A How to (get started) Guide
By: Donna Lynn Matthews, April 2006, revized January 2019
Yes, I know – a rather presumptuous title. However, this is a recurring theme amongst trans people – learning to accept ourselves. I wrote this in 2006, after having commented in online forums that there was no ‘How To’ guide with respect to self acceptance – so I decided to change that.
What follows is boiled down from my own experiences and observations, some of which can be found in other articles and posts I’ve written. I pulled this together, omitting much of the ‘theory’ and ‘philosophy’ I usually include, to present this in as accessible a form as I can. And while this was written very much from the perspective of coming to terms with and accepting myself as a transgender individual, the logic here can apply to a much broader audience.
So without further ado…
Who do we think we are?
We all have an identity – at least we think we do. We will rattle off a laundry list of traits, attributes, beliefs and the like – claiming all of it to be who we are. However, if we start to examine this, we will discover that most, if not all of what we claim as aspects of our identity, who we are, are ideas, constructs, beliefs, and such which we have adopted as our own. Even those new ‘ideas’ we have are in fact based on other information we have borrowed from the world around us.
The core of our sense of self, our identity, is largely given to us. We are born, a doctor looks us over and declares that we are either a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ – and from that day on, we are guided (or trained) to be just that: either a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. This is something over which we have almost no control. As a result, this part of our ‘identity’ is, in effect, dictated to us, and we grow up believing that this is who we are supposed to be. To be a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ was not our idea. As babies, we have no gendered sense of self; this is something taught to us. And still, we grow up feeling different and somehow disconnected from what we are supposed to be. Finally, in an attempt to cope with this, we will often develop another identity altogether.
And just how many people are in there?
n.b: Please do excuse the hyperbole. 🙂
We all have an identity – or two. At some point, we develop this other persona who now becomes the embodiment of all of these ‘other’ feelings. We wind up with Mr. Man: this masculine side, who likes beer, sports, and power tools. And we wind up with Ms. Woman: this feminine side, who likes bubble baths, pretty dresses and shopping a good sale.
As a coping mechanism, sectioning off all these ‘other and different’ feelings works because it allows us the illusion of normalcy. We can look like, act like, and think like all the other ‘men’ and ‘women’ without those pesky ‘feelings’ getting in the way. It allows us, for a while, to be like everyone else.
But, doesn’t ‘Ms. Woman’ ever watch a ball game? Doesn’t ‘Mr. Man’ ever want to ‘look nice’?
Don’t they both ever go shopping together?
As time goes on, both ‘sides’ will begin to seep into each other. The thoughts and feelings of the one begin to encroach upon the other until we have to realize that there is no other ‘side’ – no other persona. All the thoughts and the feelings are those of one person, and they have been there our entire life, we just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) accept them as being something belonging to us.
Dealing with the “Why” question
And while all this is going on, we continue to ponder, obsess over, one question:
Why am I like this?
It’s a valid question: we want a reason for feeling as we do and being as we are. The problem with this is that we tend to get bogged down in this, almost to the point of obsession. The first thing we need to realize is that we are as we are and answering the ‘why’ question will not change that fact. This does not mean that we should stop questioning and learning, it simply means that we will most likely never get a complete and personally satisfactory answer. We will get theories and conjecture – some better than others – but we should not expect to ever get a true explanation. Some things just simply are.
Understanding the guilt and shame
“If I only understood why I’m like this, I wouldn’t feel so bad about myself.” Yes, we tend to be very hard on ourselves. There is a lot of guilt and shame that comes with being who we are, and while it is inevitable, it need not be permanent. What we need to do is understand what guilt and shame are, and what the feelings mean.
We all have a set of internal ideals that govern how we live our lives. We interpret these ideals largely in the form of ‘ought to’: I ought to be good, respectful, law-abiding, etc. ‘Ought to’ rules amount to a set of standards we establish for ourselves. When we fail to meet those standards, when we ‘fall short’ of our own expectations, we feel guilty. In short, we have let ourselves down.
‘Ought to’ rarely carries with it a fear of punishment, that is what the ‘must’ rules are for. ‘Must’ rules are usually defined in the form of ‘you must do x or else y will happen’, with y usually being some form of punishment. These ‘must’ rules amount to behavioral control: to avoid punishment, I ‘must’ do the following.
Included in this set of internal ideals is how we feel we should be with regards to our gender. Everyone has an image of the ideal ‘man’ or ‘woman’, and they strive to live up to that image. In our case, though, we have two ideals: ideal ‘man’ or ‘woman’ we were taught to be – and the ideal ‘person’ whom we see ourselves to be. This is where our trouble starts. We feel guilty and ashamed when we fail to live up to the expectations of being the ‘man’ or ‘woman’ we are supposed to be. From a social perspective, we see ourselves as failures. At the same time, we feel guilty and ashamed when we fail to be what we see as ‘true’ to ourselves. We are in a double bind here, a no win situation. For us, who we are supposed to be and who we feel we are wind up in opposition to each other.
We already know that being who we are supposed to be just feels wrong to us, regardless of how we were raised. And yet, acting in opposition to our socialization feels wrong as well. This is where many of us get stuck: we sneak around, do our thing, and hate ourselves afterwards. We purge and/or try to deny our feelings, and hate ourselves for it. We repeat this for years, sometimes our entire lives. We become trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame from which there is seemingly no escape.
Breaking the Cycle
This is where it gets difficult. There is a way out of the cycle, but it requires that we accept something which we spent our entire lives fighting:
We will never be normal.
‘Normal’ here is defined as being that person whom we were told we were supposed to be: the ‘man’ or ‘woman’ we have spent our lives trying to be. We will never live up to the expectations of ourselves or society in this respect.
Consider for a moment what this means. We spend our lives wanting to fit in, to not be different. Yet, despite our best efforts, we never seem to be able to get there. Acceptance that we will never ‘fit in’ as we have envisioned it is a painful realization. For some, it represents a lifetime of futility. For others, it seems like a life sentence in exile. Without the illusion of ‘normalcy’ behind which to hide, in almost all cases we are left completely exposed for the first time.
Recall that guilt we felt? The guilt of not living up to being who we are supposed to be? Once we accept that we will never be that person, what is out motivation to continue to feel guilty over it? The reality is that this was unreasonable expectation. It was someone else’s expectation of how we should be. It was someone else’s interpretation of how we should be.
This is an important point to understand because up until now, we have been judging ourselves, our worth as a person, by someone else’s standards. We have denied the value and worth of our own feelings in favor of those of others. We have allowed powers outside of ourselves dictate to us how we ought to be. The recognition that we have been trying to live up to one possible interpretation of how we ought to be opens the door for the realization that there are other possible interpretations of how we ought to be – including our own, whatever that may be.
What we now have is an opportunity we did not previously have. By letting go of the assigned identity of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, we now have the opportunity to become the person what we have denied and suppressed for so long. That person could be very much like our ‘assigned’ selves or they could be radically different. We may look to change many aspects of our self or just a few – or none.
Accepting ourselves does not mean that we have to do anything special. In fact, we may not change anything other than the way that we perceive ourselves… Which is perhaps the most important change of all.
All my progress has been an attempting and a questioning – and truly, one has to learn how to answer such questioning! That however – is to my taste: not good taste, not bad taste, but my taste, which I no longer conceal and of which I am no longer ashamed.
‘This – is now my way: where is yours?’ Thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way – does not exist!
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
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