Gender Questioning: Working Through Uncertainty in Your Gender

Published on: 08 Jul 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
woman reading to femal friend on couch

Gender can be a complicated topic. Not everyone feels confident or comfortable when thinking about or discussing their ideas about gender or gender expression. If you’re gender questioning, you should know that it’s perfectly normal to have these feelings, especially if you’re a young adult. 

While it can be stressful to have questions about gender, it can also be exciting to explore your identity. In time, and with the right support system, you can grow to feel more self-assured and assertive about your gender identity and how you express yourself. Talking to a LGBT therapist can help you work through gender questioning.

Learn more about the concept of gender here as we look at things like the notion of gender fluidity and how you can find your identity in a safe, supported way. 

What is Gender?

The term “gender” really just describes our societal and cultural views associated with sex — that is, the gender norms that accompany being a woman, girl, man, or boy. It often refers to behavioral expectations (gender role) related to someone’s assigned sex at birth (assigned gender), but gender also affects  how we feel about ourselves. Thus, it’s our feelings about our gender that really make up our gender identity. 

Simply put, gender identity is just how you feel internally about which gender you identify with. In the most basic of terms, it’s how you see yourself. 

While many people know that they’re the male or female they were born as, you’re free to choose any identity that feels right, comfortable, and natural to you. Some people may identify as masculine or feminine, while others may identify as gender-fluid — more on gender fluidity in a bit. 

Gender can be expressed in many ways, including through: 

  • Clothing
  • Hairstyles
  • Names
  • Speech
  • Pronouns 

Though many people identify with a gender that aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth (meaning someone born with male sex parts identifies as male), others may identify differently than what their anatomy suggests, or they may feel confused and unsure about their gender. 

No one else can see your inner gender identity, and how you choose to identify or express yourself is entirely up to you. It’s crucial to acknowledge (and respect) that gender identity is independent of sexual orientation, sexual attraction or sexual identity. 

Gender fluidity

Gender identity is personal and not necessarily set in stone. How someone identifies can change over time. Thus, some people identify as gender-fluid, meaning they don’t feel as if they have a specific, standing, or binding gender. A nonbinary person can also be gender-fluid or gender diverse, meaning that they don’t identify with one gender in particular.

The concept of gender fluidity is the formal recognition that gender is on a spectrum. How we experience gender can change at different times throughout our lives or when we find ourselves in various situations. 

“It’s important to respect an individual’s matter of expression when it comes to gender fluidity and how one might wish to express themselves to the world, as it can often relate to how one might identify internally rather than subscribing to societal norms. Practicing respect through this exploration can be enormously validating, especially if there may be fear of judgment.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

Steps to Take to Find Your Identity

There are no set rules about gender identity, but if you’re currently in a state of gender questioning, there are steps you can take to help you explore your feelings about yourself and your gender. 

You should never feel pressured to choose a label. Instead, give yourself a chance to consider your identity and accept it within yourself so you can feel confident as you begin to outwardly express your gender.

“Just as you would for a friend, it’s important to have some self-compassion in the process. It can be a place of ambivalence and confusion in understanding your own terms, but considering that you deserve self-respect, advocacy, and support might be some first steps towards clarity for yourself, your identity, and what you want to present and express to the world.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW.

Pay attention to the images you connect with

When you look at pictures of others, what kind of images resonate with you? Are you drawn to certain things where people express themselves in a specific way? Pay close attention to any positive or negative feelings you experience as you come across visual images throughout your day. 

Imagine your ideal self

If you had the power to transform yourself, how would you want to look? Use your imagination and try to envision an ideal version of yourself. What would this identity wear? How would their hair be styled? What would people call them?

No matter what you picture, this fictional version of yourself doesn’t have to be a fantasy. If an imagined self-identity doesn’t match up with how you currently express yourself, you can begin to reinvent your image however you’re comfortable. 

Let yourself experiment 

Gender questioning is normal, and it’s okay if you don’t figure out your gender identity right away. Give yourself a chance to experiment and try expressing your gender in different ways. 

You can try out a new style of clothing, start or stop wearing makeup, or ask your friends, family members, and teachers to refer to you with a different pronoun. Gender identity isn’t static, and it’s okay to change your mind as you try different things. 

Seek out supportive environments

Having support while you’re questioning your identity is essential. It can help you feel safe and more confident as you begin to express yourself in new and different ways. 

Many people find they’re very anxious when unsure of and exploring their gender identity. When you surround yourself with people who accept you, questioning your gender is less likely to become a source of anxiety. You’ll feel more comfortable trying out new things. Eventually, you’ll figure out how you really want to express yourself in a way that makes you feel like, well, you

When to Seek Help

Questioning gender identity isn’t something to ever be ashamed of. That said, if your current gender expression is causing you psychological distress, it might be time to seek professional help and treatment. 

Some people experience what’s known as gender dysphoria, a marked and upsetting disconnect between biological sex and gender identity. People with gender dysphoria may feel uncomfortable in their bodies and strongly desire to be another gender. 

Although gender dysphoria isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition, people may experience mental health symptoms if they don’t receive treatment. These symptoms may include: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicide ideation (research shows a clear link between gender dysphoria and a higher risk of suicide)

This makes it all the more important for people with gender dysphoria to get help and guidance in managing their symptoms.

Gender-affirming therapy with support from a gender therapist can significantly reduce feelings of depression and anxiety in people struggling with gender identity. It can allow them to figure out how to express their gender in a way they feel comfortable. 

Overwhelmingly, when people feel supported as they begin questioning gender identity, it’s possible to dramatically decrease some or all of the mental and emotional distress that’s often associated with the process.  

Gender identity can be complex, and you shouldn’t feel worried if you’ve been questioning how you identify. At the same time, you also shouldn’t hesitate to seek help if your current gender expression is causing you any form of anguish or distress. A professional can talk to you about your gender identity and help you decide if gender-affirmative therapy and treatment might be right for you. Seeking in-person or online therapy can help you explore your identity in a safe space.

Sources:

1. Roselli C. Neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation. J Neuroendocrinol. 2018;30(7):e12562. doi:10.1111/jne.12562. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6677266/. Accessed June 7, 2022. 

2. Olson S. Challenging Gender Identity: Biologists Say Gender Expands Across A Spectrum, Rather Than Simply Boy And Girl. UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics. https://socgen.ucla.edu/2015/03/01/challenging-gender-identity-biologists-say-gender-expands-across-a-spectrum-rather-than-simply-boy-and-girl/. Published 2015. Accessed June 7, 2022.

3. Garg G, Elshimy G, Marwaha R. Gender Dysphoria. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532313/. Published 2022. Accessed June 7, 2022.

4. García-Vega E, Camero A, Fernández M, Villaverde A. Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in persons with gender dysphoria. Psicothema. 2018;30(3):283-288. doi: 10.7334/psicothema2017.438. https://doi.org/10.7334/psicothema2017.438. https://www.psicothema.com/pi?pii=4483. Accessed June 7, 2022.

5. Olson K, Durwood L, DeMeules M, McLaughlin K. Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities. Pediatrics. 2016;137(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2015-3223. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/137/3/e20153223/81409/Mental-Health-of-Transgender-Children-Who-Are?redirectedFrom=fulltext?autologincheck=redirected. Accessed June 7, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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