But what do we actually mean when we consider women to be more “emotional”?
And is this assumption true?
In this research article I will be:
- explaining the concept of “emotional capacity”.
- investigating the link between gender and self-limiting beliefs, levels of adaptability and the ability to maintain quality relationships.
- exploring whether women have been consciously burdened to carry the weight of emotional labor.
This article has been compiled after researching findings of multiple reports and studies, and evaluating the gender-emotion stereotypes with the reasons behind their formation. This article also includes the interview responses of Dr Aneela Ramzan, a Clinical Psychologist at the Sindh Institute of Medical Sciences (SIUT), Pakistan and a Visiting Faculty at SZABIST – Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, Karachi, Pakistan; and Zeina Habib, Project Manager and Life Coach (ACC – International Coaching Federation).
What is Emotional Capacity?
We can begin describing “emotional capacity” by breaking the word into separate components.
According to the book “Discovering Psychology” by Don Hockenbury and Sandra E. Hockenbury, an emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.
Capacity as described by the Cambridge Dictionary is the individual’s ability to do something.
Combined together, ‘emotional capacity’ then is an individual’s physiological response and their behavior when they undergo a unique event.
- your ability to overcome limiting beliefs,
- your ease in adapting to challenging situations, and
- the quality of your relationships.
These are the unique events, the response to which, once gauged, measures an individual’s emotional capacity.
We can look at these three instances separately:
1. Ability to Overcome Limiting Beliefs
According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative. If we allow our negative thoughts to become repetitive thoughts, they will transform into negative beliefs which becomes our mindset.
The origin of beliefs can be traced back to the conclusion we may draw from a past experience. For example, I may not be able to lift a sofa because I have tried multiple times and I do not have enough strength to do so.
Limiting beliefs are mental obstacles we often create for ourselves because we believe they keep us safe from difficult situations, challenges or failures. However, this is untrue, and limiting beliefs often prevent us from realizing how much we can push ourselves, to explore our potential.
Common reasons for developing limiting beliefs include cultural expectations, gender stereotyping and societal pressures.
Dr Aneela says that women are more likely to develop self-limiting beliefs because of the patriarchal culture prevalent in the society. According to her, “women be it a mother, sister or wife, want to see their son, brother or husband grow and achieve more. These same women fail to breed similar aspirations for the women of their family. However, times are changing and exceptional cases are growing”.
She adds that there are also subtle differences in the way we raise girls. Quoting an example, she says that, when a mother asks her daughter to forego a task and assigns it to the son (because the mother thinks the son is more capable) she establishes a pattern highlighting who is in charge and who is in power. Women then automatically grow up believing they cannot do everything, and will require support.
Another factor she quotes is the lack of safety for women in the society they grow up in. There are cases of harassment and molestation prevalent widely. There is then a genuine physical threat to women, who try to do things on their own.
Besides these factors, there is also an element of being sidelined simply because one is a woman. Commenting on this, Zeina says that, “women are more likely to be discriminated against, be the victims of assaults and have more difficulties being heard. In addition, the topics that concern women are also deemed taboo (from sexuality to health to body image)”.
She further adds that, “limiting beliefs are enhanced when we think we are the only ones who have them. The more prevalent they are in a society, the easier it is to fight them”.
This does not mean that women are weak. But, these are some of the factors that threaten to rob them of the mental strength they need to be the strongest and best versions of themselves.
According to Jaqueline Lapa Sussman, one of the foremost practitioners of Eidetic Imagery Psychology (a fast moving methodology which allows one to go beyond their rational surface mind and uncover stored images of their potential and wholeness), each woman brings her own unique history of being raised as a woman to her work environment based on her culture, religion and developmental history. These socialized impacts are wired in the neural pathways in the brain and act like knee jerk reactions to life and work situations. Some of these automatic reactions unconsciously impede a woman’s capacity to succeed without her ever being aware of it.
The key to overcoming self-limiting beliefs is self-confidence. Individuals with high levels of confidence have both high self-efficacy and low fear of failure.
Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our own abilities, specifically our ability to meet the challenges ahead of us and complete a task successfully.
According to Dr Julie Carson, an Associate Professor at the Department of Educational Leadership at Mankato, “on self‐efficacy scales, men tend to over inflate their actual capabilities while women are much more modest in their assessments”.
Women are often subject to self-doubt as well, and according to LinkedIn Behavioral Data, women not only tend to apply to 20% fewer jobs than men, but are also more hesitant to ask for a referral from somebody they know at the company. Female workers lack the self-confidence of their male peers and this hurts their chances at success. However, recent studies are showing that women have recently started considering themselves to be equally capable as men.
Fear of Failure
Fear of failure is when we allow fear to stop us from doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals. To overcome the fear of failure, it is important to redefine failure. One of the ways to do that is to undertake risks.
Many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride. Many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building.
According to in her book, Mindset, Carol S. Dweck explains that this phenomenon is further exacerbated by different patterns of feedback. She says, that, “boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort, while girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities”.
We then witness the vicious cycle of girls losing confidence because of self-doubt, and the intention to avoid failure which does not ‘permit’ them on a personal level to engage in risk-taking behavior. They avoid competition, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain the confidence they had lost in the beginning.
2. Ease in Adapting to Challenging Situations
In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Pi, the protagonist, is able to survive on a lifeboat with a tiger because of his adaptability. He was able to weather the changing circumstances and despite reaching a point of desperation, he knew he could only survive if he took the smart approach of becoming flexible. In his case, the circumstances were forced upon Pi. But even if you are willingly changing your situation, your ability to adapt in the new settings influences your happiness, health, stress, and well-being.
Dr Aneela describes two scenarios how one adapts to challenging situations: (1) developing effective coping strategies without harming their mental well-being, or (2) exhibiting high levels of tolerance and acceptance of the challenging situation (weathering the storm).
She says that as far as dealing with the challenge in a healthy way is concerned, there is no significant gender difference. Men and women are attributed to have different kinds of coping strategies (females are tilted towards emotional strategies and men are inclined towards finding practical solutions). Depending on the kind of challenge, men and women use their strengths to develop the strategies that they see fit to find a resolution.
Commenting on the second mechanism, Dr Aneela says that women often equate adapting, to molding themselves into accepting the untrue fact that suffering is a part of the challenging situation. Through false reinforcements by society, women are trained to suffer, and go through abuse and not complain. This mechanism is however, unhealthy and is effective only at the cost of the woman’s mental and physical health.
In light of Dr Aneela’s first adaptability mechanism, we can look at how Allan Calarco (co-author of Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change) describes that to improve one’s responses to change in the future, they need to practice the 3 components of adaptability: cognitive flexibility, emotional flexibility and dispositional flexibility.
Cognitive flexibility is the human ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks to face new and unexpected conditions.
Adaptation does not always happen. In situations where a person should be flexible in order to deal with changes in the environment, but fails to do so, we refer to cognitive inflexibility. For instance, if a friend, who always replies to your messages promptly, fails to do so one time, you may assume he is ignoring you, instead of thinking of another reason for his failure to reply on time. What is the problem? It is possible that we are not taking into account how he was feeling under the weather last we met him, or that his battery was dying.
Cognitive flexibility is at times also referred to as task switching. Individuals with higher cognitive flexibility are able to “switch” between tasks at a faster rate. This means that if a plan changes, they are better at processing the new information and developing a new plan, or removing the obstacles. This may then mean that multi-tasking is reflective of a higher cognitive flexibility.
Historically, multitasking has been seen a skill mastered by women, although this is not true. According to a study, women are actually no better at multitasking than men. Although men can work equally and have the capacity to do so, they don’t.
Stereotypically, women have been assigned to carry the load of housework and that is why they do more and can do more than one tasks. Since men do not get involved in developing the ability to switch tasks, they fail to develop cognitive flexibility. Furthermore, a study reveals that stress impairs cognitive flexibility in men but does not significantly affect women.
Emotional flexibility is the ability to implement emotion regulation strategies. This refers to an individual’s capacity to hold the different emotions at the same time – happiness, joy, and enthusiasm along with anger, sadness, and frustration — and being able to feel differently at various points throughout the same day and perhaps even the same hour.
If you have had a bad morning because you burnt your toast, you may feel frustrated or angry at that time. However, if you extend your feelings of negativity throughout that day (despite finding out your favorite pair of shoes are on sale or your boss has called in sick – reasons to be joyful), you may be exhibiting emotional inflexibility.
Emotional flexibility is not inherent, it is learnt. To perfect this skill, it is very necessary to ‘feel’ the emotion you are experiencing. Only when you recognize you are feeling sad, angry or stressed, will you be able to manage your negative feelings.
Emotional flexibility is a skill that men are discouraged from practicing. Men are taught from childhood to hide their emotions; that “real men” are emotionally stoic, that real men “man up” and tough it out.
On the other hand, women are labeled as “emotional beings” and therefore, have the freedom to learn the skill by trial and error. However, it may seem that there are only a limited number of emotions that women are ‘allowed’ to express. According to the Gender Role Congruency Theory, females are stereotypically weak and submissive whereas males are tough and dominant. Therefore, an angry female expressing a gender-incongruent emotion (anger) is perceived as less favorable. This means that once women start exhibiting darker emotions like anger, frustration or sadness, their reactions are attributed to hormonal changes or deemed feminine. Decades of patriarchy and consequent internalized misogyny has created this image of femininity being associated with weakness. Therefore, when women display emotions, they are labeled as weak. Women, subconsciously then, are forced to repress these feelings, hence, closing off the process of healthy emotional awareness. Women start to doubt their emotions and the repressed feelings, at times, culminate to enforced emotional inflexibility.
Dispositional flexibility is the ability to remain optimistic and, at the same time, realistic. Realistic optimists believe they will succeed, but also believe they have to make success happen — through things like effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies. They recognize the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles.
Men appear to be more optimistic than women in a variety of settings. However, no study to date has attempted to check these differences against reality; that is, whether men are correct in their more optimistic beliefs, and furthermore, whether and to what extent they adjust their beliefs to new information. There have also been found gendered differences in optimism with women widely found to be less optimistic than men.
This may be linked to women having higher self-limiting beliefs (which can be negative or self-critical) and force women to make realistic assessments against what they can do and their abilities . There is a strong link between the two since the degree of optimism depends on self-esteem.
3. Quality of Your Relationships
While the concept of quality is highly subjective, it is important to realize that in the context of relationships, one needs to give priority to their relationships so they sustain in a healthy way. This means that an individual makes active efforts to cultivate their chosen relationships by expressing their interest, communicating and receiving reciprocity, which strengthens the relationship.
Sharing her insights on how quality is defined in a relationship, Zeina says that the participants in a relationship should, “have shared values, ability to cater to each other’s emotional needs, an element of trust and knowing to distinguish conflicts that can be resolved through communication”.
According to Google, one of the definitions of quality is, “general excellence of standard or level.” We often use the word “standards” in relationships when we actually mean “tolerance.” Women have been witnessed to “listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness”; basically tolerating the taxing and under-acknowledged acts of gendered performance. This is the concept of emotional labor.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Professor Emily Grundy of the University of Essex said that, “there’s evidence that women spend longer on domestic tasks than men and I think they also do more emotional work – so they still do more housework and cooking and things as well as more emotional labor”.
Women are consciously forced to carry the burden of maintaining the quality of a relationship. The way men are raised and women stereotyped to be emotional creatures, it is often assumed that women are simply better at carrying, expressing and understanding emotions. This is also reinforced by the position of the woman in her family where the children are encouraged to seek the emotional help of the mother when they are in distress.
A Canadian study that analyzed the satisfaction of nearly 2,000 heterosexual couples in committed relationships, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found that women putting in the work made for a happier relationship overall. This implies that women are putting in the emotional labor to maintain the quality of relationships, at the expense of an emotional inequity.
Over decades, women are stereotyped to have the capacity to be emotionally aware not only of themselves, but of those around them. Compared to men, women seem to have an increased emotional capacity, since they rate higher on 2 of the 3 measures of emotional capacity as developed by the The Predictive Index. These include a measure of one’s ability to overcome limiting beliefs, one’s ease in adapting to challenging situations and the quality of one’s relationships.
Due to multiple factors women have higher limiting beliefs that prevent them from exploring their true potential. However, women are seemingly more adaptive at challenging situations because they have increased cognitive flexibility (owing to the ability to multi-task), increased emotional flexibility (managing emotions through trial and error) and increased dispositional flexibility (as they are considered more realistic than men). Women are also better at maintaining the quality of their relationships because historically they have been carrying the burden of emotional labor.