April 16, 2012

A Transgender Psychology 2: The Ego and the Complexes

In my first post in this series I argued that there is a need to develop a language that makes it possible for transgender people to analyze and discuss their feelings and experiences.  I proposed that we make use of Carl Gustav Jungs's model of the psyche as a starting point for developing such a language.

Jung's model simplified

I have made an illustration of the model of Jung's in order to speed things up.

Think of the psyche as an onion. The whole onion constitutes the totality of the psyche. This totality, which consists of the psychic content you are aware of, the things you have suppressed and the parts of the psyche you still have not become conscious of,  he calls "the Self".

My interpretation of Jung's model of the psyche.  The sphere represents the totality of the psyche: "the Self".  The "normal" male psyche to the left, the female to the right. Click on image to enlarge!

I have tried hard to find texts where Jung discusses the transgender conditions. The closest I have come is a text where he writes about homosexuality. That text is relevant, and I will discuss it in a separate post, but please note that when I interpret crossdreaming and the transsexual experience within a Jungian framework, that is my interpretation, not Jung's.

The Persona

The outermost layer of the Self, the one directly visible to the world, is the Persona. The persona is the mask we show the world, a reflection of what we would like the world to see.

Jung says:

"The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other hand, to conceal the true nature of the individual." 
(CW 7 paras 305-9)

This is the realm of pretend and white lies. But the persona is also an essential tool for the adult life. It would be very hard to organize a functional society if we all cried out our anger and frustration in the way small children do.

Most transgender people develop the persona the culture surrounding them requires. A male bodied person will develop a male persona, a female bodied person a female persona. Whether they are aware of this or not may vary.

Many -- if not all -- transgender people will feel like they have been forced to play a role that is not meant for them, and the persona becomes a suffocating  mask.  They are not necessarily aware of the reason for this discrepancy, however.

Indeed, many transgender person try desperately to build up an culturally accepted personality by developing a persona that fits perfectly with the cultural clichés of the day. A typical example of this is the male to female crossdreamer who joins the military to toughen up and become "a real man".

The Ego

"Under" the persona we find the "I", which in English makes a good artistic parallel to  "the Eye": This is the one who sees. For some obscure reasons the English translations of "Das Ich" is normally "the Ego". I guess the Brits think Latin makes it all more scientific.

The Ego is the conscious part of who you are. It is the part that most people identify with when they say "I did this."

Most transgender develop a persona that fits their biological sex. When a small boy repeatedly is told that playing with dolls is not OK and that the color pink is not for him, "he" will normally give in in the end and identify with the role assigned to "him".

The reason for this is simple. Children need to belong. They need the love and respect of friends and family. If necessary they will sell their souls in order to feel that kind of safety. The facade they present to society, their persona, is therefore normally in line with the expectations of their parents and playmates.

This need to belong will also often affect the development of their ego, their "I". In other words: A male bodied transgender person will normally succumb to the social pressure and identify as "male" in the end, because his future as a loved human being depends on it.

Gradually the conflict they originally felt is pushed out of the conscious ego and down into the unconscious.

Many transgender male bodied persons do not realize consciously that there is something wrong with this male personality before they get older. From what I can see this  normally happens a few years before puberty, at the time when children start to explore gender roles in earnest, or a little bit later, at the age of puppy love and the sex games of children.

Others realize that something is wrong at an earlier age, and some do not face their buried self before puberty trigger the forces of adult sexual desire.

Non-normative behavior

Among children the feeling of "wrongness" is often expressed as an intense unease from being forced to take part in various gender defined activities. Not all tomboys are transgender, but some of them are.

An amazing number of male to female crossdreamers and crossdressers report that they hated the rough and tumble play of boys when they were young and would rather play with the girls.

Please note that this does not mean that sexual identities necessarily align with gender stereotypes. As I have argued elsewhere, I think the personality profiles of men and women are equally diverse on both sides of the gender divide.

However, I think transgender kids are more likely to interpret their non-conformative behavior as a sign of "wrongness" than other kids that behave in the same way. They sense that there is more to this than a preference for atypical behavior, but has no way of expressing that feeling.

In any case: From what I read and from what I hear from transgender people the sex and gender identity of the ego will vary among transgender persons, all depending on at least four variables:

1. The underpinning nature of their transgender condition. 

Some are truly transsexual, in the sense of having a fundamental sex identity aligned with the opposite sex. Others may have a mixed sex identity, or a sex identity that does not fit contemporary cultural norms.

2. The severity of the cultural pressure to conform. 

Some native American tribes embraced the "two spirited" and gave them special roles in society. We now see modern, open minded, families that allow their children to explore their own identity at their own pace, and it will be interesting to see how that will affect their coping strategies. Most contemporary life stories are, however, dominated by the incomprehension or hostility of parents and friends.

3. Their personality beyond the transgender condition. 

Some people are, for instance, more stubborn than others, or more individualistic. Others have a stronger need to belong, and are therefore more likely to conform.

4. How the transgender condition plays out 

The ego-development will be influenced by the restrictions in bullet point 1, 2 and 3 and the way society reacts towards different ways of expressing the transgender condition. If a transgender person adheres to the classic transsexual narrative, he or she is more likely to be accepted by both health authorities and society at large. If the transgender condition becomes extremely sexualized, the need for suppression becomes even more urgent.

It may be OK for a male bodied person to feel like a woman, as long as she does not get sexually aroused by the idea of having sex as a woman. That is: In the hierarchy of transgressions the wish to be a woman is less threatening than wanting to be a sexual woman.

In the same way the wish of a female bodied person to become a man seems to be less threatening to society than the wish of a male bodied person to become a woman. All of this will shape the way the ego develops its gender identity.

There are attempts at dividing the transgender community in two, by saying that the true transsexuals are those that have never suppressed their true sex identity, and who have never developed an ego in line with their biological sex. I find that extremely naïve.

The problem is not to explain why some transgender people try to suppress their transgender nature. Our societies have for ages ruthlessly tried to ostracize anyone who challenge the the "natural order of things", and suppression becomes a very rational coping strategy, indeed.

Complexes and the ponyo

For the transgender there is one concept that can be of use when understanding how they handle the conflict between the outer persona, the ego and the subconscious. I believe it can be used to explain the tendency of crossdressers and crossdreamers to develop a mirror personality (to use the term used by  Mirror Sister).

This personality is often given a name and in this day and age its own avatar. Male to female crossdressers and crossdreamers do, for instance, often give their feminine self a female name, and they present her face when presenting in crossdresser gatherings, online discussion forums and in Second Life.

Jung noted that the psyche contains "complexes"  which may be conscious, unconscious or partly conscious and unconscious at the same time.

A complex can be understood as a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes organized around a common theme. It may be caused by certain conditions experienced during childhood and it often has, according to Jung, a psychological core found in a so-called archetype, that is an instinct like psychological driver found in the unconscious. (More about the archetypes later).

Jung spoke of one specific type of complex, an autonomous feeling-toned complex that is of relevance here:

"It is the image of a certain psychic situation which is strongly accentuated emotionally and is, moreover, incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness. This image has a powerful inner coherence, it has its own wholeness and, in addition, a relatively high degree of autonomy, so that it is subject to the control of the conscious mind to only a limited extent, and therefore behaves like an animated foreign body in the sphere of consciousness."  
(CW 8, par 200)

Complexes may be very powerful and will at times take full control over a person. He or she may become posessed by the complex.

Jung actually think of both the ego and the persona as a complexes, and argues that the psyche sometimes produce other complexes with their own personalities that can live side by side with the Ego. In extreme cases I guess this can lead to schizophrenia and multiple personality disorders. 

Jung, however, argues that such additional complexes will appear in sane persons, and that they are the psyche's way of handling forbidden impulses.

For some male to female crossdreamers the "mirror sister" (which I call "the ponyo", for reasons that will be revealed later) may indeed become so strong that it feels like she will take over the whole personality. In some cases she, and not he, is the true expression of that person's real self. If that is the case, the person is a transsexual. The ponyo is the psyche's way of expressing the true, but repressed, core of the personality..

For other transgender men and women the ponyo has more of a complementary nature. Many male to female crossdressers report that letting the female side of their personality express herself makes them feel whole. The ponyo completes them.

The ponyo and the archetypes

In the next part I am going to discuss the role of archetypes in Jungian psychology, and to what extent these may make sense in a transgender setting.


The CW references in these posts are to the Collected Works of Carl Gustav Jung, and no, I do not recommend people who find Jung interesting, start with volume 1.  In fact, easy to read presentations of Jung are hard to come by.

As will be explained in later posts, some presentations of Jung made by his followers are plain out sexist and destructive seen from a transgender perspective.

I recommend the following two books to beginners:

Anthony Storr: The Essential Jung presents long extracts from various writings by Jung ordered thematically. Storr's introduction is a good one.

Murray Stein: Jung's Map of the Soul: An Introduction is a modern and critical presentation of Jung's work, which is particularly interesting from a gender/transgender perspective. Murray clearly demonstrates that Jung's theories cannot be reconciled with a binary model where men and women are separate categories.

Another book that is often recommended by bookstore clerks is Man and His Symbols. Indeed, the first part, which is written by Jung himself is interesting, especially for those who are interested in the religious implications of Jung.

The other chapters have to be read in a very critical manner, as they often reinforce gender stereotypes.

I cringe, for instance, when I  read Joseph Henderson's discussion of a strong intellectual woman's dream of a queue of young women who willingly accept the guillotine when they come to the end of the line. To me the dream gives a clear warning about the traditional post-war, "Mad Men", role of women in the USA: If you accept this role, you will have to give up your head (i.e. your intellectual side). It is a dream about political suppression.

Here how Henderson interprets it:

"I explained to her that this meant she was ready to give up the habit of 'living in the head'; she must learn to free her body to discover its natural sexual response and the fulfillment of its biological role in motherhood. The dream expressed this as the need to make a drastic change; she had to sacrifice the 'masculine' hero style."

Yes, some Jungians have done their best to stop women from growing. This is why I prefer the book om Murray Stein. He has clearly seen this.

Go to part 3!

More posts in the psychology series.


  1. Jung has some very interesting ideas even if they are hard to read and understand.

  2. A great and much beneficial blog in regards to dealing with Psychological problems and issues impacting mental health.psychology.ws

  3. Also, the way to self-acknowledgment and comprehension can be a troublesome and in any event, befuddling experience for some transgendered people.oestrogel amazon


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