Researchers have found the following similarities and differences between males and females:
Gross, J. (2008). Emotion regulation. In: M. Lewis, J. Haviland-Jones & L. Feldman Barnett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, pp. 497-512. New York: Guilford.
Salovey, P., Detweiler-Bedell, B., Detweiler-Bedell, J., & Mayer, J. (2008). Emotional intelligence. In: M. Lewis, J. Haviland-Jones & L. Feldman Barnett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, pp. 497-512. New York: Guilford.
Simon, R., & Nath, L. (2004). Gender and emotion in the United States: Do men and women differ in self-reports of feelings and expressive behavior? American Journal of Sociology, 109 (5), 1137-1176.
Based on laboratory studies and field research with many cultures around the world, the anthropologist Paul Eckman determined that there are six primary human emotions, which are hard-wired and available from birth: Anger, Fear, Sadness, Joy, Surprise and Disgust.
In addition to the six primary emotions, humans also experience what have been called “social” emotions, necessary for meeting social demands and expectations. The major social emotions are: shame, guilt, jealousy, embarrassment and pride. Still others, which may also be regarded as states of mind rather than pure emotions, include being Disrespected, Ignored, Betrayed, Unimportant, Inadequate, Disappointed, Hurt, Lonely, Worried, Confused, and Helpless.
Emotions not only make life more interesting and meaningful, but are necessary for survival and getting one’s needs met. Think of your emotions, like your senses, as a means by which you get information from the world. When they are working the way they should, emotions provide further information about the environment and your relationship to it. For example, anger warns you of a possible threat and prepares you to take action against that threat. Fear also warns you about a threat, but prepares you to flee. When you are sad, it means that there is something missing from your life, and you are drawn to others to comfort you. When you are generally happy around a particular individual, you probably will want to spend more time with them, knowing that your love and belonging needs are being met. Denying or ignoring one’s emotions is as foolish as deliberately blinding oneself or puncturing your ear drums.
Unfortunately, because they are generated by your thoughts, and your thoughts are not always rational, emotions cannot always be trusted. Not only are many of them irrational, but they are automatic and contained within your head. Unless you share them with someone who can give you a more objective perspective, you are likely to believe your thoughts and act on them.
It is easy to look at people and events in the environment and decide that they are causing you to feel in a
particular way (for example, “She makes me angry;” This job is depressing.”). However, events and situations don’t cause emotions. Rather, your “self-talk” (what you tell yourself in your head about those events) causes those emotions. If your self-talk happens to accurately reflects what is actually going on in the world, then your emotions – no matter how strong – will be appropriate to the situation. For example, if after suddenly becoming homeless you think to yourself “this is horrible” and felt very sad, that self-talk and the emotion that goes with it would be appropriate to the situation. However, feeling angry because you are telling yourself that it is “horrible and terrible” that your partner prefers not to go out to dinner with you would be an example of distorted self-talk.
Having more control over your emotions requires that you be able to identify your distorted thinking. It is best to do this with pen and paper. Next time you experience a distressing event, write down: (1) the situation you were in; (2) the distressing emotions you were feeling; and (3) the self-talk in your head. Then, using the chart below to guide you, see if you can identify any distorted self-talk, and challenge it.
Types of distorted self-talk
Challenging your thinking
“He’s trying to mess with me”
“He doesn’t really love me”
“How do I know?”
“I can’t read minds”
“Jerk,” “Bitch,” “Lazy,” “Idiot,” etc.
“Everyone has a good side. What is it about their behavior that I don’t like?”
“She is never going to change”
“I’ll never get another job”
“I am not a psychic.”
“This is horrible, terrible”
“The weekend’s ruined”
“How bad is this, compared to a real tragedy – like the death of a loved one?”
“He can’t talk to me like that”
“This has to change”
“He can, but I don’t have to like it.”
“Nothing has to change. I can try my best.”
“She is working late again – must be having an affair”
“People do things for many reasons.”
“They are either with me or against me.”
“They disagree with me in some ways and agree in others ways.”
“Things never go my way”
“Women are just impossible”
“Sometimes they go my way, sometimes not.”
“Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Or I need to make better choices.”
Distressing emotions are also caused by irrational beliefs. Look at the list below, from the psychologist Albert Ellis. Ask yourself what types of behaviors people engage in who have the belief. For example, one who believes that it is “an absolute necessity” to have love and approval would have a tendency to overly please others, resulting in anxiety, loneliness, or anger. See if you relate to any of these beliefs. Then re-write them by taking out the distortions (e.g., magnification and absolutes. This will give you a more realistic way of looking at things (e.g., “I would like to have love and approval”).
Sometimes you feel terrible event though there is nothing stressful happening in the environment. You just feel that way, due to the automatic thoughts that pop into your head and feed upon one another. But blaming yourself or obsessing over your feelings will not make them go away, nor the thoughts that accompany them. Worrying about your feelings or trying desperately to control your irrational thoughts only leads to more distress.
When you wind up feeling anxious about your anxiety, angry about your loneliness, etc., you are producing more unpleasant emotions, which you attempt to alleviate by doing things that wind up making things worse. This includes drinking excessively, acting out with aggression, or withdrawing into yourself and therefore missing experiences that you might otherwise learn from. An example of the latter would be avoiding people after a relationship break-up, causing you to feel even more depressed, leading to further isolation. In your mind, the isolation “proves” that you are “hopeless.” Obviously, this is a type of problem that you cannot think your way out of. Trying to control your thoughts is like fighting in quicksand: the more you struggle, the deeper you sink.
No matter how well you challenge your irrational thoughts and beliefs you can expect them to persist, at least on some level, because they are wired in your brain. Once your irrational thoughts and beliefs lead you to experience intense emotions, your decision-making capabilities are further undermined. This is partly due to the way that memories are stored in the brain. When you experience intense, distressing emotions, the parts of your brain that process those emotions, located largely in the amygdala, naturally link-up with memories of similarly distressing emotions that have no sense of time and space. So, for example, when your partner criticizes you about something, it feels like they “always” criticize you, because your brain is linking together experiences of being criticized all at once. You are then at risk for either acting-out with aggression, feeling greater levels of anxiety, or withdrawing into a sinking depression.
The good news is that your thoughts and feelings, no matter how distressing, have far less power over you when you remember that they are not real entities, but rather neural activity and body sensations. Some of them are useful, and some are not, but it is important that you know that you are not your thoughts and feelings. The thoughts in your head may seem confusing and often in conflict, like pieces on a chessboard. But you are neither the black pieces or white pieces; you are, rather, the chessboard that holds them. This is a useful metaphor for helping you detach from your thoughts and emotions, so you are not controlled by them. The following grounding exercise is also useful.
Close your eyes and sit quietly in a comfortable chair. There is nothing more that you have to do, other than to be aware of the experience. After 5-10 minutes, answer the following questions:
After a few hours, or later in the week, do this exercise again, preferably at the same time and location. What did you experience in the external environment? Did you experience the same sounds and sensations as before, and exactly the same way, or differently? What did you experience within yourself? Did you notice how your thoughts and feelings changed?
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to do this meditation. Its purpose is to help you get grounded, so that you can develop a capacity for self-observation and detachment, crucial in coping with stress and intense feelings. Remember this: Your thoughts and feelings, and even sensations of the outside environment, are always changing, sometimes from second to second. However, the part of you that is aware of these fleeting thoughts, feelings and sensations, which psychologists call the “self” or “observing ego,” does not change.
Identifying distorted thoughts can help you act less impulsively and make better short-term decisions, and learning to detach from those thoughts and their accompanying emotions will keep them from ruling your life. Ultimately, however, achieving good mental health and having a fulfilling life requires that you take action. What is it that you actually have control over? As the figure below indicates, you have the most control over your behavior
You cannot wait until you feel better about yourself before you make changes in your life. You can determine for yourself what those changes ought to be by setting goals that are consistent with your core values, using the chart below as a guide.
Area of life
Long term goals
Short term goals
(deepest, most meaningful relationships – including children, partner, parents, close friends and relatives)
(paid work, studying/ education/ and
unpaid work such as volunteering, or domestic duties)
(rest and relaxation, hobbies, creativity, sport, all forms of leisure, recreation and entertainment)
(physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual health and well-being.)
Working towards your goals does much more than giving you a sense of purpose and direction. Because of the actions you have taken, you start to view yourself in a more positive way. As you build confidence, your motivation to change increases, resulting in more positive action. Meanwhile, your brain itself is slowly being re-wired. In time your thoughts and emotions themselves change.
Jealousy is one of the major “social” emotions. Like anger, it can be very destructive when not processed and expressed properly.
Answer the following questions:
How to cope with a jealous partner:
Your partner has a right to know, generally, where you spend your time and with whom. However, persistent questioning about your whereabouts are signs of pathological jealousy. Pathological jealousy is always about the other person, never you. Explaining yourself over and over only makes your partner suspect that you are a persistent liar. Be willing to discuss any other relationship issues that might be contributing to your partner’s unhappiness, and offer support. If you have to, suggest that they get into therapy to work on their jealousy. However, trust is not negotiable, and no one has a right to abuse and control.
John Hamel, LCSW
Think of your emotions, like your senses, as a means by which you get information from the world. Emotions provide further information about the environment and your relationship to it. Emotions such as fear and anger are necessary for basic survival. For example, anger warns you of a possible threat and prepares you to take action against that threat. Fear also warns you about a threat, but prepares you to flee. When you are sad, it means that there is something missing from your life, and you are drawn to others to comfort you. When you are generally happy around a particular individual, you probably will want to spend more time with them, knowing that your love and belonging needs are being met. Denying or ignoring one’s emotions is as foolish as deliberately blinding oneself or puncturing your ear drums.
Based on laboratory studies and field research with many cultures around the world, the anthropologist Paul Eckman determined that there are six primary human emotions, which are hard-wired and available from birth. These are: Anger, Fear, Sadness, Joy, Surprise, and Disgust. Different cultures have different rules about how emotions ought to be expressed. For example, people in Northern Europe are more reserved compared to people from Southern Europe. However, facial expressions for each emotion are the same across cultures. A person who is angry, for example, will exhibit lowered and furrowed eyebrows, glaring eyes and tightly-clenched jaw. Even when people are consciously trying to disguise their feelings, their face will show at least some signs of the emotion.
In addition to the six primary emotions, humans also experience what have been called “social” emotions, necessary for meeting social demands and expectations. The major social emotions are: shame, guilt, jealousy, embarrassment and pride.
Some emotions, like jealousy and anger, are very powerful and can be misused. When you feel a strong emotion, you tend to go with it because you learned to “trust your gut.” However, emotions are only as accurate as their wiring in your brain. Abuse, trauma, and other experiences can result in distorted emotions that can’t always be trusted.
Furthermore, for most individuals, especially men, experiencing and expressing emotions can make them feel vulnerable. Anger can make you feel temporarily powerful, which is why it can take over and mask other emotions. But expressing vulnerable feelings can be very useful. When loved ones do things you don’t like, expressing feelings such as disappointment, hurt, betrayal, or embarrassment will cause them to feel guilty and to change their behavior because they want to. Expressing only anger may cause them to stop listening or comply out of fear.
The great majority of relationship aggression, sometimes known as domestic violence or intimate partner abuse, involves high conflict interactions involving primarily verbal aggression. According to the most recent, large-scale national survey on domestic violence conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year approximately 7.5 million women and 7.3 million men are victims of physical assaults at the hands of their partner. Physical forms of relationship aggression occur in about 15% – 20% of relationships, and typically consist of infrequent pushing, grabbing, and throwing things, resulting in no or minor physical injuries.
The most serious type of relationship aggression, known as battering, is typically chronic, involving more severe physical assaults leading to physical injury, and usually accompanied by high and frequent rates of emotional abuse and attempts to dominate and control the partner. Individuals who are controlling of their partners are much more likely to also be physically assaultive. Batterers can be either male or female, but women are more likely than men to suffer serious physical injuries.
In about 50% – 60% of relationships where there has been some form of physical aggression, both partners are violent. Men and women assault one another and strike the first blow at approximately equal rates, and are motivated for the same reasons – for example, to control, to express frustration, in self-defense, or in retaliation for something their partner did.
Non-physical forms of relationship aggression are much more prevalent. According to the 2012 literature review by Carney and Barner, 40% of women and 32% of men have perpetrated expressive abuse (e.g., name-calling, ridiculing; sometimes out of anger and in response to provocations, and sometimes intended to degrade and humiliate the partner), while 41% of women and 43% of men have perpetrated coercive abuse (e.g., monitoring partner’s whereabouts, threatening; intended to control).
Many more relationships are characterized by “Dirty Fighting,” behaviors such as bringing up the past, not listening and blaming that are not strictly “abusive,” but undermine healthy communication and problem-solving. The underlying motive when using these behaviors is to win the argument, rather than arrive at a mutually-agreed upon consensus. The effect of these behaviors is to make the other person feel too confused, guilty, overwhelmed or worn out to effectively make their case, so that in your mind you “won.”
Examples of dirty fighting include “brown bagging,” – bombarding the other person with all the complaints you have been wanting to talk about, all at once; “overgeneralizing,” making comments like, “You’re always late” and “I can never count on you,” and “cross-complaining” – for example, instead of taking responsibility for your actions, you complain about something your partner did. All forms of relationship aggression are destructive, with physical as well as psychological consequences.
When individuals act aggressively towards others, they often excuse their behavior by saying something like, “I lost it,” or “I just blew my top,” implying that they had no control over themselves, like a pressure cooker that exploded because the steam-release device was broken. At very high levels of anger, it can certainly feel like you have no control over your anger. But is this literally true? Please read the scenario below and answer the questions.
When you first arrive at your office after the usual commute, your anger level on a scale of 1 to 10 is about a 2, meaning that you are feeling mildly frustrated, but otherwise fine. However, later in the morning, your boss screams at you in front of your co-workers, and hints that you might be the next employee to go in the next round of layoffs.
In the afternoon, while trying desperately to meet a deadline, your spill a cup of coffee in your lap. After having to stay an extra hour to answer a lot of pointless e-mails, you leave the office only to find yourself in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way home. When traffic finally picks up, a police officer pulls you over for speeding. This is the third moving violation you have had in the past year, and you are now in danger of losing your license.
When describing their anger and how they responded to a particular situation, people say things like, “I was really steamed,” “I felt hot under the collar,” and “My anger just boiled over.” In fact, you are not a pressure cooker, and there is no “steam” inside you. For sure, you feel tension in your body, and your adrenaline levels may go up, but other than making you feel uncomfortable, there is nothing inherently threatening or harmful about your immediate feelings of anger. There are no accounts in any medical journals of someone actually “blowing up” because they were too angry. Instead, think of your anger like a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm is loud and obnoxious. Furthermore, when a smoke alarm goes off in your home, it doesn’t tell you how big the fire is, or even if there’s a fire at all (someone may be cooking) and it certainly doesn’t tell you how to put it out. But it is very necessary, and thinking of your anger like a smoke alarm will allow you to use it more productively.
John Hamel, LCSW
John Hamel, LCSW