Born This Way: Identity and Cognitive Dissonance

By Breanna Martin

Last month, the Trump Administration announced that they are considering narrowing the definition of gender to a biological condition defined by the genitalia a person is born with, effectively removing the US government’s recognition of transgender individuals. In the US political landscape, past and present, it is common to see the everyday struggles and egregious injustices experienced by various classes of people diminished by the cis-het white male mainstream. Now, in the age of “identity politics”, this proposed gender policy takes that age-old tradition to an extreme. Aside from the severe legal implications, this new policy represents an erasure of the existence of transgender identity, nullifying the lives of an entire group of people.

In these times, when we feel as though our identities are under attack, reaffirming the importance of recognizing and cherishing who we are is crucial.

Let’s try an exercise: 

Imagine that you have brown eyes. You live in a society in which you are bombarded with constant messages from media, advertising, religious groups and even your own family and friends telling you that having brown eyes is wrong, or even disgusting. People often suggest that you get color contacts or cover your eyes with sunglasses (even indoors).

In this situation, you might start to internalize these messages and feel that you, like your brown eyes, are wrong and disgusting. You may even grow to hate your brown eyes and start wearing color contacts every day. You would probably also ask yourself, “Why was I be born like this?”, “How can something be unnatural if I was born with it?” “Why am I made to feel so horrible about being this way if it’s not my fault and was not my choice?”

These conflicting and inconsistent thoughts are referred to as cognitive dissonance. This is a constant mental state for many individuals whose identity, be it gender, racial, religious or any other qualifier, is not accepted or valued by their society. Cognitive dissonance can give way to dysphoria which can breed depression, anxiety and other mental ailments. This changes those conflicting thoughts into a constant assault of downing and negative self-talk. Such a tumultuous pattern of thinking can lead to acting out, or, conversely, becoming withdrawn and sullen.

So, how does one clear this mental clutter and put existential dissonance at bay? Acceptance.

Acceptance of the parts of ourselves and our experiences that we cannot change is a crucial foundation to self-actualization. It gives us the tools to combat negative thoughts which offers peace of mind.

While the answer is simple, the process can be very hard. There are no steps or roadmap to self-acceptance. However, utilizing the following tips may help the process:

Do Your Research: Identity is a major topic of discussion today and, with the advent of social media, more and more people are speaking the truth of who they are. Familiarize yourself with voices that resonate with you and use this opportunity to learn more about other groups.

Use the Lingo: When we are exploring who we are and coming to terms with our identity, finding and using the terminology associated with that identity can be very powerful and comforting. The existence of that terminology affirms that we belong to something greater than ourselves.

Find a Community: Building a community of those like you and allies who respect your identity allows you to hear new perspectives on the issues you are grappling with. These people can be pillars of support and assistance on your self-acceptance journey. Given that we live in a digital era, this community can be physical or virtual.

In the face of so much vitriol, our most basic defense against oppression is the active practice of love and respect for our own identity and that of others. In this way, we can begin our own process of healing and help those around us.