What stories do you tell yourself about yourself?
This question was suggested to me by an article about high school. Many of our character traits are solidified during those years, and new research suggests that many of us continue to see the world for the rest of our lives through filters we adopt in our adolescence. (Someone needed to do research to figure this out?)
Like most everybody, I think I succumbed to this phenomenon for many years, though I also think that I managed to break it at a very specific point. Roughly 15 years ago I went through a period when I realized that I was holding views of myself that were unproductive and not necessarily founded on anything concrete. I found myself in self-defeating thought patterns which had not changed for decades, and I made a conscious attempt to change them.
It worked. At the age of 35 I broke a lot of those old patterns and stepped out from under oppressive self-image deficiencies. The world looked like a different place, and my life changed markedly — for the better.
Now I find that I’m asking the same questions again, only this time about my gender discomfort.
The old story I told myself, the one that was with me from adolescence and before, but which solidified during my twenties, was that I was merely a happy crossdresser. That conclusion emerged as I continued to be affected by gender confusion, but did not identify with those who felt they had been “born in the wrong body” or felt like “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” I accepted that I simply found some pleasure, and relief from the gender discomfort, through crossdressing.
Notable in this narrative was that I was most definitely not transsexual. I was happy with my genitals, got lots of pleasure from them, and did not see a need for either physical or social transition. I was happy to just crossdress now and then, and fantasize about transition (daily). I acknowledged that, were it easy and painless and cheap, I would transition to womanhood in an instant. But because I was not desperate or depressed or wealthy or suicidal, I would have no interest in the massive life disruption that transition would create. I also wanted to have children — genetic children — and could not see how that would ever be possible after transition.
Now, that old narrative is gone. I no longer tell myself that story. And I’m in the process of writing its replacement, and figuring out the ramifications of the new story and whether the new narrative which is forming makes things better or worse.
In the new narrative, I’m clearly transgendered, and have always been. And while still not exactly needing to transition (still lacking in any sense of desperation), I admit that I’m wanting it as a way of fully realizing who I am capable of being. The story I’m telling myself now is that I have denied my need for gender change based on aversion for disruption. Had I been more willing to accept disruption, I would never have settled on my former narrative, and instead done what felt desirable despite never feeling like it was necessary.
Partly, this self-denial has to do with the narratives that other transsexuals tended to tell in public, narratives which I never truly identified with. But we now know that the old standards of care for those experiencing gender discomfort forced many transsexuals to modify their stories in order to get the desired treatments. Sensationalist talk shows also distilled these narratives down even further, to the point where money could be made from splashy tag lines on the previews for tomorrow’s show. The ripple effect of all that is still reverberating, and I am one victim of that phenomenon. This is, at least, part of my new narrative.
Let me quickly point out that using the word “victim” can have all sorts of connotations that I do not intend. There is merely a cause and effect at work, but I do not consider that some system “victimized” me. I have no bitterness about how this has played out, only some sadness that, had I recognized what was happening earlier, I might have spent a few more years living the life I expect to prefer. But the sadness is slight because the life I’ve actually had in the meantime has been pretty damn good (including a wonderful spouse and two amazing children).
But before I settle on my new story completely, let me at least consider another possibility. What if I were to tell myself a different story about myself now? What if I were to tell myself that my enjoyment of crossdressing was just some sort of feedback loop created in the pleasure centers of my brain?
It’s reasonable to think that something happened when I was a child and I got a burst of pleasant brain juice when I first encountered satin fabric (which I did while playing hide-and-seek with my brothers; I hid among my aunt’s prom dresses). I associated the fabric and clothing with the feeling of pleasure and began repeating the activity to enjoy the feeling (which I most definitely did — both repeat and enjoy).
Then suppose that the narrative continues through the inevitable lessening of the effect, to the seeking of an escalation in order to continue the experience (I started actually putting on the clothing instead of just being near it). This led to further and further escalation through the course of my life, to the point where now I need to actually plan transition to womanhood in order to get the same level of pleasure as before.
If I told myself this story, instead of the one about having been a transsexual in denial for all those years, would I still be considering the path of transition? Or would I be looking for ways to break the cycle, which is tantamount to an addiction of sorts?
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter. And I’m convinced that some of our problems can actually be solved, or at least reduced, by modifying the stories we tell. They can also be made worse.
The only option we have is to try out the alternatives and be as honest as we can. It’s clear that, at least to a certain extent, we choose how to talk to ourselves, and we choose the contexts in which we will understand our own lives, and which will then impact our decision-making.
Right now, I’m comfortable, even giddy, about telling myself the story about being a transsexual who has finally shaken off denial. But that comes with life complications. It is quite likely that I could avoid those complications by telling myself the alternate story, that I have simply been acting all these years out of a mistake of thinking — a pleasure center feedback loop created accidentally by something which happened when I was very young.
Telling myself the latter story could actually bring me down off the cusp of transition. But it would have costs — great costs. An avenue of great joy in my life would be closed. A large part of who I consider myself to be would have to be amputated.
It would also take an effort perhaps greater than the one I’m already expending to bring about transition. In some ways, the transsexual narrative I tell myself, while also feeling the most authentic, may be the simplest. I’m already primed to go down that path, and reversing course — a very sad thought — may not even be an option.