“Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it”, George Carlin
To-day one of my favourite comedians died. I shall miss his humour and while I obviously agree with Carlin’s view that both men and women are from earth, I cannot be quite so cavalier about dealing with many known differences. Sensitivity and empathy, for example, are human emotions that are often expressed very differently among men and women and both of these affect or may even be responsible for fibromyalgia.
So, the first issue to be explored is the relationship between these two emotions. I have a difficult time separating the two as they are so closely related. Basically, sensitivity means being receptive to the verbal and non verbal cues of others. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s feelings. People who are said to be insensitive to others are thought to lack empathy,whereas those who are nonempathetic are said to lack sensitivity. However, these descriptors are still not so clear cut. In a negative sense people can be sensitive in a highly intuitive way but lack in appropriate empathetic behaviours, such as those who abuse others while being aware (sensitive to) the pain they are causing others. But for now I will focus on the positive aspects of both sensitivity and empathy and the implication being that one without the other is less than desirable.
Within the past few decades the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ has been used to both critique IQ tests (a practice which I support) and/or to add to that framework human characteristics which are positively related to the so-called ‘intellectual’ abilities of people. In other words a person may have a high IQ, but without emotional intelligence the IQ is less note worthy, so say the EI experts. People who have a high degree of emotional intelligence are said to have empathy for feelings of others and insight regarding how others think, in short, they are highly sensitive. They can easily understand group dynamics, or individual feelings of others. This term emotional intelligence has been used in both the corporate and academic settings with differing perspecitves about whether or not it is useful as an endeavour to understand human capacity and emotions. My intent is not to discuss this in any greater detail but to show that the issues of sensitivity and empathy are now thought to be key in how people relate to one another.
So then, back to my same argument found in my other blogs, and my book, that persons (women in particular) with fibromyalgia have a highly over-developed sensitivity/awareness of someone else’s feelings and therefore experience too much empathy for others. It is as though these emotions become a liability in that the inability to shut down our feelings for others to a degree that is safer for us, prevents us from the recognition and understanding of the effect this has upon our own bodies (nervous system). Some would call this person an ’empath’, someone who takes on other person’s emotions and feelings as though they were her/his own. We are not able to relax into the state that is necessary to maintain a healthy body because we accumulate emotions of our own and those of others. In addition this is usually a person who is a high achieving, highly motivated,high energy individual. When the nervous system finally becomes continually aroused, perhaps due taking on the experiences of others or to an accident, illness or injury of our own, the diagnosis of fibromyalgia becomes a life sentence (this should not be construed to be hopeless as there is much that can be done to help relax the nervous system!). But, here are some questions you can ask yourself: when you see someone in pain, do you almost experience it yourself ( but others can compartmentalize the situation and not actually feel the pain)? If someone stumbles do you have a wrenching feeling in your stomach as if you too were about to fall (while others may get a chuckle out of the scenerio)? Do movies with loud noises and great stimulation evoke agitation in you (but others actually enjoy action movies)? Questions like these can prove to yourself that you are easily hyper aroused and highly sensitive.
But, why then are so many more women prone to fibromyalgia than men? Or, at least why do more women report their concerns to physicians and have the diagnosis than men? It seems likely that it may be due to the differences between the genders and the ways in which sensitivity and empathy are experienced and expressed. However, we often focus on the differences between men and women rather than observing similarities. Not all women are sensitive and empathetic nor are all men insensitive and lacking in empathy. Expectations that all women should be nurturing, and caring while men should be tough and non intuitive is limiting. The jury is still out trying to assess how many men suffer from fibromyalgia and are not reporting their symptoms or being diagnosed. However, for the time being we have to accept that there is a significantly higher incidence of women with this condition than men. The incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may eventually raise the statistics regarding American men. It would not be possible for any caring human being to become distant from the horrors of war. It may just be that instead of the diagnosis (or in addition to) of PTSD, the veterans are suffering from fibromyalgia because of a hyper-aroused nervous system.
We cannot, however, disregard the fact that as much as things change, they often remain the same. So to suggest that there has been a tremendous amount of change since the latest women’s movement regarding how individuals should feel, express emotions and behave in order to fulfill societal expectations of feminine and masculine traits is not quite accurate. Women generally are more expressive, intuitive and more aware of subtleties in their environments than are men. They have a much harder time with giving up the need to be always ‘on duty’ for others. Women usually process more intensely the information they receive from others; they usually do more of the ‘interaction’ work in conversations and more of the ‘caring’ work based upon that interaction. Men generally have different ways of experiencing and expressing emotions such as sensitivity.
The field of Gerontology reports on hundreds of studies about the ways in which sons and daughters differ while caring for elderly parents. Sons, for example, often consider themselves sensitive to the needs of parents in terms of doing chores like mowing their lawns while daughters often care for the emotional needs. The ways in which sensitivity and empathy are defined differ between men and women (and cultures as well). Are we all so different or are we the same but expressing emotions differently?
Men have fibromyalgia so what is happening with them? Are these men who have what has traditionally been known as feminine traits? I wish I could consider myself an expert on men with firbomyalgia, but I cannot. While I have spoken with men who do have the syndrome I find it difficult to say that they are more sensitive, more empathetic and more intuitive than most men. Is it because they have a different way of expressing sensitivity than women? Generally the men I have spoken with have a very difficult time understanding why it cannot be ‘cured’ and denying it may be the result of physical and psychological trauma. I intuitively get the feeling they believe it is not a masculine condition and is a sign of weakness. Most men are still socialized to reject traits that are considered to be feminine in nature, like sensitivity and expressing empathy, although they may feel them intensely. Can it be that these men who do feel these emotions strongly suppress them to such an extent that the nervous system becomes hyper aroused because of their attempt to reject them? The issue of male/female differences in fibromyalgia warrants research that has to this point been badly neglected.
If one accepts what I believe, that is, that the cause is social/psychological in nature, then it is also a political issue. I discuss how this is so in greater detail in my book. For now, as always, I am left puzzled about so many issues in this search for cause and its relationship to gender, race, culture, class and sexual orientation factors. I am left with another interesting question: are gay men more likely to have fibromyalgia than heterosexual males given that, in general, gay men are often perceived to be more sensitive, intuitive and empathetic? Hmmm… but certainly not all… what of gay men like J.Edgar Hoover who was certainly less than empathetic? Maybe he was sensitive to the pain he inflicted on many but not empathetic. I doubt he had fibromyalgia! We cannot generalize, nor stereotype all women or men, gay or heterosexual (and even these categories of people are not all inclusive).
All this brings me to this point… sensitivity must be accompanied with empathy to be positive traits. Furthermore, my conclusion… those with both, but too much of either, over stimulate their nervous systems, ignore their own needs and usually develop fibromyalgia! Human emotions! How complex they are and how culturally defined. More questions keep arising for me as shades of gray appear instead of black and white answers.