What Is Gender Dysphoria? A 90-Second Guide

Gender dysphoria can have a negative impact on self-image and quality of life.

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If you “feel” like your assigned gender, it can be hard to understand gender dysphoria or the transgender experience. As a result, there are a lot of misunderstandings about gender identities and transitioning.

What Is Gender Identity?

At birth, parents and doctors assign your gender based on physical traits—your biological sex. Babies with penises and other male parts often receive “boy names” and blue hats. On the other hand, babies with vaginas and other female parts generally receive “girl names” and pink hats.

This is an assigned gender because it imposes concepts of gender on the new child based on their biological sex. Often, this continues throughout someone’s childhood: Society encourages girls to play with dolls and wear dresses. Similarly, boys “should” like sports and getting dirty in a sandbox.

These actions subconsciously enforce a traditional gender identity. As kids mature, their true gender identity often matches their physical body. Even if they express their gender in non-traditional ways (e.g., boys liking pink or girls playing football), they can still “feel like” their assigned gender.

What Is Gender Dysphoria?

Some people start to feel at odds with their assigned gender as they mature. The expectations they received from their assigned gender start to feel like an oppressive performance—an inauthentic representation of who they really are.

When your assigned gender at birth does not match how you see yourself, and you feel psychological distress, this is called gender dysphoria. It’s tempting to conflate this term with transgenderism, but the two are not interchangeable.

Let’s break it down:

  • Transgender refers to one’s gender identity not matching their assigned gender at birth.
  • Gender dysphoria refers to the psychological distress and symptoms of depression when your true gender identity does not match your assigned gender.

The distress of having a mismatched gender identity generally stems from stigma and fear of societal rejection. Many people who don’t relate to their assigned gender at birth feel like they need to hide who they really are and “perform” a fake identity. In many cases, this can be exhausting, discouraging, and depressing. Untreated or suppressed, it can increase the risk of self-harm and suicide.

Finding Your True Identity

While psychologists treat gender dysphoria as a mental illness, it’s important to emphasize that this depression likely comes from feeling unaccepted. The illness is *not* the gender identity itself. Similarly, being transgender is not a mental illness.

So how do people get help for gender dysphoria? Treatment does not aim to correct one’s gender identity to match their assigned gender. Instead, therapists help ease or cope with the distress, accept your true identity, and—if you want—to get help on making changes to align with your gender identity. Along with individual therapy with a therapist who specializes in gender, it’s also helpful to seek out peer support and group therapy.

Not all people with gender dysphoria choose to transition: It’s a personal choice. For those who do transition, it’s a process that might involve years of personal growth, and everyone does it a little differently. This process might involve things like:

  • Changing one’s name or pronouns
  • Updating gender markers on IDs and other government documents
  • Undergoing medical treatments like cross-sex hormone therapy
  • Having gender-affirming surgery

A therapist will not urge or force someone with gender dysphoria to undergo any of these things. Instead, they will help them decide what they want—if anything—and support them through the process.

If you feel distress about your gender identity, you don’t have to hide yourself or suffer in silence. To learn more, speak to a mental health professional or primary care doctor.