This is my attempt to write publicly about something I never thought I would, or could, make public. I am going to be recklessly, unabashedly open about my struggles with what has probably brought me more shame than anything in my entire life, and almost certainly more trauma.
In setting out to write this, it helps that I have a strong desire to be known and understood, even stronger than my desire to be liked or even respected. That being said, it’s still incredibly difficult for me to be open about something I have hidden for so long and felt shame about for even longer.
But I have come to understand that sharing my story will help me begin to loosen the bonds of shame and the trauma that it has wrought in my life. To own my own story and be proud of myself and how I have survived, grown, and flourished despite these challenges. Hopefully, in doing so, I can help someone else who can identify with or relate to parts of it, if not all. In telling and owning our stories, we begin to free ourselves from the power that they hold over our lives.
So that’s what I’m trying to do.
* * *
I think, although it’s hard for me to remember clearly, that there was a time in my life when I had confidence. Somehow in the course of childhood, I lost it. For most of the times that I can remember (at the very least from middle school onward), I have struggled with insecurity, low self-esteem, shame, and at times even self-loathing.
As I’ve been doing work on myself the past few years, I’ve come to realize that I have deep, existential fears of abandonment. More than anything else in the world, I fear being alone, rejected, cut off from the love and acceptance of all others.
I also struggle with envy, tending to romanticize and idealize other people’s lives. I often feel a yawning, gaping abyss inside of me that threatens to steal any happiness I could ever have.
Again, I have come to understand that this is not true, just a story I tell myself out of the fear of disconnection. Even so, it’s sometimes hard for me to really feel that. The sense of loss and lack inside myself feels so real, even when I know it’s not, that I am enough and complete and valid just as I am. I struggle with this a lot less than I ever have, but there are still days when it can be a struggle.
Anyway, this sense of deficiency, of missing something essential, has led me to fear that I could never be truly happy, and to idealize the happiness I saw others experience. It’s always been hard for me to make friends, and very few of the friendships I’ve had have been satisfying. I long for deep, meaningful connection. I long to be known and seen for who I am, to be accepted and loved for who I am—including all of my flaws and imperfections, real or imagined.
* * *
Another thing I’ve come to understand in recent years: I have been deeply, deeply hurt by toxic masculinity.
I’ve heard people say that toxic masculinity hurts men as much as it hurts women. Sometimes I think it hurts men much more than it hurts women, although I realize that suffering can’t and shouldn’t be compared in this way.
Toxic masculinity prescribes narrow social roles that boys and men have to fit into, and shames them if they don’t fit into these roles. For example, my longing for deep friendships with strong, meaningful emotional connections is not typically seen as a masculine trait.
Growing up, I could rarely (if ever) find these kinds of friendships with other boys, because most of them seemed more interested in stereotypically masculine things like sports, boasting, competition amongst each other, the need to demonstrate how cool they were, etc. Things I felt were superficial.
Now, looking back on it, I wonder how many of them were acting out of the need to fit these masculine images rather than out of genuine enthusiasm for these things. Either way, it was hard for me to put on that kind of mask, to pretend, to force myself to fit these images.
With all of this at play, it was extremely unlikely that I would ever find the kind of friendships I wanted with other boys. And even less likely when boys fear being emotionally real and vulnerable. Society, after all, has defined feelings and vulnerability as belonging to femininity, to the realm of girls.
* * *
Because of these unmet desires for acceptance and emotional connection, and because the things I wanted have been arbitrarily assigned to femininity, I began to idealize girls.
This probably happened at a young age. Most likely, at least as young as elementary school. I saw that girls were, at the very least, given social permission to be emotionally real and vulnerable. What I saw, or at least thought I saw, among female friend groups, was the acceptance and emotional closeness I so desperately wanted. I saw loyalty among them. I saw supportiveness. A degree of intimacy, which I absolutely think is possible on a platonic level among friends, not just in romantic relationships. Especially in my church youth groups, I saw devotion and care for each other’s personal lives, emotional lives, relational lives, and spiritual lives.
Again, I have a tendency to romanticize and idealize. There was probably a lot of negativity and toxicity I just didn’t see, or chose not to see. But the point is that this is what I thought I was seeing.
And all of these are things I always desperately wanted.
To be honest, I think most (if not all) boys experience something like this, to some degree. Even if emotional bonds are not as important to some boys as they are to me, I think it’d be naïve and unrealistic to think most boys don’t want these things at all. We’re all human, so we all desire and need emotional connection on a biological level, even if we don’t all experience the longing for it as intensely as some of us do. The main difference in me was how strongly I wanted it, and also in how I processed and interpreted all of these things.
* * *
I’m not the only one who has idealized women. Society itself tends to do this. It puts women on pedestals of virtue, beauty, emotional fluency, and selflessness. Of course, such pedestals are a way of controlling and limiting them—though I didn’t understand any of that when I was younger. Apart from these controlling and limiting idealizations, there is also the social narrative that women are noble because of the suffering they’ve endured at the hands of men who abuse them, neglect them, deny them rights, etc.
I think a lot of this plays into, or feeds out from, toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity defines how boys and girls should be, and what qualities they should or should not value and express. It seeks to control women in order to counterbalance men’s fears that they are insufficient to live up to the standards it also imposes upon them.
At one extreme, there’s the type of man who, when his identity or worth is threatened, feels the only way he can bolster or protect it is to control women. To do violence to them, and in doing so, to supposedly prove his own worth and superiority, if only to himself.
Again, that’s an extreme. But I think all boys and men, to some extent, feel this essential, existential fear of not measuring up to society’s standards for them. These are standards impossible for anyone to live up to. The perfectly masculine man, as society defines him, simply does not exist, so all men to some extent use varying strategies to cope with this fact.
Some men use violence toward women and exploit them. Some engage in subtler activities like mansplaining, unwanted flirtation, or casual sexism. Many are probably unconscious of doing these things, and if you asked them they would probably deny that they do these things to counterbalance feelings of deficiency. But I believe this fear of being insufficient haunts every boy and every man, no matter how deeply he buries or represses it.
* * *
My own coping strategy took a very different form.
A much less usual form, although sometimes I wonder how unusual it is. There’s a lot more shame associated with the direction I took, and shame is a powerful and extremely painful thing that above all else desires to be hidden—and in that desire, tragically only reinforces itself. Shame is the feeling of being cut off from all others around you, and anyone who feels they must hide is already to some extent cut off from others.
The way I responded to all of these things was this. All of these things converged in me: My desire for emotional closeness and meaningful friendships; my inability to find these friendships among boys; my own idealization and romanticization of girls, as well as society’s idealization of women; the terrifying inability to live up to social roles prescribed for men. Which, for me, given my already existing inferiority and rampant shame, was crippling.
All of these things converged. Rather than turning my pain outwards and inflicting it on others, as some men do, I turned it inwards and directed it against myself.
Rather than bolstering my worth by demeaning girls and women, I instead began to envy them. I wanted the things they had—or that I at least thought they had, and I so painfully didn’t. I wanted to be valued in the way that society values women, as specially worthy of praise and admiration, though of course I never saw (or maybe subconsciously ignored) how this limits and controls them. I envied the social narrative of women as underdogs claiming their rightful place as equals as society changes. Additionally, I felt ashamed of the role that men have historically played in denying equality to women, and that shame also reinforced my identification with women rather than men.
I was obsessed with proving in different ways that I was different from other boys. That I wasn’t like the “bad” ones. That I was better than them. That I was, in these senses, more like girls than I was like boys.
I believed this for long enough, and intensely enough, that I wanted it to be true. I had come to believe, enviously and perhaps resentfully, that girls were superior to boys.
I want to underscore again that this is, at least partially, a message I received from our wider culture, which tells us that girls are more emotionally mature than boys, and grow up faster. That girls are more naturally drawn to the realms of love and relationships, while men are crude foreigners there. That when it comes to emotional connections, at worst men are completely illiterate and at best they speak it as a second language. For me, emotional connection always came naturally. I spoke it fluently as a native tongue. I dreamed in it, cried in it, ached in it.
These social narratives about men and women are false, and any degree of truth they have exists because the power that social roles have over men and women have forced them to learn these roles through practice and habit.
* * *
So far, I’ve been building up to the part where the real shame comes in. Now’s the time when I stop qualifying and prefacing it, and just say it.
I’ve always had a strong imagination and a tendency to live in daydreams rather than in the real world. So with this idealization, romanticization, and identification with girls, it became inevitable that I would begin to imagine myself as one of them, as a way of living an alternate fantasy life in which I could be free to live the way I wanted to live.
The only way I could feel special, meaningful, and fully loved, I felt, was if I were a girl.
* * *
That last line was incredibly difficult to type.
Much more than I thought it was going to be.
But there. I did it.
I hope you’ll keep reading, because what comes next is the most important stuff.
* * *
This imaginative escape from toxic masculinity, and from my inability to connect meaningfully with friends, also had negative consequences: primarily, shame. Boys aren’t supposed to feel or think like this, and I did.
So I hid it. I never told anyone, not until 2015 when I finally told my wife. I always felt this secret only confirmed the preexisting sense of something being painfully, essentially wrong with me.
If anyone ever found out about this, I was certain I would never be wanted or accepted. Shame cast the shadow of the taboo over my secret, making it feel exotic and more fascinating, even as my sense of self-loathing increases. All of this I suffered alone and in silence.
The amount of thought and reflection and sheer word count I’m devoting to this, though, gives it the sense of outsized proportion. These thoughts and feelings never dominated who I felt I was or what I wanted out of life. I never saw this secret as defining my identity. I didn’t dwell on it constantly, or even very much of the time. I’ve always had the ability to compartmentalize: I kept the secret shoved off in a corner of my mind. But when I did take it out to look at it, this made it seem powerful and consuming, so that it when I thought about it, it was all I could think about.
Mostly, though, I thought of other things. Music, video games, television shows, movies, books. My faith, my life at church and with my family, the few friends I ever had. School, and what I wanted to do with my life. The crushes I had but never had the confidence to do more than speak a few halting, awkward words to, and seldom if ever to express my interest to outright.
All of these things were the things that made up my life and made up who I was — not the feelings and thoughts I kept hidden.
I also never identified with stories of people who changed their sex or called themselves transgender. While this held a strange fascination for me, It didn’t feel relatable at all. Unlike trans women (or at least my understanding of them), I didn’t think I was a girl or a woman. I just wished I could be.
What brought all of this to a head, and out into the light so that I could finally deal with these issues, was my acceptance of the gay rights movement. As a person of faith, I had been struggling with the movement ever since it began to come to the forefront of politics, in the 2000s, or somewhere close to that timeframe.
How should I understand gay rights as a Christian? I didn’t want to be a bigot, but I was afraid of giving too much ground and in doing so, betraying what I believed in.
I ultimately came to a place of love, acceptance, and affirmation. My beliefs and my faith have grown a lot in the past five years or so, as I’ve understood that there is room for everyone at the table—that God is in all people and all things, and all of them display a special, unique, and meaningful aspect of the sacred and divine.
So far, so good. But I still had a long way to go. I still hadn’t dealt with my struggles surrounding gender, nor my tendency to idealize and romanticize, nor even less my rampant shame and personal sense of inferiority.
The combination of my acceptance of LGBT people, along with the growing feeling that they were becoming more and more culturally relevant, again ignited my envy and tendency to idealize and romanticize. So I thought, what if this terrible secret I had carried for so much of my life was actually not something so terrible, but a ticket that could buy me membership into this group of people that society was beginning to center and value in a new and exciting way?
Maybe, I thought, “transgender” was the right name after all for my envy, romanticization, idealization, and imaginative identification with girls.
* * *
What we believe determines the way we feel and the things that we value and want. As I came to develop this new understanding of what these experiences with gender meant about me and my identity, I began to want different things. I began to feel discomfort with, and shame about, my body, and wanted to change it. I actually wanted to take hormone pills and begin a gender transition.
(Again: that was really, really hard to put into words so explicitly.)
A word about that: I’ve never quite been able to be present in my own body for very long. I tend to dwell in emotions and thoughts, even today. I can sometimes zone out, and get so wrapped up in thought, to the point that I forget where I am, where I’m sitting, what day it is, what I was doing, etc.
I think this lack of connection to my body is something that my faith has probably reinforced: Christianity—as it is widely taught, at least—tends to emphasize spirituality and to de-emphasize the material. So my natural tendency to daydream and live in my thoughts, and my religion’s devaluing of “the flesh,” made it easier to imagine changing my body, since I had never been all that firmly attached to it in the first place. My body meant very little to me and had little value to me, so why did it matter what shape it took?
This is something I’m in the process of working on. I’m not where I’d like to be, but I have made progress. I definitely value my physical body now, even if I’m not always completely in touch with it or present with it. I have come to see it as a precious, beautiful gift, even in all its imperfections and flaws.
Anyway, my new belief about my identity also made me feel that in order to be the truest, freest, most fulfilled version of myself, then I had to come out to people — mainly, my wife — and live out this new truth. So I told her one autumn morning before work that I was transgender. It did not go well. At all.
She was going to leave me. My entire world felt like it was ending.
It shocked me to the core. This is a trauma I think I’m still struggling to recover from, in some ways. But it’s also where my story began to turn. There was no way I could ever heal from toxic masculinity, shame, and self-loathing until all of this was out in the open.
I had no idea about any of that, of course. My wife of twelve years (at that time), my best friend, had just rejected and abandoned me. I’d been afraid that it would happen, but I’d also held out a persistent hope that it wouldn’t. I’ve always had a profound belief in, and hope in, the power of love. I thought it could overcome anything and everything.
(I still value this belief in love as a personal strength of mine. Even though it feels less certain than it did before…even though it’s not always borne out in fact…I still want to believe in the potential of love to overcome and transcend all things, and I think this is an admirable and brave thing to believe.)
Somehow, miraculously, she didn’t leave. We tried to stay together, fought to figure out a way to make things work.
And it was in that space—that uncertainty if we could ever reconcile when what she wanted from me and what I wanted of myself were so suddenly and fundamentally incompatible—that things began to change, and I began the long, hard, still ongoing process of healing.
* * *
Eventually, through a long series of personal, thoughtful, insightful, and revealing conversations with my wife, I began to change the way I looked at a lot of things.
I realized that in claiming to be trans, I had ratified the belief that the traits I saw as important aspects of my self—my emotionality, my need for deep personal connection, my sensitivity, my creative flow, my capacity for gentleness and nurture, my longing to be special and to be desired—could be described as feminine. In other words, I was buying into the exact same arbitrary, meaningless, and artificial gender roles that originally caused some of these feelings of being damaged and insufficient.
I also came to see the inaccuracy of my idealizations and romanticizations of women. While it’s true that some women can be and are immensely supportive, accepting, and emotionally vulnerable with each other, it’s just as likely that they can be petty, cruel, back-stabbing, and superficial. I had been blind to this, or had willingly overlooked it, because it didn’t fit the narrative I wanted to believe. I also came to see that men can be just as capable of being supportive, accepting, and emotionally vulnerable with each other, even if it’s often harder and less likely for us to do so under the weight of social expectations.
As this series of conversations went on, I began to relax the beliefs about myself that I’d come to adopt. I wasn’t trans after all—just someone who had been hurt by gender stereotypes and who had taken them very deeply personally. So deeply hurt that he felt his identity was irredeemable, a mortal wound that couldn’t be healed. That he could only live in this world by crafting an entirely new identity that made him unique, special, meaningful, and relevant.
Instead, I realized I can be who I am, knowing that gender is artificial and ultimately meaningless. That I can love myself, as I am, without changing a thing about my self—physically or otherwise. There is profound freedom and rest in that knowledge.
* * *
Thus far, I’ve tried to explain through narrative how I got to this place of first brokenness, then rupture, and finally to the road towards healing. But there’s another way to approach this grappling of gender and identity, shame and trauma. A lens that clarifies not only my past story, but my road forward toward healing. Or at least the beginning of that road. It’s a road I’m still on, and maybe will never finish walking, though I’m proud of and grateful for how far I’ve come.
That lens is the Enneagram.
What I’ve written above has only come as a result of long, slow, difficult, and uncomfortable self-reflection. And what opened the way for this self-discovery was discovering that I was a Type Four in the Enneagram, an ancient wisdom system with roots in Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist mysticism, though it’s at least as old as the Greek poet Homer. In the past half decade or so, this wisdom system has been refined into a system of understanding human personality structure. Unlike many personality systems, the Enneagram does not merely describe what a personality type is like, but why it is like that. It’s more concerned with motivation—core fears and desires—than with behavior. And more imporantly, it shows unique roads to healing for each of the nine types.
(Lest you think nine too small a number to include all of human complexity, each type has three subtypes, six instinctual stackings, and two wings, making for a total of 108 unique types!)
Several factors of my struggles with gender and identity, several dynamics and personality traits leading into it that I’ve already elaborated in this narrative, are key characteristics and motivations of my type. According to the Enneagram Institute’s page on Fours, this type tends to or can:
- See “themselves as fundamentally different from others” and “feel that they are unlike other human beings”;
- be “acutely aware of and focused on their personal differences and deficiencies”;
- “feel they are missing something in themselves, although they may have difficulty identifying exactly what that ‘something’ is”;
- “feel that they lack a clear and stable identity”;
- “deeply wish to connect with people who understand them and their feelings”;
- “long for someone to come into their lives and appreciate the secret self that they have privately nurtured and hidden from the world”;
- “build their identity around how unlike everyone else they are”;
- have “a negative self-image and chronically low self-esteem” which they “compensate for this by cultivating a Fantasy Self—an idealized self-image which is built up primarily in their imaginations”;
- “try several different identities on for size, basing them on styles, preferences, or qualities they find attractive in others”;
- “base their identity largely on their feelings”;
- become “so attached to longing and disappointment that they are unable to recognize the many treasures in their lives”;
- “believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them”;
- “Heighten reality through fantasy, passionate feelings, and the imagination”;
- “become melancholy dreamers, disdainful, decadent, and sensual, living in a fantasy world.”
Finally, the fact that I’ve been able to write as candidly about all of this despite the shame I’ve felt over this aspect of my life even after it was over, is a reflection of type Four’s willingness “to reveal highly personal and potentially shameful things about themselves because they are determined to understand the truth of their experience—so that they can discover who they are and come to terms with their emotional history.”
The Enneagram emphasizes that each type’s greatest weaknesses and dangers are merely the shadow side of their greatest strengths and highest potentials. Which is a freeing thing to realize. My mistakes and past ideas and desires about gender aren’t due to my brokenness or flawedness, or anything shameful about myself, but simply flow out from expressions of traits unique to every person dominant in type Four, trans or not.
I have nothing to be ashamed of.
* * *
Sometimes I wonder how singular my story really is. Whether I’m a lone exception to the rule when it comes to people who have struggled with or questioned their gender identity. Whether, like me, others’ struggles and questions are not actually due to their gender identity, but to a misunderstanding of what gender is and a feeling of profound disconnection from the tropes, stereotypes, and usual modes of being assigned arbitrarily and meaninglessly to their sex by society and culture. Whether—if they could come to the same realizations that I did—they, too, might feel unburdened and no longer feel the need to lay claim to a trans identity as a way of distinguishing themselves from the things they don’t belong within, much less take on new names, new pronouns, new lives, and new appearances at the cost of so much suffering. I’m not saying that’s the case. I don’t know. I make no claim about others’ stories, especially since I am not trans myself. But I do wonder.
I also don’t want to shame people who do claim trans identities. People are valuable, worthy, and valid regardless of who they are. Just because I’ve felt shame over these struggles doesn’t mean anyone else has to, or should. Shame is never productive or useful. I don’t wish it on anyone. And I like to believe that even if I were actually trans, there would be no real shame in it.
But I’ve felt that shame nonetheless. And I’m still working to recover from it. Even though I am secure in the results of my grappling with gender, I still feel shame remembering these thoughts and feelings. For the past four years I’ve looked back at everything I thought, felt, said, and did in 2015, and I have asked myself: How could I have let this happen to myself?
Hence this article. Hence this attempt to own and claim even the shameful parts as meaningful and valid parts of my story, parts that enhance the whole rather than ruining it or ruining myself—a fear that really only stems from the core insecurities and fears of my Enneagram type, rather than from anything remotely resembling reality.
* * *
So this is what I want to emphasize as I wrap this up. I’ve made mistakes. Errors in judgment, logical fallacies, failures to see the entire picture, not to mention the hurt and fear and pain and bewilderment I’ve caused to people around me.
But I’ve done nothing wrong. I have nothing to be ashamed or guilty of.
I was deeply hurt by most people’s, especially most boys’ and men’s, inability to extend the deep connections, acceptance, and vulnerability I’ve always wanted and needed.
I was deeply wounded by toxic masculinity, as every boy and man is. I was deeply hurt by the fear that I couldn’t measure up, that I didn’t have it in me to be a man, that ultimately I would always be found wanting, and I couldn’t see well enough to understand that I was not alone in this.
I was deeply ashamed by the ways that I ultimately dealt with all these feelings.
Yet I have learned is that shame is not something people feel naturally, but something that is imposed upon them by others. Yes, I made errors in idealizing girls and feeling a need to identify with them as an escape from having to come to terms with my true self and my pain. But the shame I felt over this was imposed on me by the wider culture, and probably by particular people in my life, though I don’t have any specific memories of anyone doing or saying something along these line. Our culture shames boys and men who exhibit traits even vaguely feminine, as these things are arbitrarily defined. No one should have to endure that kind of shame.
I was deeply hurt and scarred by the belief that if anyone ever got a full, comprehensive, detailed look at who I was inside—the person who was hiding inside my skin—they would inevitably reject me, abandon me, feel disgusted with me. No one should ever have to feel that way.
So I made errors. As we all do. There is not a single one of us who does not feel pain from certain things, whether imposed on us by family, friends, society, or strangers.
There is not a single one of us who does not make choices to protect ourselves, our identities, and our basic sense of who we are in the world, by choosing to think or behave or believe in certain things that might work for a time, but ultimately are only traps that limit our ability to fully live and fully be our true selves in the world.
So I believed these things, felt these things, said these things, did these things.
I did them to feel that my life, my existence, meant something. That I was good, that I was valuable. That I wasn’t broken—though the things I believed and felt only made me feel more broken.
But that’s how anyone’s coping strategies work. The very things you do or believe or feel in order to protect yourself ultimately end up hurting you if you keep doing them long enough.
So I made errors, but I did nothing wrong. I did nothing that was not, at its root, a survival strategy. A way to cope with the pain I felt. They were unhealthy strategies, yes. Unrealistic ones, yes. Ones that ultimately ended up making everything worse rather than better.
But that’s true of everyone’s survival strategies. Mine may seem more unusual, more extreme, more bizarre, than others’, and maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. But in a very real sense, they’re no different from what anyone else does.
In that sense, I did nothing wrong. In fact, by beginning to dismantle these false beliefs, these unhealthy and unrealistic coping strategies, I am moving ahead in a healthy way and doing important, difficult work that is not only necessary for myself, but is necessary for everyone.
So I am now doing, or trying to do, the very things everyone must ultimately do—untangling the errors, unmasking the false self, trying my best to give myself the love, acceptance, and belonging that I have always so desperately looked for from others.
For some people, it’s love and acceptance. For others, it’s fear, lack of confidence, and uncertainty; while for still others it’s anger and rage.
But none of it is ultimately any different, worse, or more shameful than anything anyone does to make themselves feel safe, in control, or connected to others and the world around them.
I feel gratitude for everything and everyone I have in my life, so I don’t feel that the suffering I’ve experienced is the biggest or most defining part of me, though of course it has marked me; nor that it’s outsized compared to so many others who are suffering in the world. But I’m growing to love myself more every day and I’ve come such a long way since I first brought these things out into the open.
Maybe you read this and don’t buy it. That’s okay. Everything I’m writing is more for me than for you. Because I’m done with shame, hiding, and anxiety. The world is too big and beautiful and astonishing to hide.