreign material is cleaned out, (2) the edges of the wound are brought back together, and (3)the body is given the proper nutrients.The wound of psychosocial loss will also heal if (1) unnecessary contaminants such as unreasonable guilts and resentments can be worked through; (2) the individual is prevented from feeling isolated and helped to feel connected to others; .. and (3) the person can be helped to tap into the psychological “nutrients” that come from some kind of positive outlook on life.”

You might resent not being told sooner that transition was possible or might be right for you, or the way people in your life or society reacted. Or you might wonder “Why me? Why couldn’t I have just been cis?” Or maybe you resent others’ indifference to the depths of your need. Even those who view trans people as a group extremely in need of support generally don’t have a grasp of the day-to-day landscape of gender dysphoria. Working through unnecessary resentments means acknowledging that they just don’t have a way of grasping it. They can only see that you’re unhappy and perhaps reaching out for some reassurance at one moment. By acknowledging that there are groups you don’t know how to best support too, you can come to an understanding in which it’s both reasonable for you to have a deep need and unreasonable for others to be able to take care of it, and give it the love it needs on your own or with the help of a partner or professional. Yes, this is unfair, and I’m not saying that’s right. I am saying it’s an experience that others share, that you’re not alone and in good company in.

To feel connected to others, you don’t need them to anticipate every need you have, but you probably do need a space where you can present publically as who you are. Unfortunately, no change in yourself will magically erase people’s biases, but depending on your circumstances, building confidence and resilience may help you get your true self out of isolation. This also helps with having some kind of positive outlook on life. You’ve probably noticed that validation in the present has a positive effect on grief in the past, even though it doesn’t fully fill the void. A positive outlook could also be hope, that even if things are bad now they can get better in the future. (Even if you only want to pass and think it’s hopeless, think of all the social opportunities there will be in virtual reality ten or twenty years from now! Voice changing software and all. It’s getting better.)

Disappointment and Hopelessness
Disappointment is when the grass isn’t greener. Maybe you know you’ve passed in a new social situation and nothing changed. Maybe you took a selfie you thought was unexpectedly good and it didn’t get any attention. Or maybe after years of hormones, or a surgery, it just hasn’t done the job you’d like. Hopelessness is despair at the idea that it will be that way forever.

Notice: Disappointment is created by an expectation — but you knew that already. You have expectations because you can’t help but hope, because the alternative would be ennui or misery. Hopelessness happens when hoping and being disappointed is causing more pain than not hoping. It’s a feeling state that adds additional pain to reinforce itself. I’m not saying bad feelings are easy to ignore or aren’t a big deal — they are! The ultimate goal of almost everything humans do is the happiness of themselves or others! — but how it feels in the grips of hopelessness isn’t actually how it will feel forever if things don’t change.

What other feelings can you observe and name?