As part of my transition, I have been seeing a psychotherapist who is counseling me through issues related to my gender dysphoria and coming to terms with being a trans woman. One of the biggest things I have to work on is learning how to let go. What does letting go mean in this context? It means accepting that I feel how I feel and that’s okay. I don’t need to fight it, control it, or try to understand it. In fact, struggling to understand and control my feelings has been the source of a lot of my suffering.
This may seem counterintuitive at first, but it helps to think of it a certain way. The human brain doesn’t necessarily function as a single functional unit (though in some sense it does and in another sense it doesn’t; the brain is a very complicated thing). Instead, it functions as a bunch of separate, yet highly interconnected units that come together and give rise to our subjective experiences, our intellect, our emotions, our cognition, etc. (of course, this is a bit simplistic, and I am about to make some distinctions that aren’t 100% accurate, but nevertheless serve a purpose for understanding a little bit about how the brain and mind work). There is a cognitive, intellectual part of the brain, an emotional part, and a primal, or animalistic, part (also known as the “reptilian brain”). The primal part is behind some of our most basic survival functions and instincts; the emotional part is behind our emotional processing and experiences; and the intellectual part is behind our ability to plan, control impulses by observing social conventions, and think rationally.
Psychologists have come up with various theories of emotion over the years, but the one I will focus on for this blog post is the one that seems truest to my experiences and is most consistent with the best available evidence: the Schachter-Singer cognitive appraisal theory. According to this theory, when an event occurs, humans will have a moment to perceive it, in which a physiological response (for example, a ‘flight or fight’ response) occurs. In addition to the physiological response, humans then appraise the situation based on certain context clues, and this then leads to an emotion (fear, joy, disgust, etc.). The emotional experience can also be fed back into perception and magnify or diminish the emotional experience (this particular part is important to remember).
“So how does this work in the real world?”, you may be asking yourself. Let’s imagine you come across another person as you walk to the grocery store. At first glance, you might not recognize them because they are far away. They may be much bigger than you and appear threatening because they have a mean look on their face, or you can’t read their facial expressions at all. This may cause your heart rate to increase. You may also begin to sweat a little and become anxious. At the same time, you appraise the situation as potentially bad as you may be dealing with a threat to your safety. This causes you to feel afraid and start planning a plan of attack or escape, which causes you to appraise the situation as even worse leading to an even more intense experience of fear. But then a few seconds later, this person comes into clearer view, and it turns out that it is one of your good friends. You then realize that the situation isn’t threatening like you previously thought it was while your physiological response calms down and your fear turns into contentment as you are now happy to see your friend.
As someone who has struggled with generalized anxiety (at least partly related to gender dysphoria, and, for a while, PTSD), I struggle with the appraisal part. Once I appraise a situation and experience an emotion, especially if that emotion is fear/anxiety, I engage in a destructive thought process wherein I feed the fear I am experiencing. What I initially appraise as relatively minor quickly becomes catastrophic and I go from mildly anxious to extremely anxious, or sometimes even worse: I panic.
In thinking of this process, I am reminded of two Disney movies: Frozen and Inside Out. In Frozen, the main protagonist, Elsa, struggles to come to terms with her abilities and accept who she is after years of repressing them. It isn’t until she is able to do so that she is able to channel her powers into something productive rather than a destructive force that threatens her kingdom. I actually identify quite strongly with her struggle and it is best expressed in the song “Let It Go“.
The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I’m the queen.
In this part of the song, Elsa is expressing her feelings of being different and isolated from everyone else. She feels truly alone. As a trans girl, I felt this a lot growing up. I was the queen of my own kingdom of isolation.
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!
Growing up, I was always afraid to let people in and know what I was feeling. I wasn’t ever really sure what I was feeling for the longest time either, and it was frightening. So I hid it. I tried to not feel. This is something I still struggle with, but I have been improving upon it since coming out.
The song continues on as she begins to embrace her power and the fact that she’s different, and I am in a similar part of my life as I come to terms with who I am and embrace my identity.
In Inside Out, the main protagonist is an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. When she moves to San Francisco, she goes through an emotional struggle as represented by various characters in her mind: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Joy perceives threats to Riley’s happiness and she does everything she can to control the situation. She even tries to keep Sadness from having any role in Riley’s experiences, but this is a huge mistake. Joy doesn’t realize that Sadness is critical to Riley’s ability to be a happy, well adjusted person. Sadnesses’ suppression leads to the near destruction of Riley’s life, social relationships, and personality as she knows it as she spirals into an unhappy state. It isn’t until Joy realizes that Sadness is just as important as everyone else is and lets her take a primary role in Riley’s experiences that Riley is able to find happiness and social harmoney in her new life in San Francisco.
This is a parallel to my life’s narrative in the sense that I grew up trying to not feel sadness, but in doing so, I crushed my ability to feel joy. In my attempt to suppress my sadness, I created misery and emotional turmoil. Emotional experience is a package deal. You can’t isolate one emotion and repress it while leaving the others intact. It just doesn’t work that way.
Thankfully, through psychotherapy, hormone replacement therapy, and other interventions (e.g., mindfulness meditation), I am able to be much calmer in my immediate response to situations and I am getting better at avoiding the tendency of my intellect to engage in the process of feeding my negative emotions via catastrophizing and repression. However, there is one thing I still struggle with: letting go. I have been trying to fit my emotional experiences into a cognitive framework and that is proving to be a self-defeating frustration in my life. I have always felt the need to understand everything and control it if I can. If I can’t do that, I become very insecure. I anxiously struggle to solve puzzles, and when I can’t solve one, I experience negative emotions. I am engaging in that cycle I am trying to break. Hell, this post may be an example of me doing just that.
In my most recent session with my therapist, I explained to him that I am trying to understand my gender dysphoria while trying to see how it all fits into my life’s narrative. The struggle to do so has been a stressor and he urged me to just let it be. Like with my struggles with my feelings in general, I don’t have to do what I was doing. My experiences are a complicated thing that I will never fully understand. In that moment I realized that if I am to truly heal and move on, I have to learn to just let it go. My cognitive mind can’t ever fully comprehend or control my emotional experiences because it’s like they speak very different languages and that’s okay.