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Emotional differences: personality vs. gender

This article is a bit more “technical” than most others on my website.

I generally do not make male/female emotional differences a primary focus in either relationship or individual counseling. I put much more emphasis on personality, which may be modified or influenced by one’s gender but is not determined by it. There are a few reasons for this.

First of all, personal and professional experience tell me that one’s genitals do not determine one’s attitudes, values, or capabilities regarding the experiencing, expression, or communication of emotions. I know men who are better at discussing their feelings than they are at talking sports. Likewise, I know women who are very comfortable in a board meeting but strongly resist acknowledging their feelings.

There has been some research and a great deal of less scientific speculation about the differences between the brains of men and women. I do believe that there are some inherent sex-based emotional differences, but it is important to remember that our neurology is influenced by environment as well as by physiology, even before birth. We know that our brains are physically changed by our experiences, so being socialized in a particular way is likely to have particular neurological effects. In a society like ours that puts so much emphasis on gender roles, it is extremely difficult to say where the line between nature and nurture lies.

Scientists can identify physical sex-based brain differences, but at this stage of neurological understanding we have only a gross general idea about the psychological impact of what we are looking at. We know so little about how the many aspects and structures of the brain interact that I don’t believe we can currently say how much sex or gender differences really affect or limit mental processes. Maybe all physiologically normal men are capable of as much “emotional intelligence” as any woman. Maybe only some are. Maybe only some are not. Based purely on our understanding of neurology, we simply don’t know at this point.

Additionally, there is increasing awareness that gender and sex are much more complex than a simple binary (male or female). I suspect that if a consistently useful system focused on sex-based or gender-based emotional differences is possible it would first need to identify a much broader and more flexible range of sexual and/or gender variation than the binary male/female.

While we can’t say that there are definitive physiologically-based emotional differences between men and women, it is clear that there is a tremendous amount of personality variation between individuals, whether of the same gender or of different genders. That is why I prefer focusing on personality differences rather than gender differences.

Personality differences are identified by examining observed and experienced characteristics, many of which directly connect to emotional experience and expression. Even if there is a statistically valid link between gender or sex and emotional capacity, it is valid as applied to a certain percentage of the general population, not to every individual. I believe that on an individual basis the personality-emotion connection provides a more detailed and useful picture.

If nothing else, it seems clear to me that a well explored system that identifies nine or sixteen different basic personality types has a better chance of precisely describing individually relevant emotional traits than one that essentially only identifies two personality types (i.e., male and female).

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