as Soul Work

Emotional Equality: Liberating Women and Men

What if something that almost everybody believes to be true turns out not to be? Last month, in this column and in many conversations, I challenged one of the fundamental beliefs about the differences between women and men. This belief tells us that, by nature, men are more aggressive, violent, and less empathic whereas women are cooperative, peaceful and more empathic. The key here is empathy, which is the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others. If one is more empathic and, therefore experiences others as sentient, thinking, feeling beings rather than objects, one is more likely to care and cooperate and less likely to harm and cause pain.

Let’s be clear, I am not saying that there are no natural gender differences. Of course there are. Likewise, It may be true that historically, and even currently, women demonstrate more empathy that men. I am suggesting that it is historical and current access to power and not innate gender differences that causes some of these differences in behavior. I assert that men are equally able to experience the whole range of human emotions, including empathy. The greater emotionality attributed to women has been used, in the past, to argue that women are irrational and not suited for positions of power and responsibility. Now, strengthened by the ideas of psychologists such as Carol Gilligan, some argue that women, with their superior emotional functioning, will lead is into an era of peace and respect for “mother earth.”

As I said in last month‘s column, women in power act much like men in power. Men without power act much like women without power. People with power are more direct, assertive and care less about the feelings of others. People without power have to be less direct, more deferential and accommodating and more attuned to the feelings of others -- especially about the feelings of those who have the power. This is the argument made by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers in their book Same Difference.

I introduced this idea at a monthly salon that I host. Some argued vehemently for the superior emotional capacities of women, highlighting the “hormone bath” that prepares an expectant mother to bond with her child. However, the only expectant mother at the salon argued that she thought she and her husband were equally qualified as parents. To highlight Barnett and Rivers’ argument about the effect of power differences, I asked the group the following question: In America, are people of color more aware or the moods and attitudes of white people, or are white people more aware of the moods and attitudes of people of color? Attending this salon were five African-Americans, one Asian American, one immigrant from Europe, one immigrant from the Middle East, and at one European-American (this writer). The answer to my question was immediately apparent to the group. People of color, just to survive, have to be more aware of the moods and attitudes of white people. That is because white people occupy most positions of authority that people of color have to interact with. On the contrary, white people can more easily avoid interacting with people of color, who less frequently occupy positions of authority. When white people do interact with people of color, it is usually when people of color are providing them with some service.. Therefore, white people do not to have to be particularly concerned with reading the moods and attitudes of people of color. Several salon participants quickly saw the parallel. If men occupy most positions of power, as we historically have, women, just to survive, would have to be attuned to men’s moods and attitudes.

This is a cornerstone of the argument put forward by Barnett and Rivers The personality and communication differences between women and men are not due to inherent or biological differences, as claimed by pop-psych entrepreneurs such as John Gray. For example, if, in a business meeting, women are less likely than men to interrupt someone else, it is because, historically, they have had less power and dared not interrupt. To test this, just look at women who have achieved and grown accustomed to positions of power. For example, for several years I worked in programs funded through Alameda County

Behavioral Healthcare Services, where the Director and Associate Director are women who have both been in their positions for many years. Either of these women, when chairing a meeting, can interrupt any participant, male or female, with a speed, efficiency, and, if necessary, forcefulness unrivaled by any man. If either woman is burdened by an awareness that they might have hurt someone’s feelings, there is no evidence of it. In fact, I see no evidence, and am aware of no evidence that women in positions of power demonstrate more empathy, or other supposedly female characteristics, than men in similar positions.

Of course, none of this is simple. Women have historically had some areas of power in some cultures, especially as mothers. Many contemporary American men report feeling overpowered by their wives within the family. We do not have time to address all of these complexities, however, I am convinced that upon investigation, we would discover that access to power affects behavior more that alleged gender differences.

My whole point in writing this, is to debunk the notion of female emotional superiority. This is an idea that I think harms both women and men. It harms men, because so many men devalue their own emotional experience, thinking it inferior to women’s In their marriages, friendships and family relationships with women, many men feel bewildered, overwhelmed, inferior and inadequate. This does not benefit women in the long run, because the man is likely to withdraw, isolate, get angry and defensive, and, in some cases, resort to controlling or violent behavior. When a man understands, values and can articulate his own emotional experience, he is more able to maintain a close and mutually respectful relationship with a woman.

My experience as a man and a psychotherapist, is that men feel things very deeply. Given the opportunity, a little encouragement, and a setting they trust, most men are quite able to discuss their emotional lives, especially with other men. It is far easier than most therapists would believe. Of course, it is essential to recognize that the mode of feeling and the style of communication is sometimes different that it would be with a woman. Likewise, a little skill in guiding such a conversation is important. I have lead and/or participated in a few thousand group and one on one conversations with men over the past 28 years. I have seen, over and over again, that most men demonstrate tremendous empathy in dealing with one another. In conversations regarding their marriages and intimate relationships, most men clearly value intimacy and know how to show love. Most moving of all, is the tremendous love and dedication that the majority of men have towards their children. This is not to deny the violence committed by some men, but to affirm the humanity of most men.

Debunking female emotional superiority is advantageous to women as well. It liberates them from the “caring trap,” as Barnett and Rivers call it, that pressure to live up to the inflated expectations of feminine empathy. It could also liberate psychotherapy from its obsession with the mother-child relationship. Recently, I attended the American Group Psychotherapy Conference in New York. I was stunned that so many psychiatrists and psychologists still focus so exclusively on the mother, largely ignoring the role to the father. While this may seem like honoring women, in fact, much of the discussion of mothers is quite negative, naming them as cause for all sorts of psychiatric woes. Its time we released women from the burden of being men’s “better half,” while recognizing men’s full humanity.

©2005, Gary Hoeber

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Psychology has a long past, but only a short history. - Hermann Ebbinghaus

Gary Hoeber has been working as a psychotherapist since 1976, helping a broad range of people successfully deal with a wide variety of life challenges. He is a leading practitioner and teacher of group psychotherapy. An Instructor at John F. Kennedy University since 1988, he offers classes on "The Practice of Group Psychotherapy." His approach to group therapy is highly interpersonal, assisting in the development of effective communication and relationship skills and increasing the capacity for intimacy, friendship and community. His work with individuals focuses less on pathology, and more on the unfolding of one's life purpose, using a depth psychology informed by poetry, story and mythology. Gary is licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist and has offices in Berkeley and San Rafael, California. or Gary will also be reviewing important new books on psychotherap

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