Exploring Gender Identity

By Sydney Wiederhold|Updated July 29, 2022

Everyone goes through the unique process of discovering who they are or whom they want to be in life. We grapple with our values, dreams, goals, and why we think or act how we do. For some individuals, part of this process is exploring their gender identity, and it can happen whether the person is young or much older. Every aspect of one’s identity is worth exploring, especially when it brings clarity or helps someone grow into the person they’re meant to be. Deciding to explore your gender identity is a personal decision that can be full of highs and lows, questions and answers, and acceptance and rejection. While it may not be a simple, straightforward path, everyone should be encouraged to discover who they really are and feel supported doing so. 

You Deserve To Live An Authentic Life And Feel Supported

Definition: What is Gender Identity?

is one's own internal sense of self and their gender, whether that is man, woman, neither or both. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible to others.

Gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of self and gender,  whether that is man, woman, neither or both. However, unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible to others. There are dozens of gender identities an individual can have, and all are valid. Gender identity essentially describes how someone feels about their gender on the inside. It can have very little to do with how they look on the outside, although some people’s gender expression matches their gender identity. 

Usually, gender identity develops very early in a person’s life. Someone’s gender identity might match their assigned sex at birth, or it may differ entirely. Sex is based on biological factors like reproductive organs, genes, and hormones. Gender, however, is a social construction that can vary across cultures. When someone’s sex and gender identity don’t align and they decide to transition, they’re known as transgender individuals. However, there are plenty of other identities a person can have, even if they don’t transition at all. 

Why is Gender Identity Important? 

It’s important to recognize and affirm someone’s gender identity because it’s a big part of who they are. It can take a great deal of courage to step outside of society’s expectations, but it’s only by doing so that people can be who they are meant to be. Spreading awareness and education about gender identity are also vital, as more support is needed for the LGBTQ+ community, who tends to face higher rates of discrimination. Acceptance improves overall well-being for people of all gender expressions and identities. 

Types of Gender Identities

There are many different kinds of gender identities. Some examples include male, female, transgender, non-binary, two-spirit, third gender, pangender, agender, androgynous, demiboy, femme, demigirl, neutrois, and more. Some of these terms are umbrella terms. For example, someone who is transgender doesn’t feel that their sex at birth correlates with the gender they feel they are on the inside. However, a trans person doesn’t have to feel they’re only a man or a woman. They could also be non-binary or genderfluid. 

Gender Identity & Gender Expression

Gender identity and expression are two related terms that are important to understand; however, they mean different things. The difference between gender identity and gender expression is that gender expression (or identity expression) is how a person chooses to publicly display their gender. Gender identity, on the other hand, is how someone feels about themselves on the inside. 

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 takes time for their gender expression to match their gender identity. Others are content identifying as but not expressing their true gender. Others still do not have the resources to express their gender but may still identify a certain way. 

Gender expressions can vary from person to person. Some examples of gender expression are clothing, hairstyle, grooming style, pronoun choices, and makeup. Other gender expression examples could include your chosen name, voice, body language, and body features. 

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 to get started: 

  1. Do some research. Learn about gender identity, gender expression, and the different identities a person can have. Educate yourself as much as possible and research any remaining questions you have. There’s a lot of information to get through, so make sure you give yourself enough time. 

  2. Listen. You may not understand where someone is coming from, but anyone can lend a listening ear. Being nonjudgmental and open-minded can help an individual accept themselves as they are. 

  3. Seek support. If you’re trying to help someone explore their gender identity, but they seem to be struggling, it may be time to get them the support of a mental health professional. A professional may be better trained and equipped to help them learn more about themselves. 

  4. Be an advocate. Becoming an ally of those in the LGBTQ+ community is vital for creating change. Even if someone doesn’t have their gender identity figured out, they should still have a safe space to keep exploring until they do figure it out. 

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 one’s 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’s usually less important why someone identifies how they do and more important that they can ultimately come to accept how they feel on the inside. 

Gender Identity & Mental Health 

When someone’s gender identity doesn’t match their sex assigned at birth, they may experience a variety of mental health issues as a result. These mental health problems are often related to the inner struggle happening inside them. However, their mental well-being can also be affected because they belong to the LGBTQ+ community. Since people in the LGBTQ+ community experience more disparities in the mental health care system, it’s often harder for them to get help when they need it. Common mental health challenges and disparities experienced by these individuals include: 

  • Feeling “different” from other people, left out, or like they don’t belong 

  • Harassment, discrimination, or bullying 

  • Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and stress

  • Lack of LGBTQ+ representation among mental health professionals 

  • Loneliness from lack of support

  • Less access to mental health resources and care 

  • Ostracism from friends and family members who don’t accept their gender identity 

  • Higher rates of suicide and suicidal attempts 

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7.

It’s normal to experience mental health challenges from time to time, but they shouldn’t be so difficult that it’s hard to function at school, work, or with friends and family. Sadly, because of the widespread disparities that exist, those belonging to the LGBTQ+ community often face debilitating mental illnesses. When they do seek treatment, it’s often harder to find and of lower quality. 

While poverty, lack of resources, stigma, and discrimination all contribute to the disparities in the mental healthcare system, these are fortunately not unsolvable issues. Moving forward, it’s vital to address the systems that perpetuate discrimination and allow harassment of gender-questioning individuals. 

Since it’s clear that the LGBTQ+ community faces higher rates of mental illness, it’s also important to ensure these individuals are receiving quality care. More representation is needed among healthcare professionals, including providers who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Providers also need more education and training so that they can understand the perspective and needs of those questioning their gender. 

Educationally, it’s important that society learns more about how to support those in the LGBTQ+ community. To increase acceptance of the unique struggles faced by gender-questioning individuals, more awareness is needed overall. Change is possible, but it takes everyone working together and staying committed to the ultimate goal: allowing everyone to feel comfortable and accepted in their own skin. 

Self-Care is an Everyday Matter

You may have heard of self-care before but haven’t taken the time to explore what it really means. Self-care is a great way to help maintain more positive mental health, especially if you don’t have the resources to see a therapist yet. It’s also a great supplement to therapy and something you should aim to do each day. Here are some ways to practice self-care in a way that’s meaningful to you:

  • Develop a support system: We all need people who will accept us for who we are and encourage us through the highs and lows of life. Sometimes your support system will be your family, while others turn to their friend group more often. Whoever it is, make sure they’re in your corner, treat you well, and let you be 100% yourself. 

  • Journal: Journaling is a great activity if you have a lot of pent-up emotions or can’t figure out how you’re really feeling. By writing down your thoughts and feelings on paper, you may be able to sort through them more easily. Journaling can also help you with goals like self-love, confidence, or body positivity. You can write down affirmations or look back and see the progress you’ve made in these areas by what you wrote down. Additionally, there are journaling prompts that let you explore various topics and areas of your life in more depth. If you’ve never tried it before, pick up a journal and a nice pen or pencil and get started. 

  • Find hobbies you love: While you don’t want to simply distract yourself from problems or push down your feelings, it’s also important to take time to do the things that make you happy. Everyone has different interests, meaning your hobbies won’t always align with what your friends want to do. While it’s fun to do activities alongside other people, it’s good to have activities you can do on your own, too. You could garden, bake, write, do yoga, learn a new language, and more. Brainstorm what hobbies might be enjoyable for you, and then give them a try. The worst that can happen is that you don’t enjoy it and need to try something else. 

Self-care is all about you, so it doesn’t need to look a certain way. Building emotional resilience is essential as you come to terms with your gender identity and can help you feel surer of yourself. There are lots of ways to boost your self-esteem and confidence, but it’s up to you to discover what works best for you. Once you do, you can weather the trials of life with more tenacity, courage, and determination. 

You Deserve To Live An Authentic Life And Feel Supported

Finding Support with BetterHelp

If you’re in the process of exploring your gender identity, it can be helpful to have a trusted person to talk through it with. Online therapy is growing in popularity because of its convenience, affordability, and simplicity. When you sign up on BetterHelp you’ll get matched with a mental health professional trained in the area you’re needing support in. Whether that’s your gender identity or anything else on your mind, speaking to someone about it can help you process your emotions and figure out how you’re really feeling. 

BetterHelp gives you lots of options for connecting with your therapist. You can use a video call, phone call, or message them back and forth. You’ll have access to a chatroom that’s open 24/7 where you can send a message anytime. Your therapist will get back as soon as they can. As long as you have a smart device and a Wi-Fi connection, you can have your sessions anywhere you’d like, even from the comfort of your couch or bed. BetterHelp has made a difference in the lives of people just like you and could help you, too. When you’re ready to give it a try, be sure to reach out so that you can get matched with your therapist. 

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