I want to share something that I think is important and worth sharing, which is the power of our self-image—how we see ourselves—and the impact our moods can have on it. And I want to demonstrate this idea by an experience I had today.
Unless you are in our Embrace Autism Community on Facebook, many of you readers will probably not know this about me yet, but I’m transgender; I was born male, but since I was about 8 years old, I started having fantasies about being female. Interestingly, autistic people were found to be were 7.76 times more likely to report gender viarance, 5.1% of autistic males and 4.8% of autistic females report gender problems,Gender Variance Among Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Retrospective Chart Review (Janssen, Huang, & Duncan, 2018) and 6–26% of transgender individuals were found to qualify for an autism diagnosisPrevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Amongst Individuals with Gender Dysphoria: A Systematic Review (Thrower et al., 2019) (compared to approximately 2.5% in the general population).
I will write an article soon-ish where I will reveal my female name and tell you more about my story, but the only thing relevant to set the scene for my significant experience of self-perception is that I have been on estrogen and testosterone blockers for almost 3 months now, and I’m starting to notice physical changes in my body.
The experience, pt. 1
In the morning, I looked at myself in the mirror—the long clothing cabinet mirror in which you can view your whole body—and I was pleased with what I saw. The sides of my body above my hips are starting to come in more, resulting in my body showing more curves. I told Natalie how amazed I was with how different my body looks from a year ago—also bearing in mind that a year ago I was at my heaviest ever, at 107.5 kg, and I have since lost 25–27.7 kg (I’m fluctuating a bit in my weight, hovering around 80–82 kg, with a length of 189 cm).
Anyway, so with both the weight loss and the effect of the hormones, I was thoroughly pleased with where things were going. And finally being on feminizing hormones, I am happier than ever! I have never felt more like myself.
And also, looking into the mirror and being pleased with what I see, is in itself absolutely amazing. I hesitate to call it an achievement, but I have been trying to avoid mirrors as much as I can for about 15 years. I love that I can finally look into the mirror and feel appreciation rather than sadness and disgust.
The experience, pt 2
I think that is a powerful demonstration of self-image. I probably never looked bad as a male, and I even sometimes felt I looked handsome, but to me, that was never worth anything, because I wanted to be ‘pretty’ rather than handsome. Somehow, the very word ‘handsome’ always pained me. Only now that I am starting to look more feminine, am I starting to look at myself more favorably. I am showing more confidence, I am more emotionally expressive, open, and willing to show vulnerability. I feel like I am finally self-actualizing!
But my experience actually consists of two moments. And as you will see, it’s not like I have been magically cured of self-criticism.
I went back to bed, and when I woke up again, I was not in a great mood. Not agitated, but sad. I don’t recall why exactly now—it probably wasn’t even important. I do remember being disappointed with myself; I slept for 20 hours in total, as I caught up sleep from the day before when I skipped sleep to get more work done, although ironically I slept longer than I would have if I had just gone to bed the other night like a normal person. I had skipped sleep because I was mad with myself for how little work I got done. Now I was mad with myself that my choice to get more work done ironically ended up wasting more time—time that I could have used to get more work done!
So, I was not the happiest at this point. And I was being unnecessarily hard on myself. I went to the bathroom, I look at myself in the bathroom mirror, and my reflection now made me even more upset. Suddenly, when I observed myself, I felt like barely anything had physically changed with respect to my body. I looked at myself and criticized my body for being too wide, for looking too masculine, and I was revolted. And to clarify, I am not revolted by the male form in general; just by me.
The power of emotions
What fascinates me about these two experiences—though I certainly couldn’t appreciate this at the time—is that these are two moments on the same day, yet my self-perception was so drastically different. It made me realize that what we see, and how we interpret what we see, can be significantly influenced by how we feel in general.
If you feel sad or distressed, it is hard to appreciate what you have. Conversely, if you feel happy and secure, we can see the very same thing visually, and yet cognitively see something very different.
I imagine my body would not have looked significantly different between those two moments I observed it, and interpreted it; but one moment I felt wholeness, excitement, and appreciation, and the other moment I felt disgust, sadness, and hopelessness.
And I think that’s a powerful demonstration of the power of self-perception—and the power our emotions can have on how we perceive ourselves.
Do you know what’s funny? When I was in that sad mood, I came up with various reasons for why I was sad, but those were all really just intellectualizations; rational reasons I came up with to account for physiological feelings. Considering I slept for 20 hours, I was very hungry, and physically did not feel well. How crazy is that? That I end up criticizing myself and looking at myself with disgust just because I need food?
I think that is also a powerful reminder to eat at the appropriate times; because whether our interoception problems are due to our autismInteroception in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A review (DuBois et al., 2016) or alexithymia,The Feeling of Me Feeling for You: Interoception, Alexithymia and Empathy in Autism (Mul et al., 2018)Alexithymia, not autism, is associated with impaired interoception (Shah et al., 2016) one of the consequences is that we are often not aware of being hungry until we start feeling unwell. And by that time, you may suddenly find yourself looking at the world and yourself in a less favorable light, become sad, self-critical, and feel hopeless, while you just need to eat something.
Also, did I say ‘powerful’ too often? Ironically, asking this question just increased the number of times I said it.