We’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.