An Imaginary Self
In a previous post I listed 4 categories that were often found to be extremely conflicted in women with SSA
- formation of self
- gender identity
This post is going to begin to deal with the topics of the formation of self and gender identity. Identity is an extremely important topic for everyone. We all have a certain way we view or think about ourselves that affects the way we interact and relate with God and other people.
Many women, due to lack of attachment developed with her parents, failed to develop a strong sense of identity. In order to make up for this lack of identity and “in lieu of having an affirmed and loved core self,” many of these women, created and latched onto “an imaginary self or role from which to draw even the most meager sense of identity” (p. 74).
The following three testimonies provide examples of the created selves/worlds that women with SSA develop and use in order to give themselves “a sense of grounding for their existence…a sense of relief from inner pain…a sense of attachment…” or to supply for themselves a method of self-protection (p. 74).
“By age 10 I just kind of lived in a fantasy world. I used to listen to all those heroes on the radio, like the Lone Ranger and the Shadows. I used to think I was the hero and would rescue everybody. I took care of my brother and my mom, who was sick a lot. I never felt fear though. I didn’t really feel anything. I just went along with whatever was happening” (p. 75).
“At age 6, one of my clients entertained fantasies of her parents dying. She methodically mapped out a way to single handedly care for her younger siblings. The fantasy provided her with a sense of power and security” (p. 74).
I remember as young as 8 years old, as I would fall asleep, I would stroke my arm or hair and pretend that it was another older motherly woman. I found great comfort in this and continued this practice regularly into college. I would often wish or pretend I was in the hospital very sick or dying so that the nurses would take care of me and in the process, touch me affectionately. I would also pretend that I had close friendships with certain girls and women whom I admired and found comfort in those pretend friendships. The real friendships I did have, I would often improve in my mind adding a depth of emotional intimacy to them that was not in reality there. This was a way of coping with the emptiness and loneliness I felt as well as my craving for intimacy and affection. My pretending eventually consumed my life to the point where I felt like nothing in my life was real. I lived in a world of make-believe and I did not know how to function any other way. It took years of taking my thoughts captive and thinking on truth to change my pretending habit. I also had to learn to give my loneliness and pain to Jesus instead of coping through my fantasy world.
These sorts of fantasy worlds left these girls with little formational energy to develop an authentic self and to form a sense of identity (p. 76).
In addition to the struggle of developing an authentic sense of self, many women with SSA also faced another “dimension to their mounting relational and identity issues” (p. 75). As children many of these women also, “displayed what are stereotypically defined as masculine or gender nonconforming behaviors and interests (Bell, Weinberg & Hammersmith, 1981)” (p. 75). Many also showed a dis-interest in stereotypically feminine activities. The gender non-conforming traits that many of these women possessed often led them as adults “into hobbies and careers more culturally identified as masculine (p. 76).
How Does Gender Confusion Often Arise?
There are two questions that gender identity formation arises from: “Who am I as a girl and is it a good thing?”
Women with SSA, as children, knew that they were biological females and usually “appropriately applied sex labels to others and themselves” (p. 77). The next step of gender identification development involves a girl becoming aware of and distinguishing “between the cultural sex roles that discriminate between girls and boys” (p. 77). At this stage in development the problem is not a lack of recognition of stereotypes but rather a lack of interest or even disgust “for the discriminating characteristics and social roles unique to females as portrayed within their families, schools, churches or broader culture” (p. 77).
In order “to become ultimately secure in their girlhood or feminine identity, these girls at least needed to… identify with some desirable…characteristics…within some women or social images of females…and if she receives ongoing acceptance, respect and affirmation as a girl,” (despite her gender nonconforming interests,) “all may be well” (p. 77). Unfortunately many of these girls did not receive this affirmation of their womanhood but rather found themselves in “environments that insisted they mold themselves into a rigid definition of femaleness or were shamed into believing that their interests and abilities made them less of a girl or unacceptably different” (p. 78).
In sixth grade I went to the music teacher and told him I wanted to play the drums. He just laughed at me and said girls don’t play the drums. I didn’t understand why girls couldn’t do the same things boys could. I was very innocent. It wasn’t like I was this feminist at 12 years old. (p. 78)
If a young girl, (who may already carry negative feelings towards female sex roles caused by other events or relationships in her life) experiences rejection due to her unique non-gender conforming interests, she may begin to wonder whether being a girl is a good thing. “These questions and doubts around whether she is acceptable and valued as a female—not the nonconforming interests themselves—are what may create difficulty in her gender identity formation” (p. 78).
Let me share a personal note that may help to illustrate the above points:
I grew up in a culture that expected women to act and dress in a very particular way. I did not fit into that mold of what a girl was supposed to look like. I can remember many times being asked if I was a tomboy (or in that culture, a lesbian). I enjoyed wearing my hair short and wearing boy clothes and was often mistaken for a boy. Even though I desired to be a boy I was nevertheless embarrassed and upset each time I was mistaken for a boy or asked if I was a lesbian. These questions, combined with a natural disinterest I had in most feminine things lodged a deep insecurity within my mind concerning whether or not I would make a better boy than a girl. I remember at times making an effort to dress nicely or put on makeup but would quickly become overwhelmed with the pressure of having to try to look as good or as feminine as the other girls around me. It mostly just felt awkward and uncomfortable.
It wasn’t until college that I began to unpack how the culture I grew up in had affected my view of what it meant to be a female. As a young girl, in my mind, being a woman had everything to do with outward appearance and behavior. Being a real “lady” meant wearing dresses and literally walking a certain way as well as avoiding a list of things that real ladies never did. As I got older I knew there was more to being a woman than what one wears etc. but was nevertheless unable to kick the feeling that I would never really be a “true” feminine woman. The year after college the Lord led me to pick up a book that unpacked for me what true biblical femininity looked like. In my next post I will attempt to share a bit of what I learned and how it began to change the way I viewed myself and what being a female meant. For now hopefully the above example helps bring the more technical points of gender identity to life.
Image courtesy of atibodyphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
(Unless otherwise indicated, all of the page references are from Hallman, 2008)
Bell, A. P., Weinberg, M.S. & Hammersmith, S. K. (1981). Sexual preference: Its development in men and women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hallman, Janelle. (2008). The heart of female same-sex attraction: A comprehensive counseling resource. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.