Exploring Gender Identity

Updated January 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Deciding to explore our gender identity is a personal process that can prompt questions in ourselves. While it may or may not be a simple, straightforward path, we should all be encouraged to discover who we are and feel supported doing so. 

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Definition: What Is Gender Identity?

Gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of self and gender,  whether that is man, woman, neither, or both. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible. There are numerous gender identities, and all are valid. Some people’s gender expression might match their gender identity, some might not.

Our assigned sex at birth is based on factors like reproductive organs, genes, and hormones. Gender, however, is a social construct that can vary across cultures. When someone’s assigned sex and gender identity don’t align, they might identify as transgender—one of the many identities a person can have. 

Types Of Gender Identities

Some examples include male, female, transgender, non-binary, two-spirit, third gender, pangender, agender, androgyne, demigender, neutrois, and more. Some of these are umbrella terms. A transgender person might not feel they’re only a man or a woman, and might consider themselves non-binary or genderfluid. 

Gender Identity & Gender Expression

Gender identity and expression are two related terms, but mean different things. The difference is that gender expression (or identity expression) is how a person chooses to outwardly display their gender. Gender identity, on the other hand, is internal. A few examples of gender expression might be someone’s clothing, hairstyle, pronoun choices, and makeup. More outward signifiers can include chosen names, speech, mannerisms, and body features.

Someone’s gender identity may or may not match their assigned sex at birth. However, just because someone identifies as a certain gender doesn’t mean they will express it to the world or present themselves that way. For some, it can take time for their gender expression to align with their gender identity. Others might be content identifying as but not externally expressing their gender. Some may not have the resources, safety, or support to express their gender but may still identify a certain way. 

Helping Someone Explore Their Gender Identity

If you’d like to help someone explore their gender identity or you’re interested in doing so for yourself, here are some tips: 

  1. Research. Consider learning about gender and different identities. We can educate ourselves and research any questions we might have.

  2. Listen. We may not fully understand what someone is experiencing, but anyone can lend an ear. Being nonjudgmental and open-minded can help us accept ourselves as we are. 

  3. Seek support. If you or someone you know is gender-questioning or experiencing gender dysphoria, it can be beneficial to seek support from a mental health professional. A licensed therapist can be better equipped to help us learn more about ourselves. 

  4. Be an advocate. Becoming an ally to the LGBTQ+ community can be one way to create positive change. Even if we don’t have our gender identity figured out, we should still have a safe space to keep exploring. 

Factors Affecting Gender Identity

Many different factors can affect a person’s gender identity. These could include things like life experiences, assigned sex at birth, societal expectations, personality traits, stereotypes, and interactions with peers. It could also include other biological factors like hormones and temperament as well as environmental factors like language and social reinforcement. 

Sometimes multiple factors can come into play, while other times one prominent factor has the most influence. It may be less important why we identify the way we do and more important that we can come to accept how we feel. 

Gender Identity & Mental Health 

When someone’s gender identity doesn’t match their assigned sex, they may experience mental health conditions as a result. This can be related to an inner struggle, but mental and physical wellbeing can also be affected by discrimination. People in the LGBTQ+ community experience an increased risk of mental health disparities as well as well as disparities in access to healthcare, especially for those in rural areas. That said, recent advances to online therapy have opened up new avenues to more safely receive mental health support. Research has proven that telehealth options are as effective as in-person treatment, and could be a more accessible way for gender-questioning people to explore their identity.

You Deserve To Live An Authentic Life And Feel Supported


There are many possible gender identities, as well as possible reasons for why we might question our assigned sex at birth. Gender, unlike sex, can be a nuanced social construct and internal experience. It can also be clear-cut and unambiguous. Either way, when we begin exploring our identity it can be helpful to have a trusted professional to talk to. Given the increased mental health risks faced by the LGBTQ+ community, talk therapy—whether in-person or online—can be one way to navigate forward.   

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