Gender Wounds: Feelings and Emotions


emotionsWe’ve all heard people say that men are out of touch with their feelings and women are too emotional. Are these observations true or are they stereotypes? If they’re true, then why? When we try to answer these questions we face the problem of not being sure what we really mean when we use the words emotions and feelings. In my effort to raise more awareness about gender wounds, I’d like to begin by clarifying these terms.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines feeling as 1. The sensation involving perception by touch. 2. An affective state of consciousness, such as that resulting from emotions, sentiments or desires. 3. An awareness; impression. 4.a. An emotional state or disposition; emotion. b. A tender emotion; fondness. 5.a. The ability to experience and react to the emotions; sensibility. b. feelings. Sensitivities; hurt his feelings. 6. Opinion as distinguished from reason; sentiment. 7. An impression produced by a person, place, thing, or event. 8: An appreciative regard.
Emotion is defined as 1. A complex and usually strong subjective response, as love or fear. 2. A state of agitation or disturbance. 3. The part of the consciousness that involves feeling or sensibility, as in a choice determined by emotion rather than reason.
As these definitions show, sometimes we use the word feeling to mean an emotional state or emotion. At other times we mean sensitivity. And sometimes we mean the ability to experience and react to our emotions, or sensibility. The word sensibility seems key to this discussion. Two definitions that apply are 1. The ability to feel or perceive, and 2. Mental or emotional responsiveness toward something, as the feelings of another; being sympathetic.
Everyone feels and everyone has emotions. Yet attitudes toward emotions seem to differ between men and women. Recently a male friend half-jokingly voiced the common criticism that women are too emotional. People sometimes cite Myers-Briggs data to support this belief, but the Thinking (T) and Feeling (F) indicators are about how we organize information to make choices, not judgments about whether we’re overly emotional. The data simply indicate that the majority of women (75.5%) prefer to make decisions in a personal, values-based, emotional way (F), whereas men (56.5%) prefer to decide in a logical, objective, unemotional way (T). Is there something inherently “wrong” or undesirable about either of these positions? Is women’s preference for subjective value a feminine wound? Is men’s preference for objective logic a masculine wound? Or are both preferences appropriate in differing ways and situations?
Later in the conversation my friend mentioned being angry about something in the news, so I said, “You’re angry about a lot of things, aren’t you?” “Yes,” he readily admitted. When I responded, “Anger’s an emotion, isn’t it? So aren’t you being emotional too?” he was quite surprised. He said he’d never really thought of his anger as being emotional! Yet teachers and students alike often report that boys are more prone to being agitated and creating disturbances, i.e. being more emotional, than girls. Why hadn’t he recognized his own emotionalism? Why did he project “being emotional” onto women?
In summarizing what I’ve said so far, I find five areas for discussion: 1) What do women mean when they say men are out of touch with their feelings? 2) What do men mean when they say women are too emotional? 3) If everyone has feelings and emotions, why might women experience and react to their emotions, i.e. have more sensibility to emotions, and men have less? 4) Why do we perceive emotional differences between the genders in terms of “good” and “bad” stereotypes? 5) How can we overcome damaging gender stereotypes?
I’ll share my thoughts about these questions next time. Meanwhile, I’d love to know yours.

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23 Responses

  1. Because women express more emotions than men, it should be taken to mean that they are more in touch with their feelings? I would argue it’s in fact the opposite. The more certain we are if our feelings the calmer we are and the less we feel the need to express them.

    1. Hi Techhaiku.
      Thank you for your observation. You’ve brought out a very important point about the role of consciousness in our emotional lives. I assume you’re responding to Question #3 at the end where I asked why might women have more sensibility to emotions and men have less. I asked that question because it’s what’s implied by the stereotype that women are more emotional than men. I’m not sure they are, hence my story about my angry friend, but if they are I wouldn’t take that to necessarily mean they’re more in touch with their feelings in any conscious way. As you point out, It could just as easily mean they’re less conscious and more reactive.
      I suppose the same could be said for the very calm person who doesn’t feel the need to express his/her emotions. It could mean that person is more certain of his/her feelings, as you point out; or it could mean s/he simply doesn’t feel them or know how to express them; or it could mean s/he’s repressed some powerful emotions for so long that s/he’s an explosion waiting to happen. For example, as a child and young woman I did not feel the need to express my feelings and was generally very calm and unemotional. But while I may have given the impression of being very certain and accepting of my feelings, in fact, the opposite was true. It’s obvious to me now that behind my calm mask was a hurting, immature child who was afraid of my emotions and didn’t want to feel them, let alone express them.
      What I’m going to be arguing in the next couple of posts is that these stereotypes don’t serve anybody because they don’t describe the realities within genders or individual psyches and only perpetuate unhealthy divides between us. Nobody likes to be unfairly judged.

  2. I think that the term ’emotional’ is too often used to describe just a small part of the full emotional spectrum. Between men and women it seems most used to describe weepy, passive emotion ie. women cry too much men not enough. If we could all express a fuller range of emotions from elation through to despair and everything in between it may be easier to objectively analyse the the fundamental feelings of men and women.
    It’s a fascinating topic, I await the next post with much interest!

    1. Hi katsoutar,
      Thank you for making this excellent point! It reinforces my observation to Techhaiku that stereotypes are based on surface behavioral manifestations that may or may not have anything to do with the authentic psyche beneath. And it’s leading me to consider the role of hormones in the creation of gender stereotypes. For example, it’s said that estrogen causes PMS (with its weepiness and irritability) in women, and that testosterone creates aggression in men (is aggression an emotion or a behavior? What emotions might underlie it?).
      But even if the stereotype of the overly emotional woman has a physical basis, stereotypes like this fail to take into account the full emotional range of other emotions a woman might have, and it doesn’t consider other important factors like how conscious she is of her emotions or how well she manages them so that they do the least amount of damage! The same is true of stereotypes about men. So what’s the point of stressing this surface difference when underneath their observable behavior males and females contain the potential for every emotion on the spectrum? Don’t stereotypes, in fact, just discourage people from looking deeper into the true inner realities of individuals?
      Now I’m curious about the relationship between testosterone and the stereotype of men being out of touch with their emotions. Could testosterone have some sort of physical dampening effect on a man’s ability to cry, or even to feel the “tender emotions?” I wonder if anyone’s done any research on this. It would be interesting to know. But our research can’t stop there, because as you point out, it still doesn’t help us objectively analyse the fundamental feelings of men and women or the factors involved in their awareness and management of them.

      1. Indeed, science has proven that female tears have a dampening effect on male testosterone. It serves to reduce their sexual attraction and increase their empathic response. Obviously, a true-to-stereotype male would not want his testosterone messed with in this way, which might explain why men get annoyed by tears, and why tears become part of manipulative behaviour in children and women. My sister was in a meeting recently with her divorce lawyer and started crying. His physical and professional response was both immediate and startling – he jumped up, went over to console her, and reversed his hard-nosed strategy completely. It was astonishing. I’ve seen my father tell my mother to stop crying, and I’ve seen my father struggle to control his tears. This is how it (very simply) got passed onto my brother, although he cried openly and joyfully at his wedding. Perhaps we’re not hiding our emotions so much as the reasons for them?

        1. Another marvelous and very helpful comment! Thank you Lorrie. Bob Cole made a similar observation when he said he feels his emotions but holds back from expressing them until he has them under control and no longer feels vulnerable. This is great stuff!

  3. Good comments, good questions Jean. I as a man, though in no way pretending to speak for the gender, often am in touch with an emotion, but delay any public acknowledgment of it until I’ve figured out where it comes from. It’s when I feel confident that I’ve got a handle on it that I’ll publicize it. For me it’s all a matter of trying to be in control of something that comes up uncontrollably. I’m willing to look vulnerable, but only after I’m in control of that vulnerability, or at least think I am. Does that make sense (from an irrational male point of view)?
    I think both sexes experience the whole continuum of emotion and probably at the same intensity and frequency, but I wonder if the gender differences are ones of how we express the need for control?

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Bob. Wow! Your comment makes absolute sense. And I love your honesty. In truth, I think I do the exact same thing as you. I don’t mind being vulnerable either, as long as I’ve had a chance to come to terms with it. The hardest thing for me is to respond calmly and clearly and sensibly and unemotionally to someone who’s just blindsided me with an unexpected perceived “attack.” My mind just shuts down for a while and I have to come back later when I can think again. I’ve heard that’s a characteristic of “Highly Sensitive People,” aka HSP’s: I published a post about this personality trait a few months back, if you’re interested.
      Your question of whether the gender differences might be in how we express the need for control is most intriguing. I need to think about this. I wonder if anyone else has any thoughts on it…..
      Thanks so much for your insightful comments,

      1. Yes, I read your article on HSPs and recognized myself in parts of the description.
        I look forward to any further comments re: gender differences. I do believe that we all have the same psychic material, but express it differently. That is why animus/anima is so much more powerful when the separateness is resolved.
        Thanks for you reply,

  4. Hi there, thanks for the article. My first point would be, before we look to biological reasons (or not) behind stereotypes, I find it useful to examine cultural differences in relation to gender. Does every culture on earth, and has it always, assumed what we assume to be the norm? If not, then biology is far less likely to be a factor, but may be wielded as tool (for better or worse) to “prove” or “disprove” certain theories. Having said that, I read some interesting research recently that women’s tears contain a chemical substance that though undetectable consciously, has the power to reduce a man’s testosterone when inhaled. Now nowhere in the research did I read what immediately came to mind for me – the powerful aggressive emotion of a man may be tempered to potentially protect a woman and even possibly child by a crying mother (or whatever her role may be) in the face of anger or violence. Just some thoughts…

    1. Yes, cultural differences are a huge factor. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, wisdom is considered a feminine trait and compassion a masculine one, whereas it’s the other way around for Westerners! But still….there are those hormones! Thanks very much for that fascinating research find about tears and testosterone! I didn’t know that. Truly, it’s the age-old argument of nature vs. nurture and we simply can’t discount either one. But if we can keep those two in mind, perhaps we can at least see through and overcome the more damaging stereotypes! Much appreciation for your thoughtful contributions!!

  5. I’ve heard it said that when the anima in men (the female nature in a man) is stimulated the male becomes more compassionate. I know that when I’ve experienced tears from others it causes me to slow myself and to look more closely at the person and their needs e.g. I become more compassionate, not less so. Using the testosterone studies as a guide, it just may be that a males testosterone levels are the reason for this increased compassion because lower testosterone makes a man more available to that part of himself.
    However, the society within which he’s been raised has trained him to resist compassion as a weakness especially if he’s experiencing it in a competitive situation (like when he feels his authority challenged). And given that male and female competitiveness are reinforced in many societies, the default response is to respond aggressively to feminine tears, or to anything, or anyone, where his training suggests to him that he is being manipulated into a weaker position.
    Re: the testosterone studies: In all studies a relationship between variables doesn’t automatically suggest cause and effect, or if it does, a particular cause effect. I think the testosterone research needs to dig deeper in its approach in order to be more definitive.

    1. I agree with your first statement, with the caveat that as a neo-Jungian I think of the anima as the feminine principle in both males and females. Nowadays we realize that there are women too who are not in touch with their feminine sides. I think women are likewise stirred to compassion when they see tears, regardless of whether they come from men or women, although there might be a slight difference…. I wonder what that does to a woman’s hormones? I wonder why research has only been done on the effects of women’s tears on men, and not the other 3 alternatives: (women’s tears on women; men’s tears on women; men’s tears on men)? Someone should do this so we can level the playing field a bit more.
      Great point about the effect of social conditioning on a man’s willingness to feel and/or express compassion!
      And I agree that we need more research on these issues.
      Thank you for your thoughtful and very helpful contributions to this conversation. I’m enjoying it so much!

      1. Ah yes, animus and anima exist in each of us, but as you know it is how those manifest e.g. the soul of the man is female while the soul of the female is male. Neither can be expressed properly when the soul is hidden away. The female cannot express her feminine adequately when she is cut off from her masculine soul and vice versa. As Jung suggested we are not whole while we are separate from any part of ourselves. But don’t you think that to the degree we are caught up in our individually and culturally conditioned personas we will be cut off from the compliment of our inner soul nature? As long as we insist on being our limited definitions of self aren’t we doomed to remain cut off?

        1. Yes, indeed. I totally agree with everything you’ve said here. And our insistence on being our limited definitions of self is manifested by our unwillingness to look within and acknowledge our shadow selves, which are our barriers to the anima or animus, which, in turn, is our bridge to the Self. We’re on the same page here.

  6. Funny you should mention the shadow self. I was just reading an excerpt from Jung’s Red Book where he says, and I paraphrase, “Say to the shadow ‘You are I’ and the evil that walks along with the good will dissolve into one being”. Yes it does seem we’re on an identical page. Thanks for the little bit of synchronicity.

      1. Sorry, entered my e-mail address twice because I hadn’t received an e-mail confirmation of the subscription. Just noticed my icon on your list (2x).

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