When they say women’s work is never done, they are not talking about the dishes. Women have a unique way of approaching life that results in their hardly ever being off-duty. Their mental effort is geared toward things that don’t stop at five o’clock. Women burn vast amounts of energy looking beneath the surface, thinking about other people, and trying to do everything right.
Women think in global, complex ways. If men tend to think in black and white, women simultaneously see all the various outcomes and their potential effects on different people. Women’s brains seem designed to pay attention to many things at once. In one experiment, researchers had men and women listen to recordings of several different stories being read at the same time. The men were able to focus on one story and tune out the rest. The women, however, were soon tearing off their headphones, complaining that the multiple demands on their attention were driving them crazy.
This attention to a multiplicity of inputs gives women an edge in social and emotional realms, where things can quickly become staggeringly complex. For a woman’s brain, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. And that is good, because reality is the same way. Women see levels upon levels of meaning and interlinked chains of cause and effect that would blow a man’s mind. She knows that socially one gets away with nothing and that hurt feelings or perceived slights can have far-reaching consequences. The complexities of relationships and social loyalties are transparently obvious to many women, and they navigate carefully so as not to make enemies of the people they value. Women are not pleasers; they are social realists. They know how upset other people get.
Psychologists have called this attentiveness to other people’s feelings “emotional work.” Any service or sales job also requires this kind of vigilance to other people’s reactions. Raising children or keeping peace at the office means that a woman is often using huge amounts of brain glucose on an hourly basis. She involuntarily notices small reactions and reads faces and posture like writing on a wall. Women are natural psychologists. They wonder what makes people do things and what caused them to be the way they are.
When situations are conflicting or otherwise stressful, women do even more emotional work, involuntarily focusing on the inner states of the people involved. If things at home or work are not happy, a woman can easily become emotionally exhausted, just from constantly monitoring the emotional temperature of the interactions around her. Her emotionally vigilant mind also sets her up to anticipate tension between people before it ever happens, so she worries not only in the present, but for the future as well.
The motivation for this emotional work lies in women’s amazing tendency to identify with other people. They vividly feel the inner experiences of others. This does not mean that women do not have interests of their own or that they neurotically live through other people. It just means that their capacity for identification allows them to feel the other person’s emotions as their own.
Due to a woman’s capacity for identification, supporting others can feel almost as good as doing it oneself. A woman needs to be aware that vicarious satisfactions could take the place of her individual fulfillment. A woman can intend to be the star of her own life, only to find she has landed a supporting role in someone else’s. Nothing wrong with that, but it is important to ask if that supporting role is truly satisfying or just a vicarious life hijack caused by a too strong identification with another person’s issues.
One reason why a woman might pull back and let another person take the lead is that many women get overly concerned with doing things correctly. If a man’s motto is “Git ‘er done,” a woman’s is “Do it right.” If you look at the headings on many women’s magazines, you will see the same theme promoted: here’s how to do it better. There’s a collective improvement society going on out there amongst women, and the popularity of women’s magazines capitalizes on it. (Do you see many men’s magazines in the check-out line that promise to help men drop ten pounds in a week or get better deals by shopping a certain way? No? That is because men aren’t interested in finding little ways to improve themselves and others.)
Unfortunately, this desire to do things the right way can turn into perfectionism. Women often hold themselves to overly high standards, leading to despondent thoughts when they feel they should have done something a better way. This trait has helped women to be agents of socialization, but it has also caused women unnecessary shame as they self-evaluate negatively. It does not occur to them that their self-expectations are out of whack; they just focus on how they were less than perfect.
A woman’s urge to make sure things are done in the best way can also cause irresistible impulses to correct other people. When women lose perspective and give other people the “do it better” treatment, it can sink the other person’s desire to do it at all.
Never in history has women’s work been so important. Her ability to sense emotional complexity and interpersonal consequences could make the difference for the future of the human race. Never before have emotions and troubled relationships had the power to annihilate so vastly. If we are going to have a peaceful world, then a woman’s ability to identify with others is crucial. A woman’s skills are a rising stock on the world stage of survival. She has a starring role coming up, and we will need her willingness to lead, not just correct.
Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.