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What, me worry?

April 21, 2011

I’m a major worrier. It’s just part of my personality. I know it can bug the crap out of the people close to me, but it’s very difficult for me to stop running over all the worst case scenarios in my head. I’m frequently implored to stop; from the sweet “don’t worry about it” from people who care, to the “chill out” from those who are forced to work with me on group projects. But I’m perfectly willing to accept that I’m a bit of a head-case, and that’s just part of who I am.

A recent article from Slate reports that women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men. Now, I haven’t been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but I am interested in the gendered component of anxiety and the question that Jezebel poses: could parents be inadvertently teaching their daughters to worry?

Taylor Clark points to socialization and the “skinned knee effect”:

Parents coddle girls who cry after a painful scrape but tell boys to suck it up, and this formative link between emotional outbursts and kisses from mom predisposes girls to react to unpleasant situations with “negative” feelings like anxiety later in life.

I like the use of quotes around “negative” here. Obviously, anxiety disorders can have a very negative effect on a person’s life, but a pre-disposition to worry is not necessarily negative. We also can’t assume that socializing boys to “suck-it-up” leads to positive effects. In fact, many men argue that it does not. I have always felt that it has been positive for me (in my experience as a white woman growing up middle class in America) that I have been given the space to express my emotions, and react to things that hurt, with pain. But does this space to react to negative situations make me worry about them more?

I was actually struck by the question while reading this, is it possible that women may have more to worry about? Which may not, in fact, be a helpful question, but I did appreciate that Anna North brought up sex and sex ed:

This is to say nothing of sex ed, which so often makes delaying sex and avoiding pregnancy seem like a girl’s responsibility alone. Girls learn pretty early not just to minimize their own risks but to try to keep boys from taking risks as well — it’s no wonder that many of us grow up to be worriers.

I have recently been reading a lot from Hugo Schwyzer, specifically on the “Myth of Male Weakness”, which he describes eloquently as “a fundamental lie about human beings, women’s bodies, and the capacity of men to see the latter revealed without losing their capacity to remain the former.” He believes that men have been coddled to believe that they can’t control themselves around women and therefore cannot truly be blamed when sexual violence occurs. And as a woman in this world, I was absolutely raised to believe that as object that is sexually attractive to men, I had to protect myself from their advances (which would most likely come). I have written before about my very early concern about sexual violence, (forgive me as I quote myself here):

I found … guidance books terrifying, because I had an acute fear of sexual violence, and would always flip first to those sections and ruminate on the dangers associated with my body. I developed early and always felt like my body was a burden in the world, that it made me available to male violence, and I’d rather they not look at it all. I was always concerned for my own safety, and felt dangerous male eyes on me all the time. After I was followed home from the store once after 8th grade, this fear became paralyzing. I had always walked home from school… but now the prospect was terrifying. I would sit in school and panic about those two blocks, trying to come up with excuses on how to get a ride or convince a friend to walk with me. When I did have to go it alone, I would run, looking out at all times for men on the sidewalk or slow moving cars. There were constant calculations of where I would be, who I’d have to be alone with, and the safest possible routes and strategies.

Now, this reaction does sound over-the-top. But the threat was real. There was a girl in a neighborhood near mine, that was forced into a van at gunpoint while biking home from school. There was a man stalking an employee at my elementary school for some time, and we were asked not to walk home alone. I was always aware of the statistics on sexual violence and while now they mobilize me to action, back then they merely reinforced the risk I was taking, just by walking around the block.

When someone tells me to stop worrying, I tend to react in a similar way: “but what if I have something to worry about?” I think of myself as a pretty logical person, and believe that my concerns are legitimate. As a 13 year old, I looked at the risks of sexual violence and said hey, this is something I should probably worry about. And this worry was reinforced to me in sex-ed, by my parents, and by other adults, who taught me that I needed to take precautions when it came to public spaces and to men.

I’m not sure what point I want to hammer in at the end of this post. I guess I’m most curious about what you all think. What have you been raised to worry about? Are your fears gendered? What do you think of the gendered socialization of worry? What do you think should be changed? About skinned knees? About sex-ed? About raising kids in a gendered world?

Comments please.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    April 21, 2011 9:56 PM

    I’m also a major ruminator, but with a diagnosed anxiety disorder on the side. For me, they’re pretty distinct experiences, though. It’s definitely unpleasant to obsess over events and experiences for years, and exhaust every possible negative outcome in my mind (even for situations that have already resolved). For me, the rumination and worrying totally stems from feeling responsible throughout my life for all the things girls and women have been held responsible for, as you say, from preventing sexual violence to just making sure everyone is happy (which are not completely mutually exclusive pressures, of course).

    On the other hand, my anxiety disorder is fed into by rumination, and rumination usually precedes panic attacks, but the cause for me is genetic and biological. I had a major vitamin deficiency, which no one bothered to consider until I had been really suffering for several months. Actually, my mental health care providers did the opposite of seeking physical causes, and instead insisted that I was having a particular experience–of being a formerly big fish suddenly thrown into an even bigger pond–that I was not having in the slightest. Their assumptions about what was troubling me were not only hurtful (as in, it really shredded my confidence to walk into counseling every week and have my therapist insist that I am actually not doing exceptionally well in all of my classes and producing top-flight work, but rather that I am failing constantly, hence the problems), but it also prevented me from getting at the actual cause of my illness.

    I don’t dispute in the slightest the pressures you (and the other commenters you quoted) identify, and really I’m very glad for any opportunity to tease out how women are trained from a very early age to worry, especially because environment, experience and behavior can shape and alter neurological functioning. (Actually if anyone knows more about that lay it on me–I just know that the idea exists.)

    However, I worry (yes!) about situating a conversation about diagnoses of pathological and disruptive anxiety in this frame because–and obviously I’m steeped in my own experience here–for many people there are physical, nutritional, genetic, neurological causes for anxiety in addition to the social causes. While I want to boost the signal as much as possible on how harmful it can be for women to be socialized in these ways because that is a legitimate and pervasive source of harm, I don’t want to do so at the cost of examining the whole range of possible causes for anxiety in women who do appear to suffer from it more (and of course for men as well).

    We might have actually linked to it here, but anthropologist Kate Clancy undertook a really fascinating study of iron deficiency and menstruation. It’s sort of taken for granted that menstruation raises the risk of iron deficiency because, blood, you know. But she discovered that many women who developed iron deficiency that was blamed on menstruation ALSO had gastrointestinal bleeding. No one thought to examine that cause because it was such a given that menstruation was bleeding, bleeding was losing blood, and losing blood was losing iron.

    I don’t want to disrupt the conversation that I hope happens here as a result of your thoughtful questions, Becky, and I do hope there can be more elucidation of all the ways we are held responsible for things that we cannot and should not be responsible for. But I do want to broaden our considerations to a whole picture of health while doing so without letting even really smart social analyses fill the whole frame.

  2. April 22, 2011 11:19 AM

    Eh, I call shenanigans on this one. I was a tom-boy growing up and skinned knees were a daily things almost. I worry like crazy but was never coddled for minor injuries. I get what they are saying, but I don’t see that in my world at all. Even with my siblings. Hmm…interesting though.

  3. Dominique Millette permalink
    April 25, 2011 7:33 PM

    I’m a worrier, but I joke about how pessismists are definitely underrated in our society, and how “optimists” are celebrated while they are the ones who brought down the world economy… it seems to me we could use a little more pessismism and a little less “let a smile be your umbrella” type philosophy.

  4. Jane permalink
    May 28, 2011 3:34 AM

    I haven’t read much on this area, but based on my own experience and observations of others I would definitely say it is true that females are raised to believe they should worry more about their children than males should.

  5. June 8, 2011 7:40 AM

    I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder four years ago when I started having regular panic attacks in my first year of university. I had been panic-free for three years until a few months ago when they came back due to a combination of stressful circumstances and me trying to ignore the warning signs because I felt that if I acknowledged the “disease” I would have failed (again).

    I agree that there are many pressures particular to women that cause them to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men, but would like to point to different reasons than those highlighted in the article.

    First, I think the ‘skinned knees’ approach is almost entirely wrong – from what I have read of the psychological literature, one of the main reasons for heightened/long-term anxiety is an inability to express one’s feelings, or long-term suppression of said feelings. This often occurs in families where the strong expression of feeling is considered unwelcome, and where emotions thus come to be known as potentially embarrassing/shameful/explosive and unpredictable events. This doesn’t fit in at all with a model where girls are ‘molly-coddled’, or allowed to express their pain and confusion more than boys. So I think although there might be something to this, it doesn’t really fit well with what I’ve read and my personal experience.

    Many things feed into anxiety and anxiety disorders, and the best way to treat them – in my opinion – is through a holistic approach. Low self-esteem, negative self-talk, inability to express/identify emotions, as well as many physiological factors, need to be worked through systematically. In my experience, the panic attacks resurge after or during a period of emotional and circumstantial change, especially when I have taken my eye off the ball – I like to see it as a wake up call from my body to address things I have been trying to suppress, for example anxiety over my disorganised studying, fear of failure because of said disorganisation, fears over my relationships – trying to be strong and together all the time is tiring!

    There is definitely something to this modern liberal myth of the perfect superwoman: we have to have careers, husbands, beautiful babies, and look perfect in stiletoes at the same time. Not to mention handle the finances, have a high degree of education, and do all the housework and child-rearing to boot.

    Another important aspect that isn’t immediately obvious to me from your discussion, is that men have far higher rates of depression and suicide than women. Additionally, men have lower rates of diagnosis than women simply because of the Strong Man myth – they go to the doctor far less regularly than women do and thus live with problems for far longer for fear of seeming weak. This, of course, is an easy generalisation and simplification of what is a complex psychological picture when it comes to men, but the fact is that although women may have more anxiety disorders, men have lower rates of diagnosis when it comes to mental health problems in general, and they have higher rates of suicide and clinical depression. Also of autism, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Which, of course, brings up another whole barrel of interesting gender questions!

    In any case, thanks for bringing up an interesting and intelligent discussion on the subject!

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