April 9, 2012

A Transgender Psychology 1: The Role of the Unconscious

Transgender people need a language that can be used to describe their feelings. In a series of posts I will see it it is possible to use Carl Gustav Jung's model of the psyche as a tool for understanding the various transgender conditions.

Transgender crossdreamers, crossdressers and transsexuals may go through periods of emotional pain and confusion.

The most scary part of their experience is the fact that they lack the language needed to make sense of it all. Their surrounding culture -- family and friends -- have no idea about what they are going through, as they all lack the necessary reference points.

Fear and loathing

For crossdreamers this is especially difficult, for the simple reason that sex is defined as a unique and separate sphere of living in Western culture. In spite of all the talk of sexual liberation and tolerance, sex remains sullied and unclean in the minds of many, especially the kind of sexual fantasies and practices that lie outside the limited repertoire of traditional vanilla marriages.

Indeed, to the extent other people do have concepts of men and women getting excited about the idea of being the other sex, these are often followed by feelings of revulsion and contempt. Most transgender therefore go through periods in life where they try to forget or suppress their feelings.

At this moment in time the only transgender narrative that is accepted by society at large, is the classical transsexual narrative. This is the story where a person completely and unequivocally identifies with the culturally defined gender role of the opposite sex, and who -- without any doubt -- express a wish to transition.

The "ideal" transgender is a therefore a person who never has had any doubts about his or her cross-sexual identity, even as a child, and who therefore can use the  traditional language of sex and gender to express his or her feelings. Moreover, he or she is very careful not to talk about his or her sexual desires.

In fact, the reason so many seem to accept this narrative is that it is not a threat to the dominating ideas of gender roles and sex identity. Homosexuality is much more threatening, as is any fantasy or identity that blurs the line between men and women.

The traditional narrative is of no help

The acceptance of the woman trapped in a man's body (or man trapped in a woman's body) narrative is of little help to most transgender people, the ones who go through long periods of doubt and confusion, and where the cross-sexual identity is only partially expressed or acknowledged. Besides, for some the identity of sex and gender never becomes a clear cut choice between male or female.

We need a language that can be used to describe the emotional experiences of transgender men and women. We need a language that can help us  navigate the turmoil and the pain.

In this respect the categories found in most of psychiatry and sexology is of little help, as most of them sort the transgender into neat boxes based on external, observable, signs, and not their own life experience.

Moreover, traditional categories are most often static, and do not capture the fact that most transgender people are on a journey, where their understanding of themselves and others change throughout life.

Although I in no way not accept every tenet of Carl Gustav Jung's models, I think his work may be used as a starting point for the development of a transgender language of the mind. The following is my attempt of adapting Jung to a transgender context.

Yes, these discussions are  speculative. Modern science has in no way managed to develop a model that captures the complexity of the various transgender conditions, or the complexity of the interaction between genetic, hormonal, cultural and psychological factors.

All the studies I have seen so far are speculative. Indeed, they  have to be so, due to the lack of uncontested empirical evidence. In this context  experienced based input from transgender people should be useful, both for other transgender people, researchers and therapists.

Carl Gustav Jung 

Carl Gustav Jung was a Swizz psychiatrist born in 1875 in Kesswill. He is the founder of analytical psychology, which grew out of the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud and his own life experiences.

When Jung died in 1961 he had already an tremendous influence on Western thinking. However, his theory of archetypes has played a more important role in the studies of art and myths than in hard core psychiatry.

The fact that he has been embraced by sections of the so-called "New Age" movement has also undermined his legitimacy in some circles. (I seriously think that many of them do not understand what Jung was getting at, but that is a discussion for another time...)

For me reading Jung was like opening doors to a hidden part of reality. It changed my outlook on life completely. The main reason was that he gave me keys to decode art, literature and my own psyche.

There  was also another reason: Jung had developed a language that made it possible to discuss the female side of all men and the male side of all women. His philosophy was truly cross-sexual!

(Sidebar: I will use the word cross-sexual to describe the fact that all men have personality traits that are considered feminine by culture and vise versa. I will use the word transgender for those that in one way or the other experience that their own gender or sex is not in alignment with what is considered "normal" gender roles and/or sex identities).

Hard to access

Here's the problem: Jung is not an easy read. Any attempt to popularize his concepts is ultimately will face some serious hurdles.

One of the reasons for this is inherent in his view of the psyche itself: The content of the psyche is fluid and in constant development. Attempting to categorize or typologize the content of the mind is like trying to define the individual waves washing  up on a beach. It is hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

Jung's thinking was also constantly developing, and the message found in one book may be different from the one found in another.

On the other hand: The advantage of using Jung for the analysis of crossdreaming as well as transsexualism is that we all have access to the data. You do not have to autopsy a brain to study the differences between men and women. You can study your own psyche by reflecting on fantasies, dreams and desires.

And you can study the mind of others by analyzing what they say, write and create through their art. In the transgender sphere, I have found that TG fiction, captions (i.e. illustrated short stories), movies and online discussions provide the material you need to get into the minds of crossdreamers.

The unconscious

Jung followed his mentor (and later enemy) Sigmund Freud in developing a dynamic model of the psyche consisting of the conscious and unconscious mind.

The unconscious is often presented as some kind of mysterious "place".

For both Jung and Freud, however, the unconscious was basically processes in the human body of which we are not consciously aware. Freud's long term ambition was to explain psychology through neurology. Jung was convinced that the psyche and the body were two sides of the same phenomenon. To understand the unconscious, you must ultimately understand the body.

For instance: I am not controlling the beating of my heart, but it still goes on beating.

Walking up the stairs is a highly complex balancing act where the brain and the body makes use of signals from the feet, the balancing organs in the ears, the eyes and more. In every second the body makes thousands decisions to stop the body from falling, and I aware of none of them. They are unconscious. And the reason I can walk up the stairs is not that I learned it by reading a book. As a kid I trained, and trained and trained again, unaware of what i was really doing. I was growing and "programming "neurons adapted to this first important balancing act of life.
Carl Gustav Jung

What both Freud and Jung noticed was that there are also other types of behavior of which we are not aware.

A man known for his calm and quiet suddenly lashes out in anger and says things he will later regret. He apologizes: "I did not know what came over me!"

Add a bottle of wine to a man or a woman and another person appears. Where did "he" or "she" come from?

According to Jung what we call "Ich" or "I" in English is just a tiny part of the human psyche.

We may believe we know ourselves. We may believe we are in control of our own lives, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that learning to know our true Selves is a life long and never ending adventure.


Note  that Jung, like Freud, adds a dynamic dimension to the workings of the psyche. Any affect or idea has a certain charge or energy. The energy is expressed in the intensity of -- let's say -- an outburst of anger or the obsessiveness of a sexual infatuation.

In the case of Freud everything is sexually charged by libido. If a desire is suppressed and made unconscious, the associated libido or psychic energy is suppressed with it. However, nature will not be denied, and this energy will try to find a way of expression. If the desire cannot be fulfilled in its original form, it will find another way.

Jung's version the libido is not always sexual in nature.His version of the life force is more generic. Sexual desire is just one of many ways for the libido to find an outlet.

In this he has more in common with post-structuralist thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. They also believe that we are all -- humans and animals -- driven by a basic and generic  desire. Unlike them, however, Jung believes there is some kind of underlying order to the totality of the psyche. There is a goal to psychological development. The psyche is trying to realize some kind of inborn potential.

Jung's energy model is partly based on thermodynamics, which is not completely without problems. Neither the body nor the mind is a really steam engine. Indeed, neither Jung nor Freud is ever able to explain why psychic energy operates in this way. But even if the idea of energy flows (call it "libido", "eros" or desire) is nothing but a metaphor, it has proved to be a very fruitful and helpful one. It makes sense in a therapeutic setting.

Body and soul

Other psychiatrists, like Wilhelm Reich in Germany, Alexander Lowen in the US and Ola Raknes and Trygve Braatøy in Scandinavia, have probably touched upon a reasonable explanation for the dynamic nature of the soul: Repression is not only a matter of the psyche, but of the body.

If boy's are not allowed to cry, they have to repress the urge to cry, and they do so by tensing the muscles in the jaw and by hold back their breathing. Ultimately this muscular tension becomes a second nature, i.e. unconscious.

The tension drains the body and mind for energy, and it influences the interaction between the various parts of the organism. This is partly why psychological suffering often is accompanied by physiological symptoms (skin rashes, muscle aches, ticks, breathing problems etc.).


As far as I can see, all the major schools of psychology and psychiatry operates with some concept of the unconscious, in the sense that human actions may be determined by factors not known by the actor.

Admittedly the extreme behaviorists may deny the existence of the subconscious (as you cannot observe it directly), but their idea of conditioning (i.e. that people develop behavioral patterns on the basis of punishment and reward) does indirectly imply that the subconscious exists.

If a person develops a sense of fear or guilt associated with masturbation in particular or sex in general because his (or her) parents have punished him and her severely and repeatedly when discovered practicing such activities, then that conditioning is unconscious if he is  not able to see the connection between the punishment and his inhibitions.

Transgender in a psychodynamic setting

Jung's theory is a so-called psychodynamic theory. It is dynamic, as opposed to static, in that it tries to encompass the development of the human psyche over time.

If we come back to the classical transsexual narrative mentioned above, we see that it is often presented as static. "I have always felt like this." "I knew I was a girl at the age of three". "All I have to do is to align my physical body with my inner man."

The people who say this are not lying, but it is important to remember that the transsexual journey is full of obstacles, including self deceptions, suppression, lies and confusion. So, even for those who clearly do identify with another sex than the one they were born with, there is a psychological development, revelations, struggles and changes.

For those who cannot be easily put in one of two boxes, blue or pink, this becomes even more apparent. They will have to question not only the very basis of their own being, but the basis of the society they are a part of. Because if what they feel is true, then society is the problem, and not them.

Freud and Jung has shown us that the psyche has an enormous capability for repression. It tries to suppress anything that is in conflict with the ideals of the people you try to befriend. And since we are truly social beings, we all need to belong, we all need the comfort of family and friendship. We start selling our souls to be able to take part in  the comfort of the tribe at a very early age.

Since transgender people challenges the truisms and the prejudices of the day, they are more likely than others to suppress unwanted feelings. Indeed, they are likely to suppress the very core of their being, their true identity, and in doing so they kill off the parts of themselves that give their lives meaning. If you suppress something hard enough, it end up as a a repressed side of your psyche. It becomes part of the unconscious.

I have thought a lot about how many crossdreamers there are out there. One contact point in the TG fiction scene tells me of erotic TG sites and blogs than have more than a million unique visitors every year. These represent only the top of the iceberg.

The people we meet in the discussions taking place on this blog, are at least partly aware or conscious of their transgender side. But I cannot help thinking about all them that have managed to repress it all. I am afraid there must be millions and millions of them out there, all suffering because of an intolerant culture and narrow minded scientists.

If we want to be free, we have to start with ourselves. Think of this discussion as a toolbox for crossdreamer liberation.

Go to part 2.

Index of all Jung posts.

A Carl Jung TV Documentary

Here is the first part of a Carl Jung Documentary that might provide some historical context for you.

Part 2 of the documentary is included in the next post in this series.

For a similar, but alternative take on the psychodynamics of the transgender journey, see Julia Serano's book the Whipping Girl:

Click here for the  Kindle Edition

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!