Gender as a portal to Self

As an IFS trained therapist who has recently undergone gender-affirming vulvoplasty, I have personal experience grappling with how Parts relate to the body. Inner work (though important, of course) was not enough to release all my burdened energy.

The IFS community has welcomed transgender and non-binary people, but has struggled to fit our experiences into the “standard” IFS model. Therapist Nic Wilde rejects the idea that gender is a part, arguing instead it is a core aspect of Self.

Gender dysphoria serves as a barrier to Self-Part connection. As a dissociative energy, dysphoria inhibits parts from fully trusting and recognizing Self. I would spend countless hours with the same exiles, only for unburdenings to stall, questions to go unanswered, and parts to cry out for love from “someone else.” Post-surgery, my parts recognized Self with newfound enthusiasm and were eager to receive her compassion.

Lying in bed before surgery, my parts remained inconsolable over relational conflicts I was experiencing. Post-surgery, my parts “cuddle” with me at night, feeling less lonely and fully ready to welcome the love of a Self they now fully trust and recognize.

This lends credence to the idea that gender is core to Self. Post-transition, it’s less that everything feels “girly” and more that I feel more attuned to my innate Self energy. Gender being core to Self means that gender euphoria—personalized experiences of gender joy and authenticity not based on stereotypes—facilitates Self energy. This includes both personal experiences of gender expression, such as through fashion and connecting intimately with women and other gender-marginalized people.

Feminists have argued that gender produces cultural burdens linked to shaming for deviating from rigid roles. Some transgender advocates focus on the burden of being “born in the wrong body.” There is often unnecessary antagonism between these justice seeking groups.

In truth, both experiences lead to parts taking on burden energy. When men sexually harass me and I am blamed for it, I feel shame for dressing “provocatively.” When a nurse mis-gendered me after presenting at the hospital for complications directly related to my vulvoplasty, I felt shame and like I would never be recognized for who I truly am. Upon seeing the results of my procedure for the first time after surgery, I felt a huge spontaneous release of shame. All of these are relational experiences, either between Self and another person or between Self and parts, that have the potential to create or release burden energy.

Being in “the wrong body” can cause parts to take on burden energy, and medical transition can be one pathway to releasing that energy. The “wrong body” inhibits Self even in joyful moments. Wearing my pink bikini brought me Self energy, but knowing that it covered “male” anatomy brought shame and lessened that experience. Sexual experiences with loving partners bring joy and Self energy, as Patricia Rich teaches us, but the presence of unwanted anatomy took me out of those moments and made me conscious of how I was being perceived.

Post-surgery, I can be fully present in the moment and feel fully in Self. Years of work inside my inner system helped me find full expression after I was able to medically transition. Self energy helped me cope with the pain of dysphoria, but only the removal of dysphoria allowed for complete unburdening and fullest expression of Self.

Gender is a cultural burden and an innate aspect of Self. Patriarchal codes that divide aspects of Self into “masculine” (confidence and courage) or “feminine” (connection and compassion) serve us all poorly. Living in the wrong body, denied access to Self-led gender expression, also produces burdens. We need space for both experiences.

Parts need a body that feels like home. This may include self-acceptance work, and it may also include Self-led body modifications. Unburdening work cannot replace embodied experiences of gender euphoria for trans people.

By listening to the experiences of trans people and other marginalized populations, the IFS model can become even more effective and reach the full, rich diversity of all human beings.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks much for sharing this article on a subject near and dear to me. I appreciate the view that is presented, but my own experience has led me to a very different view of my many identities, including that as a transgender woman, where I do not want to force any of these identities into the model of Self and Parts.

    I was first introduced to IFS in October 2009, after I received my Master’s in Counseling at the age of 62, and struggled for my entree life with my gender identity. That first weekend of Level 1 training left me with the concept that the parts consistently blending with me were fear, shame and confusion over my gender identity. Identifying these parts opened the path for me to explore transition, which I did in 2011. I completed Level 1 trains male, and went on to further trains post transition as female.

    Much of this story is related in my memoir here.

    I think of our identities or what i like to call out “I-ness” to be separate than a part, or even Self. To me, Self is not so much an identity, but a compilation of positive moral values. To me, our I-ness sits above the IFS model, much like Newtonian physics works fine, up until a certain point, and then relativistic physics, takes over. For most people, who do not have any identity dysphoria, The model of parts and Self is fabulous. To me, when I attempted to force my gender identity into the model, it just did not work or feel right. My gender is not a part trying to protect me, nor is it a moral value, nor does it have a false beleif, so where in the world, or model does it fit. I become tired of trying to force, what I knew, what I knew with all my heart and soul, until I just accepted that my I-ness was “above” the model, and the I was at peace, and acceptance without feeling I had to force it into the model.

    I am not sure if I am being clear about this, and whether anyone might agree or disagree, but this works for me., and allows me to work with my parts for many other issues without my gender getting in the way. My overall message, is to not force the model into all aspects of being human. Let it grow, where it can.

    Best to all,

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Author´s Bio


  • Quin Rich

    Quin Rich is a feminist, therapist, and student of the IFS model. In addition to her current role as a therapist for survivors of domestic violence, she has experience in legal advocacy, case management, and prevention education for sex trafficking, sexual assault, and the LGBT community.

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