More and more corporate brands have been pushing back on gender stereotypes. Always’ “Like a Girl”, and more recently Gillette’s “What Men Can Be” campaign, come to mind. Many of these stereotypes go to the heart of how we are socialized. There has always been a perception that physical aggression in boys is more excusable and expected than in girls, and that any sign of weakness is to be shunned. In the same vein, I notice that there is an ongoing narrative associating anxiety with weakness.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is characterized by increased feelings of tension and uneasiness due to worried thoughts or fear, usually of an unknown threat. Anxiety actually has a function. It is meant to alert us to possible danger, and gives us access to responses that can keep us safe - fight, flight, or freeze. It allows us to immediately assess and respond to a threat by attacking, running away or “playing dead” - whichever is most effective in keeping us alive in that moment. However, quite often when clients shared their experiences of anxiety, there is a sense of shame as they express “I feel so weak” or “I don’t tell anyone what I’m going through because they’ll think I’m weak.”
What is Anger?
A negative association between anxiety and weakness leaves us with few tools with which we can address emotional crises. While stigmatizing anxiety, we may be inadvertently glorifying anger which, when misused (or overused), can cause serious harm and place us in danger. Anger is characterized by feelings of displeasure, irritation or annoyance in response to feeling wronged. It has the very useful function of protecting ourselves or loved ones from injustice.
Gender Expectations and the Perception of “Weakness”
Take Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), for example. IED is characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5) as the failure to resist aggressive impulses that result in recurrent acts of impulsive aggression, and research has shown that IED is two to three times more common in boys than girls. It is possible that stereotypes of masculinity that equate strength with aggression and weakness with anxiety or fear, also have the effect of teaching boys that healthy, natural fear impulses of avoiding threat or disengaging (playing dead) are socially inappropriate. Suppressing and ignoring anxiety signals can result in assessing threat only through the lens of something to be attacked, and therefore teaching boys to access and engage their anger impulses. This can be detrimental to our safety if the threat can legitimately overwhelm one’s ability to defend against it.
To ensure that children learn to engage and regulate their emotions in a safe and healthy way, we need to make the effort to destigmatize these emotions. Although unpleasant, these emotions are healthy and functional, and children need to be taught this. We also need to dismantle stereotypes which castigate boys for expressing healthy emotions such as fear and anxiety. This will empower them to be comfortable with utilizing other tools to assess and engage threat more appropriately and safely.