Gendered: “girl culture”

One of the recurring themes in my therapy room for my female clients has been the reluctance and even fear of emotional conflict.

We are raised in contemporary social norms to maintain pleasant relationships. Taught as children to “get along” rather than assert ourselves physically or verbally when encountering trouble (as most boys are), we become evermore sensitive to emotional energy in the people around us. While this can become what I call a female superpower, it is an emotional preference with a great shadow side: we are often paralyzed by bullying in our families, at the neighborhood bus stop, on the playground, at sleepovers, anywhere someone with an urgent need to assert their dominance lurks. We easily become victims of other people’s inappropriate power.

Does this feel familiar? it is completely familiar to me. By the time we are deep into dating or full time jobs as young adult women, we have reinforced this emotional bias so many times we can struggle to know what appropriate personal power looks like. A large majority of women never fully heal from this expectation and gendered socialization: they become adept at sending their anger inward at themselves, sideways to those who don’t deserve it, and passively with those who do.

Bad romantic partners, bad family members, bad neighbors and bad bosses all cause enormous stress to those of us raised to not kick up a fuss when we are slighted, injured or even abused. At the far edge of this impulse to be forever pleasing is the extreme automatic adult responses of freeze and dissociation when threatened, enduring trauma or physical or emotional assaults. We have simply never given our bodies and minds the chance to push or fight back when threatened.

To become whole, happier, less anxious and perfectionistic people, we need to grow our toleration of social awkwardness, conflict, distain and stand up for ourselves when we need to do so. The need to be the people who are forever soothing others comes at such an enormous cost to us and to our relationships. No wonder women have such high rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, body image issues, food addictions and eating disorders, emotional dysregulation and suicide attempts.

Any kind of emotional conflict is the kyrptonite of people pleasers and perfectionists. Time to see that superpower as an incomplete strategy, turn it into wonderful intuition that is BALANCED by the strength of your strong voice, confidence and skills at problem solving. But we must first become unafraid of wading into those turbulent waters. I promise you already know how to ride out that rip tide: speak up, hold on and ride it out.

Do You Have Enough Friends?

            Do you have all the friends you need? Chances are that you are among the majority of American adults who recognize that they are struggling with fewer close friendships than they want. As emotional beings, all of us are biologically designed to connect to others in and outside our families of origin. While we may be surrounded by others at work, or sporting events, in our neighborhoods or churches, few of us feel that we have a core group of steady, supportive, mutually caring same gender friendships. We are friend hungry. And we don’t know how to fix it.

            This emotional scarcity can come on quite slowly. While we are progressing through school, the constant shifts from playgrounds to classrooms to new schools provide us with an ever-replenishing sea of faces from whom we may find sympathetic chums. But just as quickly as those people move into our lives, they can move out, as new environments and opportunities sweep our time and attention elsewhere. Our friends and we may marry. And right before our eyes, our emotional circle becomes instantly smaller and more fixed.

            It becomes harder and harder to stay in regular, meaningful touch with people. Phone calls help but don’t completely replace in-person conversation. Getting together can take enormous scheduling and financial efforts not everyone is able to sustain. When was the last time you hand-wrote a distant friend a letter? Many of us have tried to find less isolation in the connections we make on social media. They soothe us with easy digital connections to people across the globe. But unless those relationships are mutual and sustained, they won’t fill the emotional gap that face-to-face time with people provides.

            This scarcity of friendships seems to hit American men even harder than it does women. We have a culture that still assumes men need to be independent, stoic and in competition with one another. Generations of this gender ethic have led to families that raise boys to dismiss healthy emotional dependency and under-value one another, even within the same family. This places men in emotionally vulnerable positions, overly dependent upon their romantic partners for support. Women shoulder this by becoming the emotional centers of their families and becoming adept at managing everyone’s interpersonal relationships. It leaves men empty and women exhausted. While many of us reject these old models, they still shape the way we live. What are we to do?

            I don’t think we should give up on being and having good friends. The emotional cost of loneliness is a true mental health crisis for many, and there are no quick and lasting solutions. Over a lifetime, we need many real friends with whom we can share common interests, new experiences, shared struggles and spontaneous laughter.

            One of the most helpful resources I have found that helps to describe how we make good, close friendships is the 2016 book, “Frientimacy” by Shasta Nelson. Nelson has created an online community around friendships, speaks around the country to groups and corporations about her research, and was a featured speaker at TEDx in 2017. What she has to teach us about the qualities of good friendships is inspiring to me as a relationship therapist and someone who wants to be and have close friendships throughout my entire lifespan.

            The core qualities we must cultivate within ourselves and our key intimate relationships are Positivity, Consistency and Vulnerability. In other words, our key friendships should feel good, be mutually maintained, and let us be our real selves. These are high standards, and they take time, good boundaries and mutual intention to develop. Not every friendship can or will experience all three qualities. There are all kinds of people in our lives who may be able to sustain one aspect, like positivity, but can’t meet other aspects like consistency or real-life sharing. Or we may be more interested in someone as a friend than they are in us, and the relationship never grows. I’ll point you to Nelson’s book for more details about these key aspects, but you get the point. Real friendships take work and commitment to one another. When they work, they make us feel fully human.

            No matter who we are, we need good friendships. Perhaps the last good friend you had was someone you knew years ago but with whom you have fallen out of touch. What did that friendship teach you about how to recreate that small, essential, positive human community of two close friends? Perhaps it’s time to discover more about how you can be a friend and welcome new friendship in return.

(Written for/published 5/28/2019 The Savage Pacer)

Loneliness Increases with Digital Workforce

Before the advent of the Internet, people worked mostly in the presence of others.

Whether they were in the fields of a farm, the sea of typists in an office, the floor of a factory or behind the counter of a retail store, other people and relationships with them were the stuff of every day life. Millions of stay-at-home mothers, who may have been alone with their babies most of the day, nonetheless had that child to hold and other mothers at home to seek out.

Men, who in western culture frequently have trouble keeping friendships beyond classroom educations, made and sustained important relationships with others on a daily basis. These work friendships may have been more temporary than lifelong, but nonetheless gave men the social interactions we humans, who are wired for connection, need as much as air, water and food. And while marriages or dating relationships have kept men emotionally connected, they can’t carry all the emotional connection needs men have.

I have noticed that increasing numbers of my clients are working alone at home. Technology is allowing all kinds of people to put in their work hours without long, gas-guzzling commutes, endless team meetings and even much face to face interactions. While the quality of their work may even improve with less interruptions and increased personal satisfaction with flexible scheduling, their emotional isolation can be an unrecognized drain on their emotional well-being and mental health.

Many of these workers are lonelier than ever, and can’t quite figure out why. Friendship making is getting harder and harder with less workplace interactions, fewer people connecting to churches, fraternal, political, sport and social groups, and neighborhood relationships. No wonder so many people, particularly men, sit alone at their computers and post anonymous angry comments on every article, tweet, post or meme they can find. It’s a very quick way to be reminded there are people in the world when you irritate, enrage or frighten others with your words.

Friendships have always been an important part of our personal worlds. With fewer and fewer places to interact with one another, they are becoming increasingly important and rare. Loneliness is a critical mental health concern for our culture, and especially for men. We may be able to save a lot of suffering if we can help our children and teens learn to make, be and keep good friends.