When Does Self-Image Catch Up With Transition?

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 Others don’t see me through the filter of that outdated likeness.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?

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10 comments

  1. Lesboi

    I, personally, don’t feel that my self perception has ever lined up with society’s perception of me. I am pre medical transition and still have my female parts so I am perceived, usually, as a middle aged woman. I am always startled and alarmed when someone refers to me in this way and goes further with making assumptions about the ages of my hypothetical children and where my hypothetical husband must work. I don’t know how I will feel once these assumptions and misconceptions are no longer part of my experience but I do know that I won’t miss them. I avoid mirrors and hate having photos taken because I don’t want to be reminded of my misalignment. I think my assumption is that once the alignment is closer I will feel a relief but I won’t be able to know that for sure until it happens. At this point I would say that my transition lags behind my self perception.

    • rimonim

      That makes perfect sense–I also never saw myself as really female & felt disoriented when confronted with others’ assumptions. I didn’t realize how much my assigned sex/years of dysphoria affected my self-concept til well into transition. Almost like my self-image was ahead of my transition, but eventually my transition overtook it somehow.

      I hope you find that relief soon!

      • Lesboi

        Thanks, me too! This is actually something I’ve thought about quite a bit and I have to admit that I feel a great deal of fear about the “death” of my past and current self as you mentioned before. Even though it hasn’t been comfortable it is all that I’ve ever known so there is great trepidation about allowing myself to transform into who I feel I really am. It seems strange but I think it’s like you said that all of those years of dysphoria have affected my self-concept and it’s a jail that I’ve become quite accustomed to. Breaking free isn’t as easy for a 52 year old as it might have been 30 years ago.

      • rimonim

        I admire your courage at asking these questions in your stage of life; that sounds very difficult. I think some people go their whole lives without so much as tiptoeing into that kind of change. It’s terrifying–and it’s also the kind of radical encounter with life that makes life worth living.

      • Lesboi

        I agree completely with everything you said! For me, though, it is not such a new thing. I’ve been on a quest since my late 20’s to understand myself better and grow as a person. I had no idea that the quest would take me here, but here I am nearly 30 years later. I guess the light comes on when the light is ready and not a second earlier.

  2. genderneutral

    I keep pondering this question. Very much appreciate Lesboi’s experience. I recall this weekend looking in the mirror and seeing me. Seeing the me I have always seen myself to be, who I feel me to be in my skin. I see energetically often and this is part of what I am saying here is seeing my energy body as well as my physical body. How to articulate this? Three months on T, no surgery (tho small boobs from a boob job for back pain), … perhaps because the binary male – female has never worked for me, I stopped a long time ago looking at my body as a gender specific thing. so I look at myself and I see myself. I see my core, my light, my essence radiating. I do radiate brighter now, stronger. And the radiance is still me.

    I guess what I am getting at is I still struggle to perceive myself as either male or female. I struggled for years with living in a female form and somehow escaped the struggle by letting go of attending to anything gender specific. it would also be a lie to say I am not reveling in the changes I am experiencing in my body including those that can be seen by me and others.

    and this is where I get caught over and over – you ask of self-image and when does it catch up with transition or visa versa. There is self image and body image. I hear self image and I think who am I. I hear body image and I think how do I look. On the self side of things I am who I am and yes somehow more energetically fully now as I transition. There is no lag. Body image is something else. Like Lesboi the transition hasn’t caught up with me yet on the body image level.

    But self, the who am I self, does this ever really change? yes we become stronger fuller ourselves as we embody our true form. But does the core self really change? Curious of your thoughts on the difference here and your sense of self in transition.

    • rimonim

      I like your distinction between “body image” and “self image.” In the post, I think I was describing both body image and a kind of social self-image–how one perceives one’s own sexed body and one’s own gendered social existence–the condition of being a boy or girl, man or woman, or something different. I would draw a distinction between those and what you call the core self. I like your description of the core self as an unchanging essence that shines more brightly as we bring our physical and social selves into better alignment with it.

      I also see different layers even within this core self. Perhaps, on one level, a kind of personal essence, the wellspring of a person’s masculinity/femininity/androgyny and other deeply rooted qualities. I think this part of ourselves does change–it is shaped by experiences, relationships, culture, etc. For example, I feel I have a very Jewish masculine energy, and I feel my masculine energy is transforming from a more boyish to a more manly variety. However, this self cannot be changed by us, by any act of will.

      Deeper than this personal essence is the truly unchanging core, our bare essence beings. Deeper than “who I am,” simply “I am”–the self that is no self.

    • Astrid

      I find genderneutral’s experience quite interesting. I am a cis woman, but I identify as mid-continuum multiple (all female) and have experienced incongruence in other respects (eg. age and (dis)ability). I am blind so can’t see myself in the mirror, but I’d hear myself speak sometimes or feel my body and it would not feel the same as others perceive me and usually not feel “me”. In fact, perceiving “me” sounds totally alien to me. Of course this is common with body image issues, but I think it goes on a higher level when you’re incongurent in some respect and I’m not at all claiming to understand what it’s like to experience gender incongruence. Having never undergone a drastic transition like sex reassignment surgery, I cannot understand what it is like being perceived radically different post- vs. pre-transition.

  3. genderneutral

    Beautifully said. Our essences do evolve and grow and therefore manifest differently. And there is the core “I am” (so ham) the self that is no self. Yes.

    And yes, you were speaking of body image and social self image. I get caught in the use of self. Great inquiry.

    Fortunately I have lived a very out of the box existence and my transitions unfolding feels aligned in so many ways. And I know when I have top surgery there will be a whole other experience of alignment and congruity that is presently missing.

    I appreciate the thoughtful and inquisitive posts!

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