Although they are connected, the ‘sex’ we are born as and the ‘gender’ we are assigned at birth do not add up to the same thing. Sex is the difference of embodiment that provides both possibilities for and constraints on who we can be, mostly relating to reproductive life in some way, while gender is the indentity grouping, a social category assigned at birth based on the sex of our body. Whereas sex identity is inflexible, that is, we are either male or female, gender identities vary from one culture to another and even from family to family. When you were growing up what attitudes and beliefs about gender appropriate behaviour surrounded you and limited the way you could be?
In her recently published and internationally acclaimed book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, cognitive neuroscientist Cordelia Fine notes that once gender is understood as culturally constructed, biological explanations of sex differences lose their explanatory force. Not only are boys and girls not ‘born that way’ but roles and identities of women and men shift almost by the moment in all major societies as stereotypical thinking around gender breaks down. While analysing many studies of sex and gender, Fine demonstrates that no long standing personality traits are connected to any consistent differences between female and male people.
Through socialisation Australian boys and girls split off parts of themself they see as inappropriate. They then see them exclusively in those of the opposite sex. With such forces boys can fail to recognise and value, for example, their own nurturant and relational capacities as they see them as only natural to girls, while girls can fail to recognise and value their own authority as they assume that boys are more rational, decisive, or objective by nature.
But why does this happen? When young we appear as we are ‘supposed to be’. This is what helps us feel secure in our world. For example, if you are a woman, when young you acted and imagined yourself as a girl and later a young woman. This carried with it limitations in terms of what you considered to be ‘not-girl’ or ‘not-woman’. This other then becomes male, masculine, not-self as you form a gendered self. This conditioned or gendered self remains intact until your psyche encourages you to ‘awaken’ to more of yourself somewhere around your mid 30s. And you risk losing ‘life giving’ parts of yourself forever if you are not willing to collapse personal delusions of gender at midlife.
The door to this time of awakening typically opens through the experience of self-dividedness, commonly referred to as a midlife crisis. To become a ‘psychological individual’ we need to be able to feel this self-division for, without this capacity, it is impossible for us to develop self-awareness. ‘It is to awaken that part of one’s existence which has been hidden from sight’, Bede Griffiths writes, ‘the discovery may be very painful, sometimes a kind of death, but it is the one thing which makes life worth living’.
In the midst of the gains women have made in Australia – after all we do have a woman Prime Minister I hear you say! – the mystifying gender dichotomy of ‘strong’ men and ‘beautiful’ women still holds sway over adolescent Australian girls. Confronted daily by verbal and visual signs of gender as found in magazines and on the internet, billboards and television, girls are conditioned to evaluate their worth in terms of appearance and to believe they are secondary to male people. Strengths, intelligence, and competence are too easily disowned and projected into male people and institutions. Girls and young women identify themselves as being flawed, problematic, weak, or incompetent as overall they underestimate their strengths and abilities and rely for self-esteem on the resource of their appearance. Confronted with the impossibility of ‘getting things right’ women often experience a midlife crisis earlier than men.
A typical example from my counselling practice may help here. Jenny is in her early forties, tertiary educated, works part-time, is married with three adolescent children. At our first meeting she tells me she is questioning many aspects of her life, often feels dissatisfied or angry, but does not know what she wants. On questioning it appears she believes stereotypes about men being naturally aggressive and self-interested while simultaneously denying her own needs. Conditioned to perceive herself as a nurturing, feminine person she has a tendency to project her more demanding and aggressive aspects onto her husband. These beliefs are confirmed for her, she tells me, as her behaviour easily evokes in him annoyed or aggressive statements, thus ‘showing’ her that he is the aggressive one. I support her to recognise the repressed ‘masculine’ parts of herself that she has seen as belonging elsewhere – to own her own intelligence, knowledge and strength while continuing to value the feminine side of her nature; to learn to use her aggression, anger and authority confidently and assertively on her own behalf, while also showing the same respect to others, especially her husband. These skills support her as she starts identifying and then bringing in to her life what she desires.
In contrast to her, a young Australian white male is conditioned to overestimate his abilities and possibilities for his own life as he sees the world as a ‘man’s world’. His gendered self is shaped around themes of success, competition, strength and independence while he disowns qualities that he regards as ‘feminine’. Dependence, emotional expressiveness and vulnerability are thought to belong exclusively to females. With a shift in his psyche at midlife his male persona begins to erode. At this stage men are also often confronted by family members about what is missing in their relationship. As he becomes painfully disappointed in what he has not achieved – the recognition, friends, status and money he has failed to amass and the lack of connection with his loved ones – feelings of despair, depression and grief can overwhelm him. Or indeed some men experience despair as they attain life-long goals but now become aware of an inner emptiness. Men are reassured to be told these feelings are normal at midlife.
As an example, John, aged 53, came to see me after a brief affair threatened his marriage. Through counselling he recognisd the importance of his owning and expressing the ‘feminine’qualities that he had unconsciously been attracted to in the woman. Being able to feel and own his vulnerability and emotionality was a liberating but not necessarily uplifting experience for him. As he opened up to the ‘softer’ parts of his nature, sharing them first with just himself and then with his wife and his children, he developed the ability to ‘be’ in life gently, with less expectation to be successful, striving, constantly able, and the like. He was also supported by developing better listening and assertive skills as they helped him to bring longed-for intimacy with his wife and young adult children.
These understandings can help us understand and accept the almost inevitable turbulence for midlife growth. Often there are difficulties with our intimate ‘other’ at midlife, especially if we are in a heterosexual relationship. In the first half of life we consciously or unconsciously chose them because of their ability to carry disowned parts of our gendered self. At midlife these shadow aspects need to be reclaimed. Otherwise we limit not just our own personal growth but also our potential to create a rich intimate relationship for the second half of life.
We risk losing ‘life giving’ parts of ourselves forever if we are not willing to collapse personal delusions of gender at midlife. This can be particularly so while living in Australia, a country where there is an overvaluing of much that is associated with the masculine and an undervaluing of that associated with the feminine. Our feelings are like the wind in our sails at this time as they navigate us towards the self awareness necessary to let go of any gender stereotypical thinking now holding us back from creating all that we would like to bring into our life. As we create a more honest relationship with our self based on qualities that are an expression of both the masculine and the feminine energies that reside within us all, we find that it is never too late to enjoy rich, open, loving relationships while also expressing our own uniqueness. To choose not to do so can haunt us for the rest of our life.
Names in this story have been changed.
Robyn Vickers-Willis has over 30 years’ experience as a practising psychologist. Since 2000 the focus of her work has been to research and write about the importance of adults growing in consciousness from midlife and beyond. She also runs workshops in this area. Robyn is currently completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne, titled Midlife Matters in Australia, and is the author of Navigating Midlife: women becoming themselves, Men Navigating Midlife and Navigating the Empty Nest: re-creating relationships, all published by Wayfinder Publishing.
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