The belief that women are more emotional than men is one of the most widely held and persistent gender stereotypes in Western cultures (Shields, 2007). National polls conducted in America over the past three decades have consistently shown that both men and women endorse the concept that women are more emotional than men (Brescoll, 2016; Dolan, 2014). This belief persists, despite the fact that studies show that men and women report feeling emotions at about the same rate (Else-Quest et al., 2012).
So, why do we believe that women are more emotional than men? Well, it seems that we form this belief because women are more likely to show or express their emotions than men (Brescoll, 2016). In other words, women may be labeled as emotional because people see women displaying their emotions more (Plant et al., 2000). If both genders experience emotions at about the rate, how does expressing emotions or suppressing emotions impact our stress levels and overall well-being?
In studies on gender and emotion, research shows that men will most often use something called emotional expression suppression. In other words, they “hold it in.” This type of emotional regulation strategy often makes the person feel inauthentic; less clear about what they are feeling; less capable of restoring their mood; and leads to excessive worry (McRae et al., 2008; Tamres et al., 2002). On the other hand, women will more often seek coping mechanisms such as verbalizing, seeking support, and using positive self-talk (Tamres et al., 2002).
So what approach is the healthiest? Well, it seems that neither emotional suppression nor emotional expression will lead to healthy outcomes, if what we’re actually feeling does not align to our display of emotion. The positive and healthy approach is to learn to align our actual feeling with our expression of emotion. So, does this mean that we should express anger and rage when we genuinely feel that? Well, not necessarily. What I do suggest is that we learn to develop a different relationship to our emotions. That is, not to allow our emotions to overtake us and instead, learn to examine them with openness and acceptance. This requires us to learn to pause before we react so that we can assess or re-frame the situation that prompted our feelings.
One of the key benefits of a mindfulness practice is to develop a different relationship with our emotions. That is, we can learn to fully experience our emotions without letting them dominate us. Instead of suppressing our feelings or expressing emotions that we do not fully understand, we can learn to accept our emotions and then take steps to reframe those emotions in a way that allows us to express them genuinely and productively. The simplest way to think about this is to understand the difference between these two statements: “I am sad” vs. “I feel sad”. One statement implies that our emotions are in charge; the other implies we are making a choice in how we feel.
The ability to choose your emotions comes with practice. So, over the next few days, I suggest that you give this a try.
Start by observing the rise and fall of your emotions.
What triggers them? How long do they last?
What types of emotions do you most often feel?
Be sure to pay attention to both positive and negative ones.
You might start with something routine, such as how you feel when you come home after a hard day’s work. Notice the emotion that arises when you see the face of that special someone or the happy wag of a tail as you walk through the door. These feelings might be subtle at first. But give yourself time to allow them to fully bloom. Something as simple as this will help you understand how you can gain control over your emotions and it will help you learn to prompt these good feelings when you need it most. We are emotional beings and denying this prevents us from fully experiencing life.
Brescoll, V. L. (2016). Leading with Their Hearts? How Gender Stereotypes of Emotion Lead To Biased Evaluations of Female Leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 415-428. DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.02.005
Dolan, Kathleen A. (2014). When does gender matter? Women candidates and gender stereotypes in American elections. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gross, J. J., Sheppes, G., & Urry, H. L. (2011). Emotion generation and emotion regulation: A distinction we should make (carefully). Cognition and Emotion, 25, 765–781.
Plant, E. A., Hyde, J. S., Keltner, D., & Devine, P. G. (2000). The gender stereotyping of emotions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24(1), 81–92. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/J.1471-6402.2000.Tb01024.X.
Shields, S. A. (2007). Passionate men, emotional women: Psychology constructs gender difference in the late 19th century. History of Psychology, 10, 92–110. doi:10.1037/1093-4510.10.2.92
Tamres, L. K., Janicki, D., & Helgeson, V. S. (2002). Sex differences in coping behavior: A meta-analytic review and an examination of relative coping. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6(1), 2–30.