Those who enthusiastically support pediatric transition for dysphoric children often invoke the loaded phrases “authentic self,” or “true self.” For example, top pediatric transition physician Jo Olson-Kennedy posted on the WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) Facebook page in March 2016 regarding her desire to see the standards of care changed to lower the recommended age for surgery to remove a child’s penis and create a neovagina. Olson-Kennedy wrote:
Hi friends, wondering if WPATH SOC 8 might be changing guidelines around genital surgery in trans young women younger than 18? Here’s the issue: these girls are blocked at early puberty, so by high school they have living and presenting as their authentic selves, but are forced to navigate high school with 11 yo “male” genitals until 18. I have a handful of girls (and many more coming up) whose lives are on hold because of this. They are ready, their families are ready to support after care, they have strong mental health support, but the insurance won’t cover because of WPATH recs. Thoughts?
Likewise, developmental psychologist Diane Ehrensaft is a leading authority on pediatric transition. She has called the work that she does with young children “true gender self child therapy.” She describes this work in the following way: “True gender self child therapy is based on the premise of gender as a web that weaves together nature, nurture, and culture and allows for a myriad of healthy gender outcomes.”
What Does Authentic Mean?
The word “authentic” comes from the Greek, with the original meaning “original, genuine.” Olson and Ehrensaft are claiming that a child’s “true” or “authentic” gender is that which he or she feels, rather than the sex the child was born as. On what basis can they make such a claim? Who gets to decide what an authentic or true self is? Olson and Ehrensaft both seem to imply that the child comes into the world with an innate gender self which is real, genuine, and authentic. Not only is this the true self, it is inborn, fixed and unchanging. It waits only to be discovered and known by the child before being revealed to the parent and other adults, at which point it must be affirmed without question or curiosity.
Gender therapist Dara Hoffman Fox – who has built what appears to be a lucrative practice on helping people “discover their gender identity” — also uses the term “authentic self,” invoking CG Jung to do so. (Dara also calls Jung her “favorite therapist” and incorrectly ascribes to him the well-known quote “The privilege of a lifetime is to becoming (sic) who you truly are.” In fact, it was Joseph Campbell who said that.)
“As a member of both the human race and the mental health field I believe we are all striving to achieve what Carl Jung calls individuation. In today’s day and age you’ve probably heard it called “becoming who you are,” “being one’s authentic self,” “finding one’s true self,” and so forth.”
What Does Research Say?
What is this notion of a “true” or “authentic self” and who gets to define authenticity? Recent research into the concept of the “true self” has confirmed that such a notion is at best a useful fiction.
These two features—radical subjectivity and unverifiability—prevent the true self from being scientific concept. The notion that there are especially authentic parts of the self, and that these parts can remain cloaked from view indefinitely, borders on the superstitious. This is not to say that lay belief in a true self is dysfunctional. Perhaps it is a useful fiction, akin to certain phenomena in religious cognition and decision-making (Boyer, 2001; Gigerenzer & Todd, 1999). But, in our view, it is a fiction nonetheless.
Philosophical and Religious Perspectives
As the blogger ThirdWayTrans points out, philosophies and religions don’t have much to say about identity. Those that do often see identity as something illusory that can lead us away from truth. Most philosophies or theories of personality stress the changing, unknowable, or mysterious nature of our innermost self. Buddhism teaches that the self is essentially an illusion. Though we seem to be an integral, autonomous entity, this perception is a by-product of our perceptions and physical existence.
Jungian Perspectives on the True Self
Jung never talked about a true or authentic self. He did speak often about wholeness. One of Jung’s most essential concepts is the idea that we continue to grow throughout our lives. This growth leads not to perfection, but to psychological wholeness. Growing psychologically isn’t so much about discerning “this not that,” but of developing to the greatest extent possible the various potentials inherent in us. This is done by an ongoing dialectical process whereby the unconscious compensates any one-sidedness present in the conscious attitude. If we start out life being assertive and ambitious by dint of socialization and/or innate character, our growth as we age will be in developing the opposite characteristics. At midlife, we might find ourselves strangely attracted to quiet, unflashy pursuits such as setting up a backyard vegetable garden.
Wholeness is the goal that is never reached. The psychological development that he termed “individuation” goes on throughout one’s life, and is never complete. Jung conceptualized psychic life as progressing in pairs of opposites. Wholeness requires not one-sidedness but an ability to hold the tension of the opposites so that both can be integrated. Thus, psychological wholeness requires that we develop both our ability to be aggressive, and our ability to be yielding; our “masculine” side, and our ‘feminine” side; our facility to speak, and to listen; our playful side, and our serious side. Integrating these various aspects of ourselves is a life-long task. I feel quite confident that Jung would not have agreed that one might reach a fixed conclusion about an aspect of oneself that would then give one access to something absolutely and finally authentic or true. The self is always a becoming, never a final point that has been reached. Therefore, Jung would most certainly not agree with the assertion that we can “discover” a single “authentic self” – especially not as a child or adolescent.
Individuation vs. Conformity
Since growing into wholeness might take us down some very unexpected paths but is always mediated by the unconscious, I think Jung would also feel wary of transgenderism as it is currently being experienced among young people. Individuation according to Jung is just as it sounds – about becoming an individual and separating from the collective voice. Very few young people are coming out as transgender without peers – either online or in real life – doing so as well.
It appears to be often a choice made in order to fit in to a dominant subculture existing within a particular school and/or online environment, and therefore has everything to do with conformity rather than individuation. For example, a gender doctor in Australia noted in a recent interview that some children seem to be adopting a trans identity for purely social reasons. In the interview, Dr. Steve Stathis reported on a conversation with a young person.
“One said to me, ‘Dr Steve … I want to be transgender, it’s the new black’,” he said.
As per many reports of young people themselves, coming out as transgender seems to be more about joining a tribe rather than developing one’s individuality.
The Dangers or Identifying with Our Thoughts and Feelings
Jung did warn about identifying with our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or fantasies. He considered this potentially dangerous. In a manner similar to Buddhism, Jung encouraged his patients to disidentify with their thoughts and feelings by seeing these latter as other than ego. His technique of active imagination encouraged this by allowing psychic contents to be personified. When a part of us is personified, it is impossible for us to be in identification with it any longer. We necessarily see it as other than our conscious personality, and then we have a greater range of choices as to how we can orient to it.
Being in identification with any one part of our psyche can quickly lead to a dangerous one-sidedness, according to Jung. We can become inflated, puffed up with our own certainty that we have discovered absolute truth. It is also similar to the cognitive trap of “thoughts as things,” where we believe that our thoughts are necessarily true. For example, because we wonder whether we might be a boy, this becomes the basis for believing that we are, in spite of the obvious. Perhaps it is the case that, with the breakdown in traditional structures that in centuries past provided us with socially agreed upon values and meaning, we have become confused as to what we ought to focus on, and have begun overvaluing our own thoughts. We have replaced complex belief systems that evolved over centuries with a belief in our own thoughts. While the former are by no means without their flaws, they at least provided some guiding principles. Without a guiding value structure, we are let loose in the hall of mirrors of our own minds, uncertain to what we ought to ascribe importance.
Indeed, the word “identity” is interesting in this regard. Its use has climbed sharply over the last few decades, confirming the impression that one’s identity was not the obsessive focus for past generations as it is for us today. The word originally meant “sameness, oneness, state of being the same,” and comes from the Latin root idem, meaning “the same,” underscoring the sense that claiming an identity is in large measure an effort to conform.
One of the wonderful things about Jungian thought is that it admits of virtually infinite possibilities. Each one of us is unique, and the human personality is endlessly complex. Transition could absolutely be the right course for some. I know those for whom it has given them access to a deep sense of wholeness, rightness, happiness, — and authenticity. I think we get into trouble, however, when we assume that a given feeling or belief about ourselves – no matter how strongly held – represents a kind of absolute truth about who we are, or who we will become.