Different Wiring, Different Schooling

The popular stereotypes are that women are really good at understanding and expressing feelings and men are terrible. Furthermore, women seem to really enjoy this whole feeling process and we are supposed to hate it.

I believe that at the bottom of these stereotypes is an old argument: Are we born this way or does life make us this way? Nature or nurture? My answer is Yes and Yes. Our brains are “wired” differently. And our culture has schooled us differently. Consider the following (from Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence):

  • Women experience all emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, more strongly than men. (p.50)
  • Men are more often than women oblivious to the feelings of others. (p.96)
  • Social isolation is harder on men than on women. Isolated men are two to three times more likely to die than men who were not socially isolated. For women, it is only one and a half times greater. (p.178)
  • Women are naturally more skilled at articulating their feelings and using words about feelings than men. (p. 131) (A future column will talk about Alexithymia, a condition in which one cannot talk about one’s feelings.)
  • Males tend to take pride in independence while females lean toward seeing themselves as a part of a web of connectedness. (p.131)
  • Women are more responsive to another’s facial expressions than men. (p.133)
  • Men are more prone to “flooding” – which is being so overwhelmed by strong emotions that one looses self-control and is more prone to violence. Goleman calls this process “emotional hijacking.” Physiologically, the pathway from the feeling part of the brain (amygdala) to the thinking part (neocortex) gets short-circuited and an out-of-control response follows. (p. 138)
  • This “flooding” effect leads to “stonewalling” – that is becoming stoic and imperturbable (think Clint Eastwood type) in order to protect ourselves from the effects of flooding and thus avoid really bad behavior. (p. 140)
  • “Good communication” is the key to satisfaction in a relationship for women. For men? “I want to do things with her and all she wants to do is talk.” (p.132)

What are the implications of these physiological and social differences? Too often they are disastrous arguments and fights between men and women, with regrettable results.

What can we do? The first thing to do is to understand the differences, to identify them, and acknowledge that they are not moral, social, or personal weaknesses of faults. They are simply differences.

  • We can learn not to sidestep conflict and argument, which are much more difficult for us than for women. When a woman brings up some criticism of us, we can allow that it is not us that she is criticizing but what we do, a distinction that is, in fact, difficult for men to make.
  • “Be on guard against ‘short-circuiting’ the discussion by offering a practical solution too early on,” says Goleman. She wants to know that you have heard her.
  • Lastly, we can educate the women in our lives about how we “do” emotions as well as they educate us about how they “do” them. Ask them to be careful not to attack you personally, but to be clear what is the specific issue or action that they don’t like. A personal attack is likely to bring about the “flooding” and “stonewalling” responses mentioned above.

© 2010, David Kundtz

Related information: Issues, Feeling Books: anger, assertiveness, depression, fear, forgiveness, general, grief, joy, loneliness, shame

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We know too much and feel too little. At least we feel too little of those creative emotions from which a good life springs. - Bertrand Russell


David Kundtz is a licensed family therapist in Berkeley, California. He presents seminars, workshops, retreats, and conference presentations in the areas of men's emotional health, stress management, and spirituality. He is the author of Managing Feelings:  An owner's manual for men and has recently completed a second book, Nothing's Wrong: A Man's Guide to Managing His Feelings. He makes his home in Kensington, California and in Vancouver, British Columbia. You may contact David at E-Mail or visit his web site at www.stopping.com

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