Culturally defined expectations of masculinity and femininity shape nearly every aspect of our lives. By the time we’re adults, they’re so ingrained that we’re often only marginally aware of the ways they affect our health, happiness, and sense of identity.
So what does it really mean to be masculine or feminine, and how do these traits both limit and empower us?
Those are challenging questions to answer, so it was with some trepidation that we recently waded into them. Our goal: taking a close, compassionate look at our gender-related social expectations and how they influence our daily experiences and self-perceptions.
Here are a few highlights of our conversation, plus some experiments that invite you to reflect on the masculine and feminine dynamics at work in your own life.
Having Courageous Conversations
- Discussions of gender stereotypes can be emotionally and politically charged — so much so that Dallas considers the subject our “most terrifying topic” to date.
- One reason it can be scary: It’s not an area most of us have openly discussed, so there’s plenty of opportunity to inadvertently offend or alienate each other when we do.
- A growing number of people prefer not to be defined by conventional gender-based identities. This shifting awareness is giving us a fresh opportunity to review how gender-centric assumptions affect our lives.
Honoring Yin and Yang
- “Feminine” energy is typically described as yielding, soft, receptive, and collaborative, while “masculine” energy is often characterized as forceful, powerful, aggressive, and competitive. These generalizations can be profoundly limiting when seen as the exclusive or “proper” domain of just one gender or another.
- In Traditional Chinese Medicine, practitioners believe deficiencies or excesses of either yin (feminine) or yang (masculine) energy are the basis for serious health problems. We all benefit from balancing and honoring both our yin and yang capacities.
- Masculine and feminine traits are informed by evolutionary biology, genetics, and hormones, as well as social norms, but they are certainly not immutable. Over time, and with changes of circumstance, our expression of gender–associated traits and tendencies can fluctuate and evolve.
- Typically, the more comfortable we are in our own skin, the more we can witness and honor a full range of masculine and feminine traits in ourselves and others.
- Despite decades of progress, we still live in a predominantly patriarchal culture. The historic undervaluing of feminine perspectives and contributions has given rise to a host of problematic interpersonal, organizational, and socio-economic dynamics.
- Chauvinistic attitudes also affect men, who often feel constrained in how emotionally vulnerable or expressive they can be without risk of being labeled “unmanly” by men and women alike.
- The more compassionately we acknowledge these charged subjects, the more we all stand to benefit. Only by talking openly and authentically with each other can we hope to break down barriers, challenge our own preconceived notions, and reach our full masculine and feminine potential.
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- Ask someone you trust and who knows you well to comment constructively on how you express both your masculine and feminine traits. Be open to hearing about the full spectrum of characteristics that person observes and appreciates in you.
- Focus on two key accomplishments in your life, and reflect on both the masculine and feminine characteristics that helped you achieve those goals. Observe how you are leveraging your feminine and masculine strengths, and take stock of how they serve you.