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Women struggle to express themselves

By KATRINA WOZNICKI, UPI Science News

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Women who are uncomfortable expressing themselves, particularly negative emotions such as anger, are more likely to end up feeling even more angry and may also be vulnerable to eating disorders, according to two separate studies.

Numerous studies have shown emotions such as anger, hostility and frustration, when not constructively expressed, are associated with greater risks for depression and even physical conditions such as heart disease. These two studies, conducted on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, highlight the importance of women being able to positively voice their feelings.

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In the first, researchers Drs. Judith Hosie and Alan Milne of King's College at the University of Aberdeen in Old Aberdeen, Scotland, asked men and women to view two emotional film clips. During the first film, some were asked to suppress angry feelings, others were asked to express them, and still others were asked to substitute any anger with a happy memory. They were then shown the second clip and were told to respond however they felt spontaneously.

Researchers reported women who suppressed their anger felt more like swearing than men. And the women who denied their anger felt more outraged, upset and disgusted than their male counterparts. The researchers report in many cultures, women are under great pressure to conceal their emotions.

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The research was funded and released by the United Kingdom's Economic and Social Research Council.

"The reality is that women, no matter how high in power they may get in their life ... have a kind of people-pleasing syndrome which involves, among other things, an addiction to getting everyone's approval and getting everyone to like them," Braiker told UPI. "The price of nice you pay is the inability to deal with anger in an appropriate way."

Conversely, Braiker pointed out, niceness in men is associated with weakness while men who express anger are associated with leadership.

The second study, conducted by psychologists Suzanne E. Mazzeo of the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and Dorothy L. Espelage of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, interviewed 820 female undergraduate students. They found depression and alexithymia, the inability to identify and describe one's feelings, directly influenced a woman's risk for developing the eating disorders anorexia or bulimia. Family conflict, family cohesion, child or emotional abuse and neglect also contributed to a young woman's risk.

"I think this study shows...that these relationships aren't simple, that one thing doesn't cause eating disorder," Mazzeo told United Press International. "If people have difficulty expressing feelings, then controlling eating may help them feel more in control... they might turn outside and focus on appearance because in our culture, there's a lot of people who say if you look good you might feel good."

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Mazzeo's study is published in the January issue of Journal of Counseling Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

Harriet Braiker, a private-practicing psychologist in Los Angeles and author of "The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome," said women who do not address their anger are taxing their own emotional well-being.

Several experts said asserting oneself requires skills that can be learned at any age, regardless of a person's emotional background. Too often, women perceive anger as a bad emotion that should be avoided when in fact; anger and constructively expressing other negative feelings can be a very positive, empowering act.

"Anger is one most important emotions we have to regulate relationships ... to clear the air, clear obstacles in relationships so we can have fair give and take relationships," said Dana Crowley Jack, professor of human development at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. and author of the recent book, "Behind the Mask: Destruction and Creativity in Women's Aggression."

"It's also an expression of self-esteem, of caring for yourself, and for caring for the other person," Jack said.

Unfortunately, women have few role models to learn how to constructively express negative emotions. "That's not what girls are learning," she said. "They're learning indirect, manipulative behavior."

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Women who do assert their feelings, Jack pointed out, often are perceived negatively by society.

"People see (expressing anger) as real self-centered, selfish, and that's part of bitchiness because the norm is so strong that women should think of other people...and when you veer from that, you're in a lot of trouble."

Even when young women are encouraged to be assertive about their feelings, it is difficult if they come from a sexist household where the mother or other female relatives are discouraged from expressing themselves, said Patricia Pape, a psychologist in private practice in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Despite the shortage of good female role models, she added, there are signs of hope that mainstream culture is working to change these ingrained attitudes toward women.

"TV is now trying to tell women to be a lot more assertive, to speak up for themselves," Pape said, even TV shows like "Sex and the City," the extremely popular HBO comedy about four single women living in New York. "They're trying to make a statement that women do have choices," she said.

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