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What’s The Neuroscience Behind Difficulty Using They/ Them Pronouns and How To Overcome It?


What’s The Neuroscience Behind Diffculty Using They/ Them Pronouns and How To Overcome It? A Developmental Psychology And Cognitive Psychology Podcast Episode.

The day this developmental psychology and cognitive psychology podcast episode comes out, is the start of Transgender Awareness Week 2023. Therefore, I wanted to cover the really fun topic of using “They/ Them” pronouns to describe non-binary people and most importantly, the psychological reasons why some people find using “Them/ They” really hard to describe people. Then we’ll look at ways to overcome these difficulties. If you enjoy learning about transgender topics, developmental and cognitive psychology with a hint of mental health, then you’ll love today’s episode.


This podcast episode has been sponsored by Cognitive Psychology: A Guide To Neuroscience, Neuropsychology and Cognitive Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at https://www.payhip.com/connorwhiteley


Busting A Transgender Myth Immediately

Before we dive into today’s episode, I just want to bust a myth upfront because there is a very right-wing myth in society that if you get a person’s pronouns wrong then they are going to shout, scream and berate you. I’ve heard that myth tons of times and it is funny because it just isn’t true.


In my experience, if you get them wrong then the person will simply correct you and then you try and remember them. Then if you make a mistake again then apologise and as long as you’re trying to put the effort in and you aren’t purposefully misgendering them then they’ll be okay. The amount of times I’ve misgendered my non-binary friends by accident is bad on my part, but I apologise, I try and I am a lot better than I used to be. It’s very rare now I misgender one of them but my other non-binary is newer so I’m still learning.


But they don’t get annoyed with me because that annoyance is a myth unless you’re being horrible on purpose.


Why Am I Talking About “They/ Them” Pronouns On A Psychology Podcast?

Quickly before I dive into the main topic of today’s episode, I want to stress here that this is the perfect topic for a psychology podcast. Since “They/ Them” pronouns are a part of human language and language development, so this pulls on a lot of concepts from developmental psychology. Also, in today’s episode, we talk about the brain and other concepts from biological psychology and neuropsychology, as well as we discuss gender identity which is another topic from developmental psychology. Therefore, this is a great and really interesting podcast episode that draws on a lot of psychological knowledge.


Then lastly for this quick section, there is a chance that as a current or future clinical psychologist, you will meet a transgender person in your therapy room at some point. So knowing about the importance of pronouns and the different challenges other people have could be important for the therapeutic work and making sure that your therapy room is an affirming space for the client.


Why Using “They/ Them” Pronouns Are Challenging For Some People According To Neuroscience?

In a moment, I’ll explain the importance of pronouns because that often gets missed when these topics are covered, but let’s just be upfront about this, some people will never use “They/ Them” because these people want to use the incorrect pronouns as a sign of disrespect and hostility. For the sake of this podcast episode, I am not talking about those people because considering all the problems in the world, if you want to put your energy is fighting and hating and berating transgender people by refusing to simply change what you refer to them as. Then I’m not that interested, I would rather humanity put their effort and hate towards more productive and useful things that are actually problems. For example, solving climate change and holding governments to account for their lack of action.


Anyway, there are other reasons why people might find using “They/ Them” pronouns difficult that has nothing to do with hate or disrespect. Since there are reasons related to cultural neuroscience because the human brain across the world has been socially categorised to put people into one of two groups, male or female.


For a lot of people, these two categories have become an engrained thought pattern and in cognitive psychology, we know these are called “schemas.” The problem with schemas is that Schemas are difficult to change the longer they’re engrained in our cognitive patterns. This is one reason why it is difficult for some people to use “They/ Them” pronouns because it goes against their schemas.


Although, Schemas can definitely be overcome.


Why Are Pronouns Important?

Just because I feel like this is a topic that gets missed a lot whenever pronouns are discussed, I want to explain why pronouns are important. One thing that has surprised since I’ve started talking about my non-binary friend a lot more when I’m not with them is how much you actually use Pronouns in everyday language. Since I’m surprised the amount of times I used to slow down talking just so I could change the pronoun in the sentence from “he” to “They” out of respect and acceptance for my friend.


As a result, it shouldn’t be a surprise that pronouns are a critical part of our communication as well as human language. Due to in our culture, pronouns facilitate communication, they reflect everyone’s gender identity and affirm everyone’s sense of Self.


Also, from a sociocultural lens, we have learnt and we always should respect and support for other people’s identities.


And I’ll finish this small section, by mentioning that using a transgender person’s correct pronouns is about affirming them, and research shows that when a transgender person lives in an affirming environment then the chance of them committing suicide is a lot, lot less.


What Are The Cultural Neuroscience Challenges Of Some People Using “They/ Them” Pronouns?

I mentioned earlier that there are some biological and social reasons that can help to explain why some people find “They/ Them” pronouns difficult to use, but these can be overcome. One such explanation is that humans learn traditional grammar rules at a very early age and these grammar rules lead people to associate “They/ Them” pronouns with plurals. This is something that my family strongly associates them with to the point where they get confused when I talk about my non-binary friend, but they’re learning.


As a result, our brains might not be accustomed or used to using “They/ Them” pronouns to refer to a single person. Then this socialisation has an impact on our neural processing as this “referring to a single person” is unfamiliar to us so some people get confused, hesitant or get anxious when attempting to use this unfamiliar language in communication.


Personally, I can definitely see this in my own family because me and my mum were talking to the other night about this, and she lacks the confidence to use “They/ Them” pronouns because she doesn’t understand the language, she gets confused and I think she might be anxious. But she is definitely learning and she is actually really good because a few weeks ago we were talking about my friend and she was saying “They” a lot. So given a little practice, you can learn this relatively easily.


Furthermore, the older a person is, the harder this learning of this new language becomes because our neuroplasticity (the ability of our brains to change in response to new stimuli) decreases with age. So this makes it harder for our brains to learn new language (Mateos-Aparicio et al., 2019). If we connect this to “They/ Them” pronouns then an older person shifting from gendered pronouns to gender-neutral ones does require a mental shift and a change in our language habits.


Overall, it does take time and practice to change these language patterns but this difficulty can be overcome with practice and openness. And that’s what I mean about the myth surrounding using the wrong pronouns, if you are willing and friendly to try and use the right pronouns. Then no one will moan at you and if you make an honest mistake (which 99% of mistakes are) then no one will care you made a mistake as long as you don’t do it every single time.


How To Overcome Socio-Cultural Stigma and Resistance To Using “They/ Them” Pronouns?

Even within psychology, not a lot of people (myself included before recently) think about how our social norms and our social expectations reinforce our use of gender binary in communications. So it is perfectly reasonable that some people might feel uncomfortable or be rather resistant to using “They/ Them” pronouns because they don’t want to experience backlash from other cisgender people or judgement. As a result, to overcome this resistance and stigma, this requires effort and approaching this with an open mind.


Now I’m going to share three tips with you to help.


Firstly, one of the compromises me and my parents have come up with because both of them get confused when I refer to my friend as “They”, is I try to use their name instead of the pronoun. This is useful because it means I’m able to still respect my friend whilst slowly exposing my parents to “They/ Them” pronouns so they can learn over time.


Secondly, be open to making mistakes because that will reduce some of the anxiety you might have about making a mistake.


Thirdly, there are plenty of great online resources to help familiarise yourself with gender-neutral language, and practice is a great way to reinforce new habits and this will help the words feel more natural in your brain over time. I can promise you that practice does make perfect.


Developmental Psychology Conclusion

On the whole, I won’t lie referring to a single non-binary person using “They/ Them” pronouns might be difficult at first. Due to it is unfamiliar to us, there is societal resistance, our neuroplasticity decreases with age and our language habits play a role too. Yet none of these are excuses not to use “They/ Them” pronouns when you meet a non-binary person because if you educate yourself (which you have been doing by listening to this podcast episode), you practice and you approach this with openness, then it is very, very possible to overcome these difficulties that ultimately stem from concerns as well as anxieties about making a mistake.


A mistake that no transgender person will judge you for if it is our honest mistake. Which come on, if you’ve listened to the end of this podcast episode then I’m 99% sure that is what your mistake will be.


I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.


If you want to learn more, please check out:


Cognitive Psychology: A Guide To Neuroscience, Neuropsychology and Cognitive Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at https://www.payhip.com/connorwhiteley



Have a great day.


Cognitive Psychology References

Budge, S. L. (2020). Suicide and the transgender experience: A public health crisis. American Psychologist, 75(3), 380.


Haas, A. P., Eliason, M., Mays, V. M., Mathy, R. M., Cochran, S. D., D'Augelli, A. R., ... & Clayton, P. J. (2010). Suicide and suicide risk in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender populations: Review and recommendations. Journal of homosexuality, 58(1), 10-51.


https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/cultural-neuroscience/202309/anxious-about-mis-gendering-a-non-binary-person


Kempermann, G., Gast, D., & Gage, F. H. (2002). Neuroplasticity in old age: sustained fivefold induction of hippocampal neurogenesis by long‐term environmental enrichment. Annals of neurology, 52(2), 135-143.


Mateos-Aparicio, P., & Rodríguez-Moreno, A. (2019). The impact of studying brain plasticity. Frontiers in cellular neuroscience, 13, 66.


Toomey, R. B., Syvertsen, A. K., & Shramko, M. (2018). Transgender adolescent suicide behavior. Pediatrics, 142(4).


Vance, D. E., & Wright, M. A. (2009). Positive and negative neuroplasticity: Implications for age-related cognitive declines. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 35(6), 11-17.


Virupaksha, H. G., Muralidhar, D., & Ramakrishna, J. (2016). Suicide and suicidal behavior among transgender persons. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 38(6), 505-509.


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