March is Women’s History Month. According to the Women’s History Month website, we are “paying tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society.” When I think of women’s history, I also think about how hard women have had to work and fight to gain equality and freedom in our personal lives, and of course politically and professionally, as well. As a psychotherapist, I’m even more interested in how culturally assigned gender roles and constraints impact psychological and emotional wellbeing for men and women alike.
More and more, it’s becoming clear that gender parity is better for everyone whether you identify as female, male, or gender fluid. (For the sake of this blog, I will refer to the binary construction of gender, while acknowledging the limitations and rigidity of such labels). We’ve come a long way in understanding how boys and girls are often socialized into stereotypical roles that influence gender expression and attitudes, and cultural shifts are happening rapidly today. While these changes are beneficial to men and women alike, there are also enormous adjustments required, which – these days – men may be struggling with more so than women.
For instance, as women are entering the workforce in even greater numbers than ever, men are also taking on more active roles as domestic partners, husbands and fathers. While much attention is paid to women’s equality in the workforce, less attention is given to men’s increasing involvement in the home. In my work, I find many male clients struggle with navigating gender equality at work and in the home, and often the culprit isn’t a lack of intention or awareness of the importance of balancing gender roles, but rather the result of deeper, unconscious beliefs around gender that have been passed down through the generations and make up part of our “conditioning” as men and women.
Consider emotions. Most people would guess women are more emotional than men, but a recent study showed the opposite may be true, but men hide emotions better. Why? Cultural conditioning.
Let’s look at Bill as an example. Bill is a new father with a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. He is an enlightened modern man, successful at work, who is willing and happy to share parenting duties with his partner, a woman who also has a thriving career outside the home. Bill changes diapers, shares in household chores, and appreciates the importance of socio-emotional development in children – something his parents and grandparents may not have been aware of. In fact, like many boys, Bill learned very early in his own upbringing that his emotions would not be tolerated by the adults in his life, so he automatically and unconsciously developed the belief that certain emotions are to be avoided at all costs.
As a husband and father, Bill can’t understand why he is so deeply triggered and intolerant of his young children’s emotionality. He finds it alarming that he gets so reactive and angry with his son at times, especially since his intention is to be a calm, loving father invested in his children’s socio-emotional wellbeing – something he missed out on when he was a kid. If we were to look further back into Bill’s past, we’d likely find generations of boys and men in Bill’s family who were discouraged from, or punished for, showing emotion. Bill never learned to handle his feelings, and has a difficult time when emotions flare in his kids and in himself. His habitual, unconscious strategies of shutting down or cutting off to avoid unpleasant feelings, no longer work but still wield powerful influence on his subjective experience and behaviors.
A really important part of making changes or adapting to changes like broadened gender roles, is realizing that even if we want to do things differently, there is going to be discomfort involved; namely in the form of emotions. Most of us aren’t prepared for the unpleasant feelings of difficult emotions that may arise when we start to go against our personal, cultural and historical conditioning and choose instead to act in ways that are more in line with our current values. But being prepared for tricky emotions such as fear and sadness or even anger can help us navigate these changing times, stick to our values and choices regardless, and reap the rewards.
As Bill learns more about socio-emotional learning and development for his kids, he realizes that he can apply the same concepts to his own difficult feelings when they arise, thus broadening his gender role and expression. Such mindfulness skills as allowing emotions to be experienced, staying with his kids and comforting them when they’re distressed, naming emotions to “tame” them, and using breathing techniques to stay open and grounded has helped Bill expand his parental role by becoming a more supportive and emotionally available father when his kids are freaking out. And the ability to emotionally regulate has also helped Bill to better handle the stress of modern life. He’s developed the skills to better handle his emotions, which helps him stay more engaged in all of his relationships.
No matter what your gender, as we near the end of Women’s History Month, consider thinking about the ways you cope with your gender roles and constraints or struggle with the rapidly changing nature of gender in today’s culture. By reflecting on how such challenges might be a matter of conditioning, you might begin to have an easier time handling difficult emotions that come with the territory of change. Whether we automatically carry out our conditioned gendered programming or choose the more difficult path of changing our stereotypical gender roles, history will be made. The choice is up to you.