We Are Not as False as We Believe

Photo by Darius Bashar

Clara Barnhurst

I’m not much of a woman. The thought loop spins about my head: I’m not much of a woman. I guess that’s better than the loop before that said I wasn’t a woman at all. Thing about being a woman, it’s not defined. It’s just as good to say that I’m not much of a person. Dysphoria leaves you believing that you aren’t a person at all.

Right at the end of uni, I (literally) bumped into a girl I got mixed up with in high school. We didn’t speak. We hadn’t spoken for years; we didn’t part on good terms. I just happened to brush against her in the canteen. She charged off making disgusted noises. I heard some chatter to someone — presumably a friend of hers — about the encounter. She was making a fuss about touching me, and at the time I made a comment about how I mustn’t have missed out on much.

After all these years, her disdain for me was such that inadvertent contact was offensive; I was garbage. I made the comment and protected myself, but deep down I believed her. At the time, I wasn’t aware that my feelings were dysphoric. I just didn’t think I was much of a person.

I’m not much of a woman. It cycles back again, unbidden. Because I’m not much of a woman, I’m not much of anything. How can you be much of anything when you aren’t much of a person? Defective human. Stay out of the way. Leave the humaning to the whole people.

I understand that I’m good at things. I’m told I do well at what I do, but I don’t believe it. Not really. Sometimes, I briefly feel good about what I do and then it fades away.

Being not much of a person makes me fade away sometimes. I want to feel things, but I’m not there. Sat next to my fiancée watching a movie, I want to share her warmth. I can’t. She prods me now and again, concerned. She can tell I’m distant. Not human enough to share.


Is this dysphoria? I used to think dysphoria was to do with gender, and it is, but gender is vast and weirdly unimportant when you know someone well. A building block. A wellspring. A starting point that is forgotten yet always there. What happens when you simply are? Does dysphoria go away? Not much of a woman, I guess. Subhuman.

So much bother for such a specifically vague thing. Everyone cares until they don’t. It means everything to me and also nothing. Perhaps dysphoria drives us. Maybe once you’ve had it for long enough, it’s a force you come to depend on. If so, it’s an irony to want to simply be when doing that leaves you with a hole in yourself.

What do cisgender people fill themselves with? Do they have something we don’t, or are they simply less than? Absent of experience. If I fix what is wrong with me, will I be less than?

The only known treatment for dysphoria appears to be palliative: we make ourselves comfortable. We smooth mental dissonance; we reconfigure our minds and bodies. We change, to be sure. Life is change. To live is to grow; we have no choice in the matter.

Photo by Jelle van Leest

Can we grow out of dysphoria? On the whole, the answer appears to be yes. We can alter ourselves and grow into the changes. The rips in our selves can stop widening. It’s less clear whether they close.

The question, for me, is how much I need this monster in me. I’m pretty sure I am growing out of it. The gaps in me are being grown around if not closing — it’s unclear which. Does it matter which it is? In a way, I don’t want it to go away. It’s part of my experience and I don’t want to fix it. Maybe I don’t need to be fixed.


In that way, change is the same as fixing things. None of this heals the way a cut heals: things don’t close up. We’re not left with scars. The wounds stay. But maybe we change ourselves to the extent that the wounds aren’t wounds anymore. The gaps just don’t hurt and they form something else. Perhaps, as rents in ice melt into water, our phase state changes to the extent that the wounds are irrelevant.

In some ways I can feel this happening. My thoughts and feelings are different; many of the hurts of the past lack the emotional context I had before. I view my past through the filter of the now: I can’t comprehend the wounds of before as I did in the moment. I’ve changed too much.

And yet the dysphoria remains, but as a sort of imposter syndrome. I’m not much of a woman, my thoughts whisper. But what else can I be? And while a gender binary is false, it could also be said that one is either a thing or they are not. I can’t be partially female, can I?

A recent conversation with an enby friend reveals that no, you can’t be partially female. Non binary folks are stuck working with this binary metaphor that utterly fails to express their state: they are not partially anything. They are wholly something that can neither be described as male nor female. So my thoughts are wrong: I am a woman. I can’t be ‘not much’ of a woman because that’s not a thing you can partially be. But the thought remains.

For me, that is dysphoria: the belief that you just can’t be the thing you are. The desire to just be is not about purging oneself of one’s traits that are seen as other. Doing so usually eases dysphoria, but that doesn’t solve the core problem: we need to believe we are what we are. Dysphoria is the filter that scrambles that belief.

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P.S. I believe there is a typo in this first paragraph sentence: "Thing about being a woman, it’s not defined." Shouldn't the first word be "Think" instead of "Thing"? :-)


Yesterday I exchanged emails with a good friend of mine, who's a cis woman, about how before/during/after transition I fretted about my gender. Although I feel very binary, a woman, I tell people that I'm a "woman of transgender experience" which, I hope conveys an understanding that I'm a woman first, but am also transgender, always and forever. Well, I tell myself that, but I still struggle.

My friend wrote: "The ways we try as women to fit a standard, and inevitably fail, because it's an unattainable standard."

That triggered me. I was delighted that she sees me as another woman, at least mentally. But it's habitual that I wonder how does she know? Is she saying that just to be kind? And more importantly, what am I, really?

I think we all wish that we can be "fixed" of our anxieties, to be rid of them. I'm learning that this just doesn't happen. We need to learn to live with them. Maybe this quote from Brene Brown's recent "Braving the Wilderness" will help:

"Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.

True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are."

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