For the uninformed: Dysphoria


This post was originally published May 09, 2009 here.

As a note: Dysphoria when it pertains to my body structure is something I now refer to as dissonance, as per the suggestions of several other trans activists who feel the word better describes the feeling of disconnect. This post has been edited slightly to remove some ableist and cissexist language. Each edit is marked with brackets. My sincere apologies for the bad wording and ableism and internalized cissexism.

As a mild disclaimer: I can not reasonably state that my dysphoria is exactly the same as anyone else’s. So expect results to vary when you ask other trans folk to explain their feelings to you. But this is how it feels to me:

Have you ever seen a broken leg? I don’t mean a normal broken leg. I mean the nasty freaky broken leg. No exposed bone or blood, but the knee is bent the wrong way. The leg doesn’t go in the direction it’s supposed to. It’s something that’s sort of terrifying to behold because you know it’s absolutely horrifyingly wrong deep down in your most instinctual parts of your brain. Now imagine that you look down at your own leg and it’s broken like that. You’re not feeling the pain but you are feeling the utterly freaked out feeling of “OMFG MY LEG IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE BENDING THAT WAY.” (Yes. The caps lock is required)

Not a pleasant feeling, right?

Okay, let’s go further. Let’s pretend that this freaky bent broken leg is seen as utterly normal by everyone else. They look at your body and go, ‘what’s the problem?’ There’s nothing freaky about them, you’re the only one with the freakishness driving you [up a wall] but no one else sees it. Forget the leg and just remember the feeling. The feeling of intimate, screwed up, almost grotesque wrongness. Like the very laws of how your body ought to be are violated, just like if you had that bending the wrong way leg. Imagine that feeling applied to everything about you that is male [associated] or female [associated. Or at least most of them]. Imagine seeing the male/female [associated] parts you have and getting that “OMFG MY BODY IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THAT.” (Caps lock still required.) That deep down instinctual feeling of “what the fuck”-ness that you get when you see a shattered knee bending a leg the wrong way or even worse see that bent leg on yourself. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make logical sense. It’s utter instinctual response.

That’s bodily dysphoria.

Now. Imagine living with that every day for the rest of your life.

Suddenly me going a little [twitchy] from it makes a bit more sense, doesn’t it? The drastic measures taken to make my body feel like it ought to be makes a bit more sense, now doesn’t it? Because there’s no other way to make that feeling go away.

Therapy doesn’t get rid of it. There’s no meds that do. This feeling is omnipresent. Sometimes I can cope with it better than other times. When my emotional resources aren’t drained from other stresses, like relationships, work, school, etc. But no life is without stressful times and when that happens and I’m drained, it hits me really full force.

To a certain extent the identity has followed up with it. I mean think about it, if my body being [having certain parts that also happen to be] male [associated] hurts me in the way I described above and changing it to [other parts that also happen to be] female [associated] helps fix that, I’m naturally going to start thinking of myself as less of a guy and more of a girl. Knowing that you’ll eventually have the body [associated with being a] woman sort of changes the equation for self identity (it doesn’t work like this for everyone, some people get the woman or man identity first and the bodily dysphoria after).

But for me, I really feel myself settling into the self identity of a girl. The self descriptive words I use have changed (tomboy, bitch, cute, pretty, lady, woman as opposed to tough, asshole, handsome, rugged, dude, man) and with that comes a change in my abstract psychological view of myself. So that adds a bit more pressure onto me on top of the bodily dysphoria.

I’m lucky in some ways. I’m not too upset about social things. The whole tomboy part is very much me not giving a shit about gender expectations and gender roles. I’m quite content having my own awesome self expression and not seeing it as girly or guyish. But others get hit with that in harsh ways.

I hope this helped get the idea across. It can be really hard to express these feelings to people who have never experienced similar things.

Go here to read the comments on the original post.

The original post has not been adjusted to remove ableist language or cissexist language, please be aware of the bad wording.

5 Responses to “For the uninformed: Dysphoria”

  1. 1 Robin

    Thank you very much!

    With this and another text of yours, where you explain about the wrong wrapping or something, titled pain something, you helped me explain to a good friend’s SO how it feels like to be body dysphoric. She was not aware before what her boyfriend went through though she had known that he was trans for a year or even many more, I don’t know, he had told me 6 or 7 years ago before even I transitioned. And you helped me find the right words with the texts you put online, to explain it to her.

    She became shocked after I described a typical MTF experience of becoming adult to her. (I think this is worse than the other way round, and I’m FTM), plus she’s a woman so it’s easier for her to relate the MTF way round). She had known a couple of trans people before, but then it suddenly clicked in for her. And she suddenly understood what transsexuality is about if it extends to body dysphoria and is not just social.

    She told me this a couple of days later, and thanked me that I helped her understand her SO. But I could not have done this without your blog entries, I would not have found the words.

  2. The Pain post was actually from Lisa Harney. At least if you’re talking about the one written at Questioning Transphobia. I did write one called “My dissonance doesn’t need to make sense to you” which was similar though.

  3. 3 snakeyjack

    I only just read this (been reading back in the archives) and it’s so true it makes my chest hurt. I know people experience dysphoria/dissonance in different ways, but this is an excellent expression of how I feel. I have tried to articulate to others before that “feeling of intimate, screwed up, almost grotesque wrongness”. Thank you for expressing it so well.

  4. Oh man “dissonance” is a MUCH better word for it, thank you. Dysphoria was this mysterious word that for some reason only seemed to apply to the “transiest of the trans” in my mind for the longest time, and I felt like it would be appropriative of me to use it. The kind of people that were like “I just want to rip these parts of my body off, I have known since I could speak that I was really , if I don’t transition I will kill myself, etc.”

    I kind of don’t really get how you could get a binary identity if you *just* had body dissonance first, because for me it was just this vague sense of unease that I figured everyone else had and I just had to deal with it because I didn’t feel like a man, so logically I had to be a woman, right? Hahaha thank you binarist society. Except I hated being seen as one (well, still do since I have transitioned) and pretty much identified with a lot of FTM stuff up to the point where they were like “because I’m really a MAN” then I was like “nooo, you lost me”. Also because I could do without the facial and body hair, basically if there were an androgynous hormone I would be on that shit in an instant. Hmm, maybe that’s why I didn’t acquire a “man” identity, because I didn’t agree with everything they wanted. It was when I found genderqueer and non-binary people I felt like there were finally people that understood me and that I could *fully* relate to.

    I do tend to get upset over social things. When I’m binding and wearing male-coded clothing, I feel hurt when people include me in things like “ladies”. Like I’ve done everything I possibly can at this point to look like a not-lady but they don’t care.

    Yeah, I just think it’s worth mentioning that not everyone always feels this sense of pure grotesque wrongness. Sometimes it’s just discomfit, the vague expectation of there to be something else there and when there isn’t, a sense of disappointment. Because that’s how I felt for the longest time. However, now knowing there are things I can do about it has kind of intensified the feelings, because I now know there is something that *can* be done and I don’t have to put up with the dissonance. I can get closer to looking how I picture myself. (Haha for the longest time when I was telling people about my dreams I was like “I may have been a guy in that dream. I’m not really sure, it’s pretty vague in dreams, you know?” because I figured everyone else felt the same way.)

  5. 5 ilostthegenderlottery

    Gay trans man here. Excellent description of dysphoria. My dysphoria about my bottom bits ruins the majority of my days. Because of medical limitations, I will never be able to have the parts I need to have sex the way I want with my boyfriend (and therefore, do anything sexual at all because I will not do what I do not enjoy, and though he is cis, he is an amazing ally and wouldn’t want me to do something that makes me more dysphoric) or be taken seriously as a man by the vast majority of cis queer men. Cis people cannot understand how painful it is for some of us.

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