"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gender–Girls, Tears, And Sharing Depression

New research suggests that misery does not love company.  Just the opposite.  By sharing woes, one focuses more on them.  What’s worse, confiding sadness and and misery will act to depress even the most happy and upbeat of one’s friends. 

Common sense tells us that this has to be true. No one really wants to hear tales of woe because they are reminders of one’s own precarious life.  The cancer of a friend recounted in such detail may visit the listener.  We don’t, therefore, want to hear how our friend learned of her illness; or about the months of her debilitating, painful chemotherapy,and the loss of a breast. Divorce, family disputes, brutal fights over meager inheritance, disobedient, drug-taking children are all depressing enough in the abstract, but when our friend starts going into detail about the most heinous, immoral and deceitful behavior of her husband, her nephews, and her own daughter, we would rather change the subject.

On the other hand, what about the received wisdom which says that baring one’s soul, sharing troubles with someone who has a sympathetic ear is good therapy? Crying on someone’s shoulder, getting a good hug and a cuddle?  If one is to believe the research, it is all nonsense. 

Sarah Kershaw, as reported by Anna North in the New York Times (10.14.14) writes:

The research distinguishes between sharing or ‘self-disclosure,’ which is associated with positive friendships and positive feelings, and dwelling on problems, concerns and frustrations. Dwelling and rehashing issues can keep girls, who are more prone to depression and anxiety than boys, stuck in negative thinking patterns.

In other words, if a girl feels sorry for herself alone, she is likely to be distracted by other things – boys, for example, or the coming Beyoncé concert. Her young mind is simply too resilient and too intelligent to whip itself over some insignificant slight.  Wallowing in her parents messy divorce pays no emotional dividends whatsoever.  What parents do to each other happens all the time, so it is better to chalk it up to human experience and move on. 

Girls far more than boys love to talk.  Whether genetically programmed or influenced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, they chat on the phone, text, or email.  They gossip, slam boys and parents, share exuberance and disappointment all the time.  What the research is telling them is keep their own counsel, focus on the positive, deal with their misery – which, by the way, every human being who has ever walked the face of the earth has had in spades – and not infect others. 

It gets worse.  Not only do girlfriends get a little depressed after a crying session, they may be so dragged down into depression by the experience that they begin to consider acts unthinkable before the friendly intimacy:

Kershaw mentions other work on “‘emotion contagion’ or ‘contagious anxiety,’ in which one person’s negative thoughts or anxiety can affect another’s mood, sometimes over a long period.” She writes: “Research has shown that people who live with others suffering from depression tend to become depressed themselves. Teenage girls who intentionally cut themselves are said to draw friends into the behavior.”

Stuffed animals serve as cuddly friends for many girls who sleep with the stuffed raccoons, bears, and dogs that they had as children way into their young adult years.  They hug them before going to sleep, talk to them about the nasty things that were said to them in the girls room, and share with them how stupid and unreasonable their parents have become. 

Research is only worth the investment if it is actionable.  It is all well and good to confirm a hypothesis – in this case that misery does definitely not love company – but something practical should result.

In a suburb of a major Midwestern town in the United States, a group called Mothers Against Depression was formed to address the implications of these findings. First and foremost, the women all took a pledge to stay upbeat no matter how bad the news; and although the organizers never planned it this way, the approach turned out to be very nihilist. Cancer, death, and divorce are nothing more than events on the perpetually turning wheel of history.  There is nothing to be concerned about because they happen to everyone and always have. 

On a less lofty plane, the mothers promised to take only the best lessons from what used to be called ‘misery’ or misfortune.  “Aunt Betty was a wonderful woman”, said Fern Brattle in a practice session. “She had beautiful hair, wonderful friends, and lived a long, happy life.  We should celebrate her life, not mourn her passing.”

The truth, however, was far different.  Betty Makum was a miserly misanthrope who did all she could to make others unhappy and miserable.  She died a slow and painful death and even those closest to her said that she deserved it.

This inconvenient truth was shoved under the rug, and Aunt Betty’s nieces and nephews were told a revisionist story about her goodness.

What made this happy talk venture easy was the school district’s renewed emphasis on self-esteem.  Everyone in the Jeremiah S. Baker School was considered to be a unique, highly valued individual.  In other words, slow, overweight Laverne should ignore the playground taunts hurled at her every day.  She is special because of her generous personality, kindness, and good will.

So the Mothers Against Depression were not along in their campaign.  Everything in the small town was happy and upbeat.  ‘Smile’ stickers were everywhere, local newscasters left aside the ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ protocol for one month of the year. February in fact was designated Self-Esteem Month during which workshops, fairs, and socials were held to promote the community’s positive, upbeat attitude.

As the psychologist Wendy Wood has said:

‘Staying present’ during good experiences may help keep them from becoming dull habits, and maybe focusing on someone else’s impressions is one way to maintain that present-ness. Maybe eating your favorite chocolate with someone else will help you appreciate it more.

None of this worked, however. Girls still gossiped away, cried their eyes out with their best friends, shared their misery and their mournful diary entries, and kept up a steady routine of chat and tears.

No matter how strict the schools were about self-esteem, Laverne, Yolanda, and Margaret got teased because they were fat; Randall, William, and LaTrey were ridden about being in Special Ed; and Prince Marfie was laughed at for his stumbling lack of coordination.

So, nature trumped nurture in Bofort, Kansas.  Everyone – parents, teachers, and city councilmen – finally came to the conclusion that girls will always cry with their friends; boys will always be cruel bullies; and both sexes will be largely indifferent to others.

Wendy Wood closes with this comment:

Sharing a bad experience with someone else might make your burden heavier rather than lighter. If you’re going to do something fun, you should invite a friend to do it, too “but if you’re doing something unpleasant you should do it by yourself.

Good advice. Let the world turn as it always has.  Let boys be boys and let girls be girls.  No matter how much we hector them about inclusivity and self-esteem they are still going to behave as they have for millennia.  Human nature is not something you can fiddle with.

Mothers Against Depression disbanded recently, and the mother who founded it shared her disappointment with the press.  “Yes, I’m disappointed”, she said, “but this doesn’t mean that I am going to change.  I will remain the happy, upbeat, positive person I have always been.”

No one took her seriously because most of the residents of that small Kansas town knew of her many travails; but everyone thanked her for her service, albeit in a losing cause.

1 comment:

  1. Outside carries on with a girl loaded with life,
    yet inside shrouds a girl loaded with agony, needing to die.
    Outside lives a girl with a perfect image,
    yet inside shrouds a girl with second thoughts and errors.
    Outside lives a girl of innocence,
    yet inside shrouds a girl with gigantic blame.
    Outside lives a girl with goals and yearnings,
    yet inside lives a girl lost in disarray.
    What you see on the outside is my personal mask,
    What covers up underneath you can't even start to imagine.

    Linda Smith.


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