December 12, 2010

Being and Belonging

Some of you may know that I took some time off this summer.  I had a great time in a wonderful setting on a lake, with my wife and a group of friends.  It was a time of sharing lots of activities and really good food, as well as just having some time together when we didn’t have to do the things from our everyday lives.  I enjoyed it tremendously.

And some of you may also know that I took a trip to Austin, Texas this fall, and I went by myself.  It was the trip of a lifetime for me.  I got to see great music played by people I’d admired for years, and great music played by people I’d never heard of before!  And I enjoyed that trip tremendously.

I talk about this with patients, and even my students in classes, because the idea of being independent and doing things apart from one’s partner or spouse is sometimes looked at as a negative.  And for some, the idea of only doing things with one’s spouse or the family, or close grouping, is also thought of as a negative.  In general, boys are brought up to stand apart and assert their independence, while girls are encouraged to blend in, and associate more closely with friends and the family; what researcher Shelley Taylor calls the “tend and befriend” response. As we grow up, these values and skills are continued, and if we aren’t careful to learn how to do both, our lives are less full, perhaps less rich and rewarding.

In psychological terms, standing apart and doing the assertive independent, active thing is called being “agentic.”  Behaviors and attitudes that fit with an agentic style are competition, dominance, rationality, self-reliance, limited self-disclosure, and confidence. Generally speaking this also goes with reluctance to talk about emotions or to express them—except for the emotion of anger. Our culture teaches boys to hold tight to these values earlier and more vigorously than the restrictive strategy taught to girls, and to be persistent, confident, and strong—even aggressive at times.  And these attitudes and behaviors are generally thought to be more masculine.  What psychologists like to call “instrumental.”

Of course, psychologists have terms for attitudes and behaviors that go with joining in and “communing” with others.  Those are known as the “expressive” behaviors: being warm, gentle and empathic, expressing caring and kindness, taking time to listen and understand others’ experiences, and often devoting great time and energy to others. Generally speaking these attributes are what we encourage our girls to do—and while some might say each sex is wired to do that which we’ve come to expect, it is very clear that the ability to respond in both ways is possible for all humans regardless of gender. In fact, historically and culturally, women have moved toward adopting more “agentic” responses, while there has been much less movement of men toward the more “expressive” responses. (The reason for this will be reserved for another blog.)

Suffice it to say, my enjoyable time alone in Austin tells me that independence and making decisions about what and where and how my day would go—that’s all good.  It feels great to know I’m only responsible for my own good time, and my own actions.

My enjoyable time with my wife and our very closest friends tells me that belonging is tremendously important to me as well.  Listening to their hurts, or their successes (while also disclosing my own), laughing and playing, and being gentle with the emotions that accompany hopes and dreams for the future—that’s all part of belonging, and I found it very comforting.

The research, as well as my personal and professional experience, support that the ability to respond from both strategies (agency and communion) are critically important and express full humanity, rather than living a life entrenched in the limited traditional roles that are pushed upon us. My hope is for a greater freedom for boys and men to seek the fun and enjoyment of belonging to a family or group where both hurts and happiness are expressed openly.  And I hope for girls and women to hone their agentic skills and pursue their own independent dreams. I think this balance is the most important challenge we face in life and much of my work is in helping men and women figure out which strategy to adopt with different people, and across different settings (work, love, and play).