“Emotions aren’t happening to you. Your brain makes them as you need them. You are the architect of your own experience.”—Lisa Feldman Barrett
A recent discussion with a group of writers launched an unexpected line of reasoning. One author described a gift, given from one of her characters to another, as a compromise. The receiver of the gift (female) preferred one color, and the donor (male) insisted on another. One might instantly argue that the gift was not ‘freely given’. Clearly, there were strings attached. Just as clearly, that’s what the author intended, and the discussion could have ended there since that’s truly all that matters, except a male writer murmured that perhaps the gift-giver had exerted the control unintentionally—a subconscious attempt to balance things in his own life.
“Oh no! Men always do that,” another writer (female) cried out; a point of view apparently shared by others in the group who were usually a pretty careful, thoughtful assemblage when called on to make judgements about intent. Doing things because of our own past experiences that affect the lives of others is something we can’t ignore, and I admit, one I find fascinating beyond what was intended by the initial exchange with this group of writers.
How many of our actions and reactions are of purely cultural origin? How much is pre-programmed in our DNA before we’re born? What’s concocted from our life experiences, teaching us ways to react to situations that are unique rather than repeats of a former association? I wrote a blog post many years ago about gifts given to demonstrate ownership and create obligatory dependency, but even then, I missed the whole point of view from the direction of the giver. How much more fascinating the question becomes when one turns it around to focus on the purveyor of the gift and, in this case, control!
I have a feeling that in this aforementioned discussion, the comment about “all men” suggests a cultural bias that may well be representative of male-dominated societies. And in fact, a man might well not have an innate penchant to dominate, but resort to the furtive methods he’s witnessed all his life as the only way of controlling his own momentum. Clearly all human beings have the same struggles, but it may well be harder to avoid the obvious manifestations of power for a man who grows up with them all around him. So, in that sense, I’d say these are both cultural and subconscious workings of the mind that make ‘men always do that’ where women are concerned. But I still find that fact a fascinating precursor to the mystery of why we all ‘always do that’, even when we think we’re not ‘that kind of person’.
Understanding what triggers our own reactions to events, be they gift-giving or, as in my own case, rejecting, seems the key to changing the ingrained reaction. Would men ‘always do that’ if they realized it was how they’re seen? Some would, but probably a lot less. And would women always push away the gift they feel is confining if they understood the true motivation behind it? Probably not, in many cases. A recent NPR podcast interview of a psychologist’s new book on the making of emotions lit my curiosity just before this exchange with the writers occurred. If you’d like to read it yourself (I recommend it), click on this link, but if you’re in too much of a hurry, the gist of her argument is that “…your horizon of control over your own experience is much broader than you might think.”
The idea that any of us ‘always do that’ and always will, it seems, isn’t good science. The data don’t substantiate it. I’d suggest it’s just as important to understand what makes women react as they do, as to know why ‘men always do that’. Climbing mountains together, sharing gorgeous music composed by men, and playing with creative art therapies and movement challenges up at a Vermont artists’ retreat recently reminded me that whatever ‘men always do’, women often do, too; just possibly in a way that looks different at first glance. But there’s nothing like art to help us start doing something new.