The Fundamental Challenge for Women

by Helene Brenner | Jul 21, 2018 | Authenticity

Are men and women completely the same psychologically? If you took away all of the obstacles and all of the value judgments about how people are supposed to be, would women and men experience life in the same way?

For years the only acceptable answer was to say there are no meaningful differences. And for most of the past 20 years, conventional wisdom also had it that we were done talking about “women’s issues,” because all of the important problems had been solved and all the real obstacles eliminated.

Of course, that was never true, and today, in 2021, it is finally being faced again. And today we can again talk about the differences between men’s and women’s experiences, and we can look at the different psychological challenges men and women face.

As women we are destined to confront a fundamental challenge that colors practically every day of our lives. On the one hand, we must respond to, notice and be true to who we genuinely are, what we genuinely think and feel in our own unique and inimitable way. For many of us, the pulse of our internal lives beats strongly. We are aware of how we feel—sometimes, perhaps, more than we want to be. Yet this is our gift, one that we must find a way to honor.

At the same time, we are drawn to connect. We are drawn to follow that urge inside us, that pull of the tide to respond to others, to take their feelings and needs into account, to reach for that moment of intimacy and communion, to tend the web of relationships that sustains (and sometimes smothers) us, and, if we are responsible for dependent children, to fulfill our responsibility to take care of them to the best of our ability, even when it extracts a great cost from ourselves.

Somehow we must balance these two forces. We must bring them together so that neither one cancels the other out. We must find a way to make them work in tandem so that who we truly are enriches all the people we touch, and so that the connections we have with the important people in our lives mirrors, validates and makes stronger the woman we are inside.

Unfortunately, very few women have been taught how to balance these two forces. Very few have been encouraged as young girls to hold on tightly to who they really are; very few have been told that they have an inner voice that is theirs and theirs alone. Instead, they often learn the intricate arts of developing and maintaining connection at a high cost—at the expense of their true selves.

Tend and Befriend

At the turn of the millennium, a group of six psychologists from UCLA announced the results of a study showing that, while each person is an individual, in general men and women react in very different ways to stress. Specifically, the psychologists said that under stress, men’s bodies automatically turn to the strategy known as “fight or flight” (gearing up either to fight or to make a hasty retreat), whereas women’s bodies automatically prepare them to do what the researchers called “tend and befriend.”

That is, when stress mounts, a woman’s own hormonal system naturally inclines her first to protect and nurture her children (tend) and then to turn to a social network of supportive females (befriend). This, the researchers said, was the biggest difference between men and women in their responses to stress.

This finding didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have, was that the research team, headed by a woman, was nervous about publishing the study because they worried it might be used to stereotype women negatively.

“I hope women don’t find it offensive,” Shelley Taylor, the lead researcher, told a Washington Post reporter. “We’re trying very hard not to have people say, ‘Aha! We always thought that women should be at home taking care of their children.’”

How sad! Here was a study showing that under stress, women are more likely than men to try to make friends instead of enemies, and the researchers still felt the need to worry that it could be used to support keeping women in a circumscribed, traditional role. If only this tendency could be bottled and given to men!

“No man is an island, entire unto himself,” wrote the poet John Donne. Rare is the woman who needs to be told this. Most women, in fact, would probably find it laughably self-evident. The human species has survived because of communities of women tending and befriending, protecting and sharing food, resources and information with each other.

The Powerful Pull Toward Connection

Your connections—your relationships—are not separate from your sense of self, as they usually are with men; they are a part of you, included as much in your experience of yourself as your talents and abilities, or even your arms and legs. Chances are, you can feel a tear in the fabric of one of your relationships right in your body. Why can a man go for months without calling his family, or forget to send birthday presents, and not have it bother him? Of course, part of the reason is that less is expected of him because “he’s a man.” But it’s also true that he literally doesn’t feel the break in the relationship the same way you do.

This desire for connection and relationship is something our society often puts women down for. Women are labeled “needy” and “dependent,” and women who show they care more about connecting than competing frequently get passed over for promotions. It’s crazy—in our interconnected world, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that even in the business world, success depends more on sustaining good relationships than on ruthlessness and cunning. But old attitudes die hard.

When women don’t feel their needs for connection met, they often feel it’s their fault, or that something’s wrong with them. I can’t count the number of women who have told me that maybe they’re “too needy” and they want “too much.” This is unjust and unfair. It’s like a man slowly starving to death thinking he should adjust his caloric needs, that maybe he’s being “too hungry.”

But the pull toward connection leaves women vulnerable. So vital was connection to sheer survival for our foremothers that most women have trouble disconnecting, even when they want to. If you can feel a tear in the fabric of one of your relationships right in your body, then losing an important relationship, even a bad one, can feel like losing a limb. Doing or saying something that could conceivably cause a break in a relationship can bring up a strong, visceral feeling of fear, as if you were indeed risking injury or death. It doesn’t matter if your rational mind tells you you “shouldn’t” feel this way. Something within us sets off this powerful reaction. At those times, the need to connect and be connected can become so strong that it overrides all other impulses that arise from the inner self. Because of this, many women—including smart, intelligent, competent women—will let go of their own voices rather than risk losing connection.

—Reprinted from I Know I’m in There Somewhere: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner Voice and Living a Life of Authenticity by Helene Brenner by permission of Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2003 by Helene Brenner. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

About Larry Letich, LCSW-C & Dr. Helene Brenner

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.


About Us

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.

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