Am I transgender?
With the recent boom in awareness and acceptance of transgender people, this is a question more and more people are asking—particularly teens and young adults. If you do a quick Internet search, you’ll find no shortage of people seeking to advise on the matter. Many of these are content transgender people who seek to spare others like them the skepticism that, in their cases, merely delayed the relief of their suffering.
People with gender dysphoria, however, are a diverse group, and they might follow a variety of trajectories. Some who think that a gender transition will address their struggles later say that it did not. These individuals may go on to detransition—that is, to return to living as a member of the sex that was originally written on their birth certificate. Historically, rates of regret over transition have been very low, and there is no question that cross-sex hormone treatments and gender confirmation surgeries have relieved many people’s suffering. On the other hand, access to transgender medical care used to be gate-kept more strictly, and as transgender visibility increases, detransitioners are also becoming more visible.
Over the past decade or so, there has also been a particularly acute increase in gender transitions among those born into bodies traditionally described as female. The transgender population used to have a considerable male-to-female majority, but The Guardian reported in May 2018 that between 2009 and 2017, referrals of children to the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service increased from 97 to 2,016—an increase of 1,978%. Of those children, 70% are biologically female. Suffice it to say, this population differs from the one that has been studied in the past and deserves its own studies.
To explain this boom in pediatric transgender identification, some parents, therapists, and academics have begun to speak of a rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), in which older children or teenagers who had not previously shown signs of distress over their gender begin to do so at or shortly after puberty. The concept is controversial, and Brown University’s Lisa Littman faced public backlash over a preliminary study she published on the subject in the journal PLOS One in August 2018. Concerns about a similar backlash derailed another study of the sort that could help both transgender people and would-be future detransitioners as they try to make sense of their own experiences.
What are teenagers who struggle to fit gendered expectations to make of this? Sometimes, they reach out to transgender or detransitioned people for advice. Carey Callahan, a therapist and a detransitioned woman, receives a lot of these queries. In response to one gender-questioning young person who expressed both strong dysphoric feelings and a sense of terror at the prospect of eventually detransitioning, Callahan wrote, “I’m so relieved to hear you’re terrified of detransition. […] Detransition is that special kind of hyper-shitty experience where people who will never transition or detransition nonetheless feel they are entitled to be the expert on whether it’s shitty.”
Where Gender Dysphoria and Overexcitability Might Meet
Perhaps you are wondering why we’re talking about this subject here in Third Factor, a magazine aimed at readers who could be described as “gifted,” “creative,” or “intense.” Here’s why: it appears that gender dysphoria is especially likely to manifest in this population. In the writings and social media accounts of gender dysphoric people, I noticed many examples of what we at Third Factor refer to as overexcitability. Here’s one such tweet by a detransitioned young lesbian named Helena who refers to her own experience as ROGD:
Regular readers of this magazine know the term overexcitability well, but for those joining us for the first time, allow me to briefly explain it. Overexcitability (OE for short) is a term that comes from Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD). It refers to an innate wiring that makes a person extremely stimulable. It likely overlaps with the concept of the highly sensitive person, but it’s defined somewhat differently. For instance, OE is described in five separate domains, and a person may fit one, some, or all of them. To give a rough and superficial introduction, intellectual OE is all about the mind: a ceaseless drive to absorb and analyze information. Imaginational OE gives a person a powerful ability to envision the counter-factual, whether that means creating fantasy worlds or seeing clearly all the things that could go wrong in the real one. Emotional OE cranks up the volume on a person’s feelings; it can sometimes contribute to a powerful empathy, especially in mature people who have learned to handle their own strong emotions. Psychomotor OE gives a person a surfeit of physical energy, while sensual OE leads a person to be more strongly affected by sensory pleasures, whether it’s the taste of a favorite food, a beautiful sunset, or a symphony.
We here at Third Factor spend a lot of time talking about the lived experience of overexcitability, which most of us discovered by chance and proceeded to get very excited about, because we finally had language to name and make sense of why we always felt weird. If you’re new to the topic, you might enjoy our introduction, or generally browsing our front page. I’d encourage anyone interested to note in particular how OE fits into the broader theory of positive disintegration, as the construct of overexcitability is best understood in the context of the broader theory, which addresses crises and disintegrations and their role in a person’s ultimate growth. It’s also worth noting that Dabrowski wrote about puberty as a period during which highly overexcitable people may be likely to experience disintegration.
There’s one other thing I should note: the circle in which overexcitability is most well known is that of gifted education, because people who relate to these intensities seem to be overrepresented among those labeled gifted. As I was researching this subject, I learned something interesting from Lisa Marchiano, a Jungian therapist who consults with families in which an older child or teenager has unexpectedly come out as transgender. Marchiano told me that “approaching one hundred percent” of the families that reach out to her are inquiring about a child who has been identified as gifted. Of course, as she noted, this could simply mean that gifted kids come from the types of families that are most likely to do in-depth research on these sorts of things. Nevertheless, it’s an observation that seems to merit further exploration.
Overexcitability, after all, could be said to be all about not fitting within normal bounds—including those we perceive around gender. Research suggests that overexcitability might affect whether a person seems more “masculine” or “feminine.” In a 2009 article for Roeper Review entitled “Gender Identity and the Overexcitability Profiles of Gifted College Students,” Nancy B. Miller, R. Frank Falk, and Yinmei Huang compared students’ results on the Bem Sex-Role Inventory to their results on the Overexcitability Questionnaire Two. Their article is available online, but I’ll highlight a few key points.
Miller, Falk, and Huang found that gender identities of “masculine” or “feminine,” as defined and assessed by the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, predicted domains of overexcitability better than strict biological sex. (Note that these gender identities were assigned to subjects based on test scores, not by individual self-report; moreover, they intentionally refer to gender stereotypes.) In this study, 10.2% of biological females who presumably identify as women were nevertheless assigned a masculine gender identity, and 5.1% of biological males who presumably identify as men were assigned a feminine gender identity. In the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, it is also possible for a person to score high in both femininity and masculinity, which produces a gender identity of “androgynous,” while “undifferentiated” is a gender identity referring to low masculinity and low femininity. Miller et al found that androgynous college students had the highest overexcitability overall, with the highest scores in four of the OE domains and second to the feminine group in the fifth (emotional OE), per the chart below:
Based on this single study, it seems reasonable to speculate that overexcitability might have something to do with the disproportionate appearance of gender dysphoria among the gifted. Remember that in this study, one in ten of the gifted women weren’t classified merely as “androgynous,” but stereotypically “masculine”; moreover, people who are androgynous still may feel constrained by traditional gendered boxes. To help out the young people who write to people like Carey asking for advice, this seems like a fruitful area for further study: What trajectories have these gifted “masculine” and “androgynous” young women followed? Were they ever at all dysphoric about their gender?
Of course, even if there were already many studies tracking these trends, they still would not provide a customized and reliable answer for any individual dysphoric teenager who wonders what she should do to address her poor fit in the gendered box she perceives around her, and in which she feels trapped. She is idiosyncratic, and she has no choice but to chart her path for herself.
To that end, idiosyncratic people benefit from hearing a variety of stories with a variety of frames—and stories of overexcitability can be part of that. Unfortunately, highly overexcitable people are themselves rare. People who experience intensity in multiple domains are often unaware of just how they differ from others, though they know that something doesn’t line up. When they’re first presented with this frame for understanding their experiences, many intense people have a moment that feels a bit like Hagrid showing up and announcing, “You’re a wizard, Harry.” Take for example this top Amazon review of Living With Intensity:
I originally bought this book as a parenting resource, but instead, I cried reading the first two chapters as I remembered every time in my life that people have told me that I am too sensitive, I talk too much, I talk too fast… No matter what I do, I am just TOO MUCH. When I confide in loved ones about the way I feel, they tell me that I should see a psychologist… I agree with them. I do need help… but who would I go to? How would I explain what is wrong with me? How would they even begin to help me? I’ve spent a great deal of time researching these questions… and finally, this book gave me the answers.
There a myriad of ways that overexcitability might make a person’s experience of gender painful, especially at adolescence, when the world doubles down on gendered adult expectations and your body betrays you. (Horror at puberty is often cited as a sign of being transgender, but is also frequently experienced by many women who are not transgender—and may be all the worse when overexcitability cranks up emotions, analytic tendencies, and even physical sensations.) It’s important to note that OE is separate from, but often accompanies, other factors that can be linked to gender dysphoria, including neurological conditions like ADHD and autism or experiences of trauma. If those are present in your story, those should be the focus of your attention, though OE can emerge from and intertwine with those experiences, so it may still be helpful to explore this frame.
So, just to throw out some possible manifestations of overexcitability at puberty: emotional OE may heighten both boys’ and girls’ sensitivity to people’s subtle expressions of approval or disdain, including those related to gendered expectations. Especially in adolescence, there will be messages coming at them from every direction telling them what inhabiting their sexed body allegedly means about who they are, related to groups into which they may seek to fit, leading young people to perceive gendered boxes that may be quite small. To the “overthinking” mind, the developing body may come to represent something with which they do not even begin to identify. Imaginational OE will enable them to envision—clearly and perhaps with physical sensations—all the bad things that this body might subject them to; for girls, this includes weighty burdens like sexual objectification and childbirth. (To throw in a personal example, during a high school discussion about how backstreet abortions are conducted, I passed out and hit my head on the desk of the kid next to me.) An overexcitable person will also be able to envision an alternate existence to the one they perceive is demanded of them. And if their intellectual OE puts together a case that this alternate world is within reach, their emotional OE will likely fuel their desire to escape to it.
But is there really anything to this? Even if it’s reasonable to hypothesize that overexcitability is playing a role in the rapid increase in girls seeking to transition to being boys, I have not tested this. Are there actually any gender dysphoric people out there who might find this frame useful?
To begin to explore this question, I reached out to four detransitioned women and two transgender men (i.e., female-to-male or FtM) and asked them about their experience of intensity. I focused only on the current/former female-to-male population because they are the demographic that seems most in need of attention, though a study of OE in gender dysphoric men and transgender women would also be quite interesting.
So without further ado, allow me to introduce the women and men who were kind enough to speak to me. We have met Carey, 36, already; she has experienced gender dysphoria since puberty, transitioned socially and medically at 30, and detransitioned at 32. Jesse, 20, is a primarily same-sex attracted woman who has experienced abuse, racism, homophobia, and socioeconomic strain; she tweets about her experiences at @dogcalledbambi. Helena, 20, is the author of the tweet above and many others at @lacroicsz; she is Jesse’s girlfriend and was recently diagnosed with ADHD. A., in her late 20s, was on testosterone for two years and had a double mastectomy before detransitioning last year and beginning an antidepressant; she blogs about her experience.
Turning to the guys, Alec, 26, came out as trans in 2012 and started hormones in December 2014; he is an INTJ. Mars began his physical transition in September 2018 at age 36 after dealing with gender dysphoria for his whole life; he is the co-host of TransBruh, a new podcast that discusses the experiences of trans men. Mars also has been diagnosed with ADHD.
I am very grateful to all of them for sharing their unique experiences. As I talked to them individually, they shared far more interesting information than would fit into a single article. For now, however, I will stick to what is for Third Factor the most relevant preliminary question: what’s the role of overexcitability in the lives of each of these gender dysphoric individuals?
The observation that giftedness seems common in current or former trans-identifying individuals holds up with this group. Only Jesse and Alec were formally identified as gifted in school—Jesse was reading at age 2 and skipped kindergarten, and Alec was a runner up for “most intelligent” in his school mock elections—but even those who were not formally identified seem to be part of this tribe. A. said that a teacher called her “precocious” and that she fit the general descriptions she’s read of gifted people. Helena got a very high ACT score and was told she was gifted during her recent assessment for ADHD. Mars’s teachers told him he was a talented writer, and Carey’s writings suggest she’d blend into this crowd, too. This is unsurprising, of course, given that I reached out to all of them precisely because they seemed like people Third Factor readers might relate to.
So, naturally, intellectual overexcitability (the type of OE most directly tied to what we label “giftedness”) was evident in every one of them—as was the frustration that often comes with asking too many questions, overthinking them, and being frank about their conclusions. Mars and Alec both have clearly thought deeply and analytically about the what it means to be a transgender man and how they fit in various groups. Both expressed profound frustration over people’s unwillingness to engage with complexities, and both of them sounded to me like divergent thinkers. “That’s an interesting observation because I’ve always believed in the idea of thinking for yourself,” Mars responded when I suggested as much.
Alec, meanwhile, recently tweeted about his desire to “go stealth” (i.e., not openly identify as trans, but simply as a man) to avoid on one hand a transgender community that he sees as too focused on a hierarchy of victimhood, and on the other, critics who don’t care about the discrimination and even violence that trans men face. “I can’t make people care,” he wrote. “I’ve also grown so tired of getting shit on from all sides. It’s so exhausting.”
Intensity and the Detransitioners
But there is more to overexcitability than simply the domain of the intellect. What of general intensity? I asked each of them whether they thought of themselves as “intense,” as described in our piece, The Overexcitable Experience. And as it turned out, all four of the detransitioned women experienced overexcitability in multiple domains.
“Listen, I once wrote a journal entry specifically venting that I felt like I was ‘too much.’” A. told me. “I wish I could find it, because it was exactly like the introduction to The Overexcitable Experience. My intense emotions have often frustrated me to the point that I hoped to die rather than continue to experience them.”
She related a story of conversations with her best friend and roommate, and how she often felt that the conversation was unfinished—as though her friend was reluctant to share the rest of her thoughts. “But I’ve started learning that even though I might have a hundred different thoughts about something, that doesn’t mean everyone else does,” she said. “Just because my feelings are this strong doesn’t mean that’s how it is for everyone.” A.’s realization is a great example of an overexcitable person coming to understand that other people aren’t wired the way she is, and one that mirrors what I’ve heard from other overexcitable people.
Carey’s response also touched on common experiences from the intellectual and emotional domains of overexcitability. “I am intense,” she wrote in response to my question. “I am very drawn to analyzing interpersonal patterns and looking for the big, deep truths propelling those patterns. People who are close to me can feel really tired out by me. The analysis and then the big emotions about the analysis can be a lot to take. But then they end up calling me when they need some empathy, so it’s fine.” I’m pretty sure many of our intense readers are nodding in recognition here.
Jesse was perhaps the most enthusiastic of all. “I AM SO INTENSE. CAPS FOR EMPHASIS,” she wrote. “The OE article sums up my experience in a way I never had considered possible. I legitimately think I might be one of those lucky weirdos that experiences overexcitability in all five of its manifestations. So much of my lived experience revolves around the knowledge I so intensely learn and share, my constant need to DO something, and how intensely I feel my own emotions and sense the feelings of others.”
Jesse also had kind words about Third Factor in general: “Just in my brief time interacting with TF, I’ve already felt so moved and changed in terms of rethinking how I perceive myself and my strengths.” (Aw, thanks, Jesse! The credit really belongs to Kazimierz Dabrowski and his theory of positive disintegration, and to Michael Piechowski, who wrote about OE and helped get this little-known frame out there to people who could use it.)
Helena hesitated a bit, for reasons that are also common: “[The Overexcitable Experience] was super interesting to read, and it’s a bit difficult to place myself,” she said. “I struggle with depression, which has caused me to have very low energy and apathy, so I don’t currently identify with being “too much” or a highly energetic person at all.” Nevertheless, she described being labeled as a teen as a “drama queen” and “hypersensitive” by her parents and a therapist as a teen. “I took everything very seriously, but doesn’t every teenager? I don’t know,” she added, somewhat echoing A.’s wondering whether others had the same things going on inside their brains.
Nevertheless, Helena’s description of the aspects of OE she might relate to was textbook with respect to the emotional, intellectual, and imaginational domains: “I do know that I’m extremely sensitive to things like criticism and tone of voice, and over-analyze things people do in relation to me a lot. I’m kind of the type of person who is constantly in my own world in my head. My thoughts are always going a mile a minute, and I get almost an emotional high from thinking about topics I find interesting and realizing new things about them as I think about them. It’s hard to pay attention to or even interact with the real world because the one inside my head is so much more stimulating. I love to think about really complex topics, like certain aspects of society—economics, politics, etc. So, while I might not be a person who is constantly loud or ‘annoying’ in an intense way, or someone who’s ‘artsy’ and very self expressive or extroverted, I feel like I have a lot of intensity going on inside of me.”
Helena’s and A.’s reflections highlight an important point: since we only can ever see the world from inside our own head, we don’t know if what’s going on inside that head is “normal.” If intense emotions, vivid fantasies, or constant analysis are your personal, internal norms, you’ll probably get clues that they’re not for other people, but it can be hard to tell for sure.
Interestingly, our two trans men appeared more lukewarm upon being asked if they relate to being called “intense,” even as it seemed to me that they did both display OE. “I’ve never described myself as intense,” Mars told me. “Though, I do tend to overthink a lot which causes me to become anxious at times. I do get a rush of intensity and want to get things done as soon as possible on some occasions. But I can’t say that I would ever describe myself as intense because I feel more calm as a person mostly.” On one hand, overthinking is a sign of intellectual overexcitability; while on the other, the notion of overexcitability didn’t seem to resonate with him as powerfully as it did with the detransitioned women.
Alec’s response was also somewhat different in nature from the detransitioned women’s, while also in line with experiences of overexcitability. “I think of myself as ‘intense’ in the sense that my thinking is very black and white,” he said. “Either I’m utterly obsessed about something or completely uninterested. No in between. Same goes with my emotions.” As a follow-up, I asked him whether he thought the descriptions “gifted,” “creative,” or “intense” fit any other transgender or detransitioned people he might know, and he responded, “I don’t think these fit as many trans people as they do the detransitioners I know. I think these fit the detransitioners more.”
Replacing the Gendered Box
Is Alec’s observation correct? We’d need more than just my six anecdotal conversations to find out. What strikes me is that even though everyone I spoke to could be described as overexcitable, overexcitability as a frame seemed to address something particularly salient for the detransitioners. We could speculate, perhaps, that a young woman’s unusual intensities might cause her particular distress if she perceives herself to be trapped in the “feminine” box because of her body. Perhaps she believes that fitting into some box is required for belonging, and therefore judges that she must move to a new box.
This is a theme that Helena emphasized to me. “I want people to know that a lot of these traits—being highly intellectual, passionate, and creative—are traits that are demonized or made fun of in women but praised in men,” she said. “It’s no wonder we identified with malehood when, as far as society is concerned about personality traits, we are male. Society teaches us that when you’re female, your body is what counts and not your soul or your mind. That is crushing.”
As for A., after a decade during which she “wanted to be male more than anything else in the world,” she experienced an epiphany in which she realized that the female category was big enough to include her. “I was watching a lot of historical dramas and documentaries at the time, stories about birth and death and ancestry and pre-modern life, and I think it hit me just how disconnected I had become from the world and reality. I was so preoccupied with my own inner world that I was missing out on being part of history in the making, in whatever small way I might be. I was channeling my creativity into shaping myself, rather than shaping the world around me, and it seemed indescribably sad. I waffled about it a little, reviewed the pros and cons of detransitioning. It’s kind of a pain to change your name and gender marker. I didn’t really want to tell everyone again—it’s kind of embarrassing. But once I realized that I could live a fulfilling life as a female person, it didn’t seem sensible to stay transitioned.” A’s experience reflects that of many other people born in female bodies, who as they grew determined that the gendered box they perceived as adolescents is much bigger than they initially believed—or maybe even entirely illusory.
But being overexcitable doesn’t mean transition isn’t right for any given person, either. Looking back down the roads they have traveled, Mars and Alec both emphasized that the path they chose was difficult but necessary for them. “I chose to transition and live this life because I needed to in order to survive, not because I wanted to,” Alec said. “I don’t recommend taking this path if it’s not a necessity for you. If it’s a necessity, it will be worth the trouble.”
Mars, moreover, is channeling his OE into breaking down boxes in his own way. He recently partnered with another trans man to launch a podcast to discuss trans men’s issues, and he is working on a memoir called Artificial Man, which will touch on political controversies around the transgender movement and how they impact people like him. One of these regards questioning the recent increase in transgender teens. “Thus far there is no explanation for the phenomenon of the amount of youth that’re trans today,” he said. “I strongly believe that those questioning that they are trans—and especially children—need to learn how to cope before making life decisions they don’t fully grasp.” If you are a gender dysphoric teenager considering medical transition who nevertheless thinks Mars has a point here, exploring your own overexcitability could be a way to help check this box.
Based on her experience, Jesse said she is now vehemently against suggesting others follow the path she took. “I understand that some people may genuinely feel peace or happiness in their trans identity, but from what I’ve seen, people are not as happy as they seem on the surface,” she said, reflecting on her time as a transgender activist who led LGBT youth organizations, spoke at transgender conferences, and assisted in the production of a transgender-focused docuseries. “I value being an active member of my communities, but my transition experience has taught me the importance of not pledging allegiance to an echo chamber of misinformed ideals. Worth and self-peace come from within; it’s not something that comes with hundreds and thousands of dollars of medical expenses.” In this sense, though they ended up in different places, both Mars and Jesse would seem to agree on the benefits of contemplating what it means to be a divergent thinker and a nonconformist.
The path that will unfold ahead of any given gender-questioning young person is impossible for anyone to know ahead of time. As with any other life decision, making the right choice requires self-knowledge, whether you are intense and overexcitable or not. This, ultimately, was Carey’s advice, which you can read in more depth in her essay in response to those questioners who are reaching out to her, seeking guidance: know your own feelings, know what to expect, and know what your own values are, so you can be sure you are at least acting in accordance with them. In trying to predict your future happiness, that is the best anyone can ever do.