Transition radically changes the way others perceive us. What about the way we perceive ourselves? Over at Dream Deep, hiddeninyoursoul raises the topic:
I’m still really self-conscious about how I am perceived by others. I still have this picture of myself in my head of me pre-transition. When I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of how I really look. But, I don’t see myself all the time, so the old image of myself is still there most of the day. I think my own perception of myself is taking longer to change than anyone else’s perception of me. It’s something I never thought about before as an aspect of transition. I haven’t seen any others talk about this either in blogs or vlogs.
He is absolutely right that this is a profound, yet seldom discussed, aspect of transition. Knowing one’s identity as a man, woman or non-binary person doesn’t mean actually seeing oneself that way, in the mind or in the mirror. A lifetime of misgendering has a way of getting under your skin.
One way I track my self-perception is by my gender in dreams. My dream gender and dream body always lag behind real life. For years after I first cut my hair, I had recurring nightmares in which my hair was long again. I used to shave my head every time I had the dream. I still have them once in awhile, and I haven’t had long hair in over 8 years. For months and months after chest surgery, I had my pre-operative body again in dreams.
I often realize I am dreaming and find myself arguing with my dreamworld. This isn’t right, I insist. My hair is short. My chest is flat. When I am able to speak up, to dispute this image of myself, I am close changing my self-image. I am 3 1/2 years into medical transition, and most nights, I dream myself as I actually am.
I feel these delays in waking life, too. Like hiddeninyoursoul, I’m sometimes anxious about how others see me, usually because of residual dysphoria in the way I see myself. For example, my body shape is now well within the typical male range. But I still find my eyes lingering around my thighs and butt when I look in the mirror, scrutinizing myself for signs of my pre-transition figure. I also sometimes feel self-conscious about my vocal mannerisms. In both cases, the anxiety comes from an old self-image I hold in my mind. Others don’t see me through the filter of that outdated likeness. Happily, these worries have greatly abated over time.
Self-perception is a messy part of transition. I’m not sure if our self-images ever really catch up. At the core, this comes down to healing from the bizarre, alienating experience of being trans in this society–especially all those experiences before transition. This is the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes I feel haunted by my former, apparently female self. She comes to me, ghost of a teenage girl, my long lost sister, my parasitic twin. She comes weighed down, carrying the hopes, fears and expectations of a family, a society. I see her pain and I try to love her the best I can. I try to hold her lightly, rooted in her unreality: she is not here, she is not anywhere now. Sometimes, there is something sad about that. I almost feel like she is a totally different person, a person who died so I could live. Once somebody looked at my ID at a bar and, seeing my surname, asked me if I were related to her. In my mind, her name is filed alongside other kids from my hometown who’ve died.
The loss of this self can be a spiritual experience. My sense of self has been permanently weakened and destabilized by this staggering practice of transformation. It has revealed a certain absurdity, a certain wild aliveness, everywhere I look. I am slowly realizing that this is a good thing. There is something deeply real about this off-kilter angle on the world. Like a crack in a hallucination, exposing flashes of truth.
Does your self-perception lag behind your transition?