A woman with depression needs support, not labels
Far too often I see adolescent girls and adult women come to therapy believing they are overly “dramatic.” They tend to rely on an emotional coping strategy of pushing away much of what they are observing—along with the corollary feelings that ensue. At some point, though, a straw breaks the camel’s back, this habitual mode collapses, and containing the uncontainable is no longer possible. Because emotional upsets have been pushed away for so long, the emotion generated and expressed is often disproportionate to the circumstances. The emotional outburst becomes uncontrollable and the woman involved is left ashamed at her overreaction.
The drama queen cycle tends to repeat—the woman vows to keep herself in check, pushes away her negative experiences, avoids difficult emotions, and hopes that this type of emotional flare-up will never occur again. All of which contributes to her having trouble connecting with others in a real, emotionally intimate way.
The Real Risks for Young Women
Girls and women are more than two times as likely to experience symptoms of depression than boys and men. This is research finding that has been extensively studied and culturally cross-validated. Women begin to have higher rates of depression than men in early adolescence, around age 13, and the trend continues throughout their development.
New research demonstrates an important variable in girls becoming depressed, one that may explain why they are more vulnerable than boys. The study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, points to the role emotional awareness plays in young female depression.
Girls with low “emotional clarity”—knowing what one feels, being aware of one’s emotions—have an increased risk of depression when they enter puberty at an earlier age than their peers. The study demonstrates that emotional vulnerabilities are a precise risk factor for girls and may be responsible for their higher risk of depression compared to boys.
It is difficult to use impulse control and manage mood and behavior when a person has taught herself not to recognize the more serious emotions they experience. Not being able to accurately label and describe emotions has also been linked with interpersonal issues in adulthood. Adults who have difficulty with emotional attunement share their emotions less, especially when managing difficult life events. As I outline in my book, women who can’t describe their emotions have less intimacy in romantic relationships and are vulnerable to patterns of one-sided loving.
Similar research (also in the Journal of Adolescence) examined the role emotional awareness has on the formation of male and female friendships. This research found that emotional awareness has a significant impact on adolescent female (but not male) friendships. Researchers found that girls who start out with low emotional awareness in eighth grade tend to have fewer female friendships and more male friendships throughout high school. Emotional awareness is an extremely stable trait—girls who do not have it by eighth grade (and who received no training or help in emotional awareness skills) are likely still to have a deficit in college.
Less emotionally-aware adolescent girls tend to be more liked by male than female peers, perhaps because their relationships are more superficial and they have fewer requirements for emotional intimacy. Less emotionally-aware girls may find male activities more comfortable, and easier to deal with than the emotional intimacy and self-disclosure required by many female friendships.
Being in tune with one’s emotions—that is, able to identify and describe them—has a significant impact on the emotional health of girls and women. Indeed, it can connect them to one another. Feeling liked, and a part of the group, positively influences psychological well-being and self-esteem; decreases depression; and helps foster a healthy adjustment to high school and college, as well as to adult life. The adolescent years are pivotal, and friendships during this time provide a place for intimacy and connection. It is the training ground for learning what goes into maintaining satisfying long-term relationships.
Who’s the Real Drama Queen?
Knowing oneself emotionally does not mean being overly emotional. In fact, people who describe themselves as more emotionally complicated—in the sense that they have a wider range of emotional experiences and show more awareness of their own feelings—actually demonstrate healthier interpersonal adjustment. They have greater adaptability in social situations and greater cognitive complexity.
The next time you call yourself, your daughter, your mother, or your best friend a “drama queen,” pause and ask yourself if you are avoiding yourown feelings by not taking those of others seriously? The more you help those you love most to discover and understand their emotions, the more closely you will follow your own.
References: Hamilton, J.L., Hamlat, E.J., Stange, J.P., Abramson, L.Y. & Alloy, L.B. (2014).Pubertal timing and vulnerabilities to depression in early adolescence: Differential pathways to depressive symptoms by sex.Journal of Adolescence, 37.
Rowsell, H.C., Ciarrochi, J., Heaven, P., & Deane, F.P. (2013). The role of emotional identification skill in the formation of male and female friendships: A longitudinal study. Journal of Adolescence, 37.