There’s this experience I’m all too familiar with that goes by the jargony name “social dysphoria.” It happens when people treat you according to a role—and that role is in conflict with who you are. (It’s part of the experience of gender dysphoria, which can also be felt as a conflict between who you are and your physical body.)
The more trapped in that role you are and the less true that role is, the worse the dysphoria.
I’m most likely to experience social dysphoria when people treat me like I’m a woman, even though I’m not. It’s a creepy, suffocating experience. It’s like being buried alive, but metaphysically.
Social dysphoria is often talked about as a symptom of being transgender, but that’s not how I think of it at all. I see it as a symptom of a dysfunction in our society that hurts everyone … especially trans people.
Most of the first 28 years of my life I was steeping in a nasty brew of this dysfunction. I got so used to the smell that I didn’t even know how bad it stunk. For a while, I just figured it meant I was an introvert: people made it clear that I wasn’t allowed to be my real self, and at a certain point, I just couldn’t take it anymore and needed to be alone.
Classic introversion, right? 😉
Now that I’m more than ten months into this process of putting up a fight about being incorrectly categorized as a woman my whole life, I experience social dysphoria less and less, because I can see it for what it is, and I’m learning how to protect myself against it.
But social dysphoria still knocks me over from time to time.
I’m confident that soon, it will be a thing I’ve overcome for good. But a lot of transgender people are deep in it every day, and they don’t know if there’s a way out (beyond death). A lot of people experience it every day and don’t even understand what it is. I used to be one of those people. Social dysphoria meant that my experience of life became so suffocating, warped, and isolating, it often seemed like I would be better off dead.
Because this stuff is so tricky and so serious, I want to take a crack at describing how social dysphoria has effected me as I do my best to banish it from my life.
If you love someone who’s battling this beast, hopefully this post will help you support them. Because it’s a powerful, gnarly monster, and it’s supported by the framework of our culture. They probably need all the backup they can get.
How do you know who you are?
Before we can dig into this, we have to get a little philosophical. How do we know ourselves outside of how people respond to us?
Think about it. What do you know about yourself that you didn’t come to know through observing how other people interacted with you?
If you think you’re a leader, that has everything to do with your relationship to other people, and the sense you have that they look up to you. If you think of yourself as a dad, or a wife, or a brother—a teacher, a student, a star employee—all of those roles don’t exist without the people you’re relating to.
Try to think of one thing you know about yourself that doesn’t come from others reflecting it back. Instead, you know it because you’ve examined yourself deeply, and discovered it about yourself, on your own.
When you examine yourself, you might recognize something about yourself that others don’t see. You might find that even though people think of you as a meticulous analytical type, you’re very artistic—you just haven’t had a chance to express it. You might find that even though people see you as a person who loves managing details, you actually hate it—you’re just good with details because it helps you avoid getting too stressed.
One of the things I know about myself is that I have no gender. I don’t care that it sounds weird. I just know it’s true.
But most of my life, that fact has been in conflict with what’s been reflected back by everyone else. And also in conflict with the literal mirror. (But the whole physical body side of this is a story for another time.)
So what happens if you know that you’re not a woman, but you find yourself living with people who think of you as their daughter, their niece, their sister, the girl they’re dating, the young lady who can’t seem to take enough pride in her appearance, the woman who’d be prettier if she had a makeover … you get the idea.
What happens if you know you’re not a woman, but you’ve never met anyone who can imagine the possibility of you being anything other than a woman?
If you do what I did, eventually you question your own sanity. (I don’t recommend doing that.)
That’s when social dysphoria gets the worst.
You’re the last line of defense
When that deep part of you that nobody can see is muted and distorted by people who think you’re someone else, there’s only one person who can fix it: you. And to fix it, you need to stand up for yourself and advocate for who you really are so that there’s space for you to be. You’re just trying to exist, but you’re being muzzled and painted over by everyone who knows you. No one can save you from this but you. You’re the last line of defense.
If this is a situation you were born into, all the reminders from adults that you don’t understand how the world works can seriously undermine your confidence in your own perspective.
So instead of advocating for yourself to exist, soon you’re doubting that deep part of you that nobody can see. And now you’re part of the muzzling, and part of the painting over.
There are no more lines of defense.
The weirdness kicks into a higher gear.
You can’t doubt yourself out of existence. But you can doubt yourself into a disturbance and isolation I lack the skill to describe.
So let’s recap for a second. The initial conflict is between what you know and what’s being imposed on you. The resolution would come from standing up for what you know in the face of the falsehood that’s being imposed on you.
But standing up for what you know means appearing insane to everyone else you’ve ever known who all agree on the same falsehood about you. You’re so unanimously misunderstood in the same way by everyone, including your family, that who they think you are even starts to feel more reasonable to you than what you know about yourself.
This is a compromising situation.
This is a situation to be avoided at all costs.
This is not a rare situation
Unfortunately, in this culture, this is a common situation. Because many people are born into communities in which narrow and strongly-held expectations about who everyone’s supposed to be get established very fast, and are held very strongly.
Some communities end up laying impossible expectations on someone about who they’re supposed to be, and they have a very hard time coming to terms with the idea that they could be wrong. Instead, it’s seen as the individual’s responsibility not to transgress the expectations placed upon them. That’s sinning, or breaking the rules, or delusional, or attention-seeking … etc. The problem isn’t with the individual, the problem is with the expectations. But the individual can’t see that from the inside.
That creates the compromising situation I just described.
I spent most of my life in one of those situations, and it threw me for a loop. It took me a long time to figure out how to get out.
I’m out now, but the ripples of that experience still hit me hard sometimes.
Usually I can shrug it off when I get misgendered. It happens a lot, and I recognize it has more to do with the person misgendering me than it does with me.
But sometimes when I’m around people who’ve known me for more than a few years, and I hear them refer to me as “she,” I’ll get jolted back into that sense that my sanity is in question. It also sometimes happens when multiple people start misgendering me as female in a public place, especially when I don’t have a chance to correct the misgendering before it starts spreading to others who didn’t get a chance to meet me without the bias of a gender that isn’t me.
When that happens, I lose my cool sometimes. I might even get physically sick and end up hunkered down puking in a bathroom until I get a grip. I have to kind of laugh at myself sometimes when I have that strong of a reaction. This sense of danger that my sanity is disregarded by everyone I know is temporary, and not something I even intellectually believe could still happen. My body and emotions have a lot of build-up from all that weirdness of the past, and I have to just let them process it.
Unlike many of the people from my past who see me as a confused and “lost” woman, the people I spend my time around today believe what I’ve told them about who I am, even though they sometimes misgender me accidentally. And even if people from my past can’t let go of the person I never was, they lack the power to control me that they once had. The cat will not go back into the bag.
Still, until I’ve gotten enough of these aftershocks out of my system, I stay away from people who don’t believe me, and also from people who I can’t really tell whether they believe me or not.
That’s the cure for social dysphoria, by the way. It’s not any sort of medication or talk therapy. It’s not anything you can buy or manufacture. It’s something simple and solid that everyone needs—something our unhealthy culture often deprives trans people of: just people who accept you for you.
Social dysphoria can make you so disoriented you start thinking you deserve not to exist; that it’s your fault for not being what society wants. Some people never escape it, and it’s not just because they lose hope that there’s a cure. They start thinking of themselves as the disease.
I know this because it happened to me.
Honestly, I think this is one of the major keys to why suicide rates among trans folks are so high. Over time social dysphoria teaches you that you’d be doing the world a favor by taking yourself out of it. When you’re not able to meet the expectations placed on you for who you’re supposed to be, these messages are everywhere, and hard to ignore.
The cure is simple
For anyone who got as sick from the toxic sludge of social dysphoria as I did, it can take a while to work your way around to even being able to try to find the cure.
And once you find it, it can take a while for it to really kick in.
But I found it, and it’s kicking in.
You probably see now why I think social dysphoria is a dysfunction with our society, and not a “transgender issue.” We put a lot of effort into telling each other who we are, but a lot of times our expectations are not just bad—they’re impossible. And that’s making people sick. Take me as an example.
The cool thing is, being the cure for somebody is simple (even if it’s not always easy). All you have to do is prioritize loving them over worrying about appearances, because when you worry about appearances, you enforce the expectations around you about who people are supposed to be. And those expectations stand to do some serious harm.
You can totally be that cure for somebody. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you’ve already been part of it for me.