The project of a lifetime: A therapist’s letter to a trans-identified teen


Therapist and Jungian analyst Lisa Marchiano received the following email recently. She and the writer of the email agreed that Lisa would address the author’s questions in a public forum, and the author kindly agreed to allow the email to accompany Lisa’s response.

Lisa can be found on Twitter at @LisaMarchiano. She blogs at theJungSoul.com

Please note that this post is intended for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace professional advice.

Email from a trans-identified teen:

Hello. I’m almost 16 years old and recently I have been reading some of your writing on “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.” Currently I identify as transgender and have for almost 2 years, but as a chronic over-thinker, I like to expose myself to viewpoints and ideas that are different from my own. If my parents knew what ROGD was, they would probably argue that I am in that category. I came out to them about a year ago and I hadn’t shown any gender dysphoria in early childhood. To them, it probably seemed a little “out of the blue,” though I had known for a year before that, had begun to transition (cutting my hair and buying from the men’s section), and had been questioning since puberty. I don’t have any mental or physical health problems, and I have a wide social circle of friends, none of whom are transgender or homosexual (though one of my friends is asexual, and my girlfriend is bisexual). I’m almost positive that I’m transgender, but your writing got me thinking and I have a few questions for you.

If what I am experiencing is ROGD, and simply a coping mechanism for something else, what signs could I look for in myself to figure that out? You talked a lot about the parent’s side of the equation, but what can I, as a trans teen do to ensure that I’m not “tricking” myself into believing this?

When do you believe a trans identity is valid? I certainly don’t disagree with you that there are many teenagers in my generation that are “becoming” trans because it is trendy, having no symptoms of gender dysphoria (I know a person like this). But do you think that trans people need to meet certain criteria to be considered trans and be considered for medical transition? If so, what criteria? Do you believe that gender dysphoria can present itself at puberty?

Thank you for reading and hopefully replying. I really appreciate your time.

Lisa Marchiano’s response:

Thank you for writing me such a thoughtful email, and for your willingness to take the answer here in this public forum. First of all, it goes without saying that this letter can’t take the place of therapy. I can’t diagnose from afar. I am, after all, just a stranger on the internet, and this is just my opinion. I believe it is an informed opinion, but it can’t take the place of discussing important issues face to face with someone who knows you well. Looking at these issues with a qualified therapist who can help you ponder your feelings in an open-ended way without prematurely foreclosing exploration can be very helpful. In addition, I hope you might feel comfortable someday discussing this with your parents. There may be a lot they don’t understand, but it is likely that there is no one on the planet who is more steadfastly on your team than they.

As a Jungian, I see psychological health in terms of a movement toward wholeness. Over the course of our lives, we hopefully integrate more and more aspects of ourselves, including parts that may be “feminine,” and parts that may be “masculine.” This life-long growth process means that we become larger and more complex as we become conscious of more aspects of ourselves. I do not believe that it makes sense to think in terms of identity, as this implies a single, fixed “truth” about ourselves – an endpoint that can be decisively known. Rather, I believe we continue to grow and change throughout our lives.

There is no robust evidence for innate gender identity. Our sense of gender appears to be an emergent property that arises out of a complex interplay between our bodies, our minds, and the social world. Though there is almost certainly a biological component to gender dysphoria, it is also likely shaped by our life history. The way we experience ourselves in terms of gender – that is as more or less male or female or both – is shaped by our family, our wider social network including friends and teachers, and the culture, including advertising, YouTube and other social media. Traumatic experiences, such as the loss of someone close, parental divorce, or emotional, physical or sexual abuse can also affect our experience of our gender.

Can gender dysphoria present for the first time at puberty? Clearly, many young people feel dysphoric at adolescence. Nearly all natal females feel discomfort with their bodies at puberty. I wonder if the question you are asking is whether dysphoria at adolescence but not before means that one shouldn’t identify as trans as a result. I think the answer to that is complicated, and I can’t really answer that for you. Again, this would be something to explore with a therapist who could really get to know your unique situation. Let me just say that based upon my reading of the medical literature, dysphoria presenting for the first time at puberty used to be unusual (but not unheard of) until recently.

Rapid onset gender dysphoria appears to be a relatively new phenomenon, and we don’t understand much about it yet. It appears as though the typical presentation of an ROGD teen involves considerable social influence, either online or by peers, as well as psychiatric comorbidities and/or vulnerabilities. Based on anecdotal reports, many ROGD teens first decide they are trans after reading on the internet. There is very little research on this, but the little there is seems to point to a different outcome for those with ROGD traits (no dysphoria in childhood, higher rates of psychiatric comorbidity, social influence) vs those with the more typical presentation of GD. And outcomes matter, because at the end of the day, we want all people to do as well as possible.

People often come to therapy to explore difficult decisions. I’m going to share a little bit about how I help someone explore their options. If you were to find a therapist to have this discussion with, here are some of the things the two of you might consider together.

There is a difference between what we feel, and what we choose to do about those feelings. I have a passionate conviction that all feelings are valid and important. We should be encouraged to feel them, to take them seriously, to honor them, and to be curious about them. We can take our feelings seriously and acknowledge them as valid without that acknowledgement meaning that we need to take a particular course of action as a result of them. For example – if we are very angry at someone, our feelings of anger are valid and deserve to be felt. What we do about that anger – whether we lash out at the person, for example – is another question entirely. When considering what to do about feelings, I am always interested in whether a given course of action is adaptive or maladaptive.

Let me explain more of what I mean by that. When someone comes to me with a question or a problem, I find it very helpful to examine the issue through the lens of pragmatism. I am interested in identifying what works for this particular person. This means that I ask us to set aside – at least for a moment – judgments based on values, morals, or ideology, and just explore whether a given response works.

What do I mean by “works?” In some sense, we all get to define that for ourselves, and one person’s definition might vary greatly from someone else’s. But we need some firm ground to stand on, so I do have a general answer – something works if it helps you to “do your life.” Freud famously said that the cornerstones of a mentally healthy life are the ability to love and to work, and I think that’s a great place to start. To have a life that is fulfilling, we generally need work that we find meaningful, as well as abiding relationships, at least some of which are truly intimate. I would add a third category to these two: . we can consider that a life strategy works if it is protective of our physical health – or at least not inimical to it. In sum, something works and is adaptive if it doesn’t interfere with our ability to work, to love, and to maintain our health.

Whether identifying as transgender for any individual is adaptive of maladaptive will depend on the person’s particular situation. If we are a natal female who has an inner experience of maleness (and I, in fact, believe that all females have masculine traits, and that our experience of the male side of ourselves can be very important psychologically), then identifying as male could be very liberating, exciting, and growth promoting. It could very well enable someone to engage productively in work and relationships. In this case, a transgender identity would be adaptive.

There could also be cases when identifying as transgender may not be adaptive. Whether it is or not will likely depend in part on how we understand what it means to identify as trans. For example, if part of identifying as transgender means that we need to be perceived as male when we are female bodied, we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable position, as we are giving others power over our sense of ourselves. We can’t control how others see us. Positioning ourselves so that we only feel okay when others perceive and validate us as we want to be perceived, rather than focusing on developing self-acceptance and resilience in the face of slights or rejections, is a decision that may promote worse mental health. This in turn could make it more difficult for us to concentrate at work or school. It might cause us to withdraw from friendships or other important relationships. If this were the case, we might say that our trans identification was proving to be maladaptive.

Furthermore, if identifying as transgender means that we understand ourselves to be literally male when our bodies are female, we may experience cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to the inner tension that we feel when important beliefs are contradicted by evidence. It can be quite uncomfortable. Psychologists have studied those whose strong beliefs are challenged by material evidence. (The theory of cognitive dissonance was developed by a psychologist studying a doomsday cult, and what happened to cult members’ beliefs when the world did not in fact end as their leader had predicted.) They note that we have a tendency to “double down” on our false beliefs in order to resolve the internal tension. Our beliefs become more extreme, and we work even harder internally to justify or reconcile with the challenged belief. (This isn’t just true of cult members. It’s true of every one of us.)

Those who identify as transgender can suffer from pangs of cognitive dissonance. This can often make the dysphoria worse. I have heard many stories from desisters and detransitioners that identifying as transgender made them feel worse, because they then had to deal with a constant tension around the fact that their body looked and acted differently than how they thought it should. This can invite obsessive, perseverative thinking, which can be draining and cause increased distress and anxiety. Adopting a belief that contradicts material reality can be a recipe for unhappiness, as we will likely feel the need to strive to become the thing we are not. This is part of the reason many wisdom traditions and psychotherapy schools direct us to cultivate acceptance of those things we cannot change.

The blogger ladyantitheist articulates the above sentiment eloquently in her post about her trans identification and desistance from it:

One of the biggest problems I think with being transgender is it comes out of an unhappiness, and that the impossibility of the accepted solution amplifies the unhappiness. Having short hair doesn’t give you an Adam’s apple, testosterone injections won’t change your bone structure, a phalloplasty won’t let you produce sperm. The closer you get to the real thing, the further the gap between you and being a real male grows. Freeing yourself from the task of climbing a mountain whose peak can never be summited is your only chance of ever actually being happy. I eventually stopped looking for validation as something I would never be, and started the process of loving myself.

If identifying as transgender amplifies our unhappiness with our bodies, if it causes us to perseverate on features of our bodies which we don’t like, then I would say that doing so is probably not adaptive.

There’s one other major conversation to have when considering whether identifying as transgender works, and that is the matter of maintaining our physical health. If identifying as transgender means that we feel compelled to engage in activities that could cause long-term harm to our body, then it may be maladaptive. Binding can result in collapsed lungs, compressed ribs, and back problems, and some report that they continue to suffer ill effects even after they are no longer binding. Mastectomies remove healthy tissue and can result in painful scarring. Testosterone will result in vaginal atrophy and may damage fertility. It can negatively affect one’s lipid profile, bone density, and liver function. It may increase one’s risk of heart attack and diabetes. There are currently 6,000 cases pending in litigation against drug manufacturers having to do with male bodied people who took testosterone, and experienced blood clots, heart attacks, stroke, and sudden death. Phalloplasty is known to have a high complication rate, and these can be serious and debilitating in some circumstances. If a basic measure of whether something “works” is if it helps us to protect and maintain physical well-being, it would appear that medical transition may not do so in many cases.

Could medical transition ever be adaptive? Yes, I think so. There are trans adults who feel that their capacity to love and work has been enhanced by transition. I suspect that those who benefit from transition have had a good process in which they explored their gender; addressed any underlying issues; and had realistic expectations for the outcomes of transition. Since transition compromises physical health, it is important to carefully consider such a step, and be certain that the benefits will outweigh the considerable known and unknown risks.

I would like to offer another rule of thumb when considering whether a particular life strategy is adaptive or maladaptive. All things being equal, it is better to preserve options and maintain flexibility. This is especially true when we are in the first half of life. When in doubt, leave options open. One of my concerns about medical transition for young people is that it shuts down future options. Having a mastectomy will permanently remove the option of nursing. Taking testosterone may render us infertile. Even if we think we never want to become a parent, there is still a value in protecting the future possibility of doing so. And fertility is not the only option to protect. If a person has taken on a significant transition to another gender expression and then has serious questions about it, they may be faced with even more serious challenges than they had before. Freedom of expression may be seriously, and in some cases, profoundly restricted or limited. Transition does have the potential to seriously limit additional life choices.

We really are all works in progress. Our sense of ourselves will continue to change and shift throughout our lives. It may be tempting to strive for certainty in tumultuous times, but I’d be wary of any urgency. You do actually have time on your side. By staying curious – as you clearly are – and trying out different things, you will gather more and better information in order to help you decide what works for you. One of the helpful things about a pragmatic framework for evaluating life strategies is that it leaves room for things to change. Most strategies don’t work forever. For any decision we make, we can ask ourselves, is this working? And then a few months later, is this still working? If the strategy is benefiting us in living our fullest life more than it is hampering us, we know to continue pursuing it. And if the day comes where we realize the balance of the equation has tipped so that the strategy is more costly than beneficial, then we can abandon it. We need not limit ourselves according to rigid beliefs about what is right or wrong.

While I was working on this letter, I was reading a novel called The Nix by Nathan Hill. The novel is in part the story of a woman named Faye, and it follows her throughout her life as she tries to discover who she truly is. Toward the end of the book, the author makes some comments about how we understand ourselves that I thought were very wise. I’ll let him have the last word.

In the story of the blind men and the elephant, what’s usually ignored is the fact that each man’s description was correct. What Faye won’t understand and may never understand is that there is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many true ones. Yes, she is the meek and shy and industrious student. Yes, she is the panicky and frightened child. Yes, she is the bold and impulsive seductress. Yes, she is the wife, the mother. And many other things as well. Her belief that only one of these is true obscures the larger truth, which was ultimately the problem with the blind men and the elephant. It wasn’t that they were blind – it’s that they stopped too quickly, and so never knew there was a larger truth to grasp…. Seeing ourselves clearly is the project of a lifetime.