TV & Movies

Forget Penis Envy: “Men Should Have Empathy Envy”

Embrace your inner moody bitch, says author and psychiatrist Julie Holland in her latest book

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Amazon, $21

Don’t be ashamed of your emotional reality. Embrace it, work with it, and above all else understand its strengths and purposes. That’s the underlying message of Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, The Sleep You’re Missing,The Sex You’re Not Having And What’s Really Making You Crazy by Julie Holland, a psychiatrist based in NYC.

Part self-help book, part encyclopedic guide to the hormonal fluctuations that characterize female biology, Moody Bitches is not about “happiness” per se. It’s about “wholeness,” says Holland. Achieving that goal means abandoning the damaging and false cultural stereotypes about women and their emotionality.

“It’s OK to be moody,” says Holland on the phone from her home in NYC. “It doesn’t mean you’re hysterical or weak or out of control; it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Prompted to write the book out of concern for the increasing numbers of women being put on antidepressants and anxiety meds for their problematic “emotions,” Holland not only explains the evolutionary basis of our emotional lives—it founds our resilient, nurturing, empathic and hyper-capable character, she argues—but she offers solid lifestyle advice for working with our hormones rather than accepting the idea that they’re the problem.

Holland gives Flare.com the scoop on how understanding our biological reality is empowering rather than limiting and why it’s entirely natural and valuable to feel sad and scared and pissed off—sometimes all at once.

In the introduction of the book you write, “Women’s emotionality is normal. It’s a sign of health not disease. It’s our single biggest asset.” That statement really made an impression on me. It felt like the first time I had ever heard someone characterize the emotional reality of most women’s lives in a positive light. That’s sad that that’s the first time because it is an asset and it’s a source of power. It’s also something men don’t have. We really have something they don’t. People talk about women having penis envy, but men should have empathy envy. We know how people are feeling before they start talking. There are tons of studies that say men just don’t know this!

When did you come to the conclusion that women’s emotionality is a sign of health and an asset? I would say that I’m still really struggling with that. I definitely was somebody who really repressed sadness and fear growing up. That was how I got a lot of positive feedback from people around me, including my father. It’s something I definitely struggled with and the thing that I realized years and years later was that nothing makes me cry more than thinking I shouldn’t be crying… Honestly, I didn’t fully grasp what an asset it was until I started working as a psychiatrist. My empathy and my ability to know how people are feeling from across the room is like a gift for my patients.

Women’s emotional life is viewed as problematic in the culture for some reason…Right and Big Pharma has taken it and run with it…did you happen to see the video for Apple’s iWatch?

No. At the very beginning of the video for the iWatch they show you 18 different styles of watch. They show you a black one and a silver one and a white one. So, the whole time you’re looking you’re not thinking, ‘I wonder if I should get an iWatch or not?’ You’re thinking ‘Which one should I buy?’

That’s totally happening with [drug] advertising aimed at women… Big Pharma has advanced the conversation from ‘Should you take an antidepressant?’ to ‘Which one should you take?’ You don’t want consumerism and peer pressure to dictate whether a woman chooses to take psychiatric medicine or not.

Part of the reason why we’re sad and scared is because the world is fucked up and if you’re not sad and scared you’re not paying attention. Think of how empathic we are about the two or three people in the room. Multiply that by seven billion! … If you’re empathic you’re going to be sad and scared. Combine that with not getting enough sleep, eating crappy food, not getting enough sunshine and exercise, you’re going to feel like shit.

I appreciated how you broke down the hormonal fluctuations that comprise the menstrual cycle in the book as a way for women to have greater awareness of how it affects their mood, etc, over the course of the month. There’s really three phases. There’s this buildup to feeling good around mid-cycle when you’re ovulating and then there’s a buildup to feeling bad and there’s an acutely bad [phase] and then it starts over again.

PMS is often characterized as a period of irrationality. But you argue in the book that the emotions are in reaction to real irritations. You say pay attention to these outbursts they may be telling you that you’re putting up with too much crap all month. Right. I say take note and when you’re feeling more diplomatic put some changes in action…if we really stop and feel what we’re feeling and think about what we want and be honest with ourselves about our needs we would say “No” more. But we don’t. A lot of women put themselves last. This martyr thing is a real phenomenon.

You also offer lifestyle advice to help balance mood and anxiety, etc, which is pretty straightforward: eat a healthy diet, exercise, get sufficient rest, etc. What’s the most solid lifestyle advice for coping with the reality of your life and biology? Be connected to your body and not just totally on the screen all the time where you’re living your life somewhere else… You have to be connected with nature and act like an animal. Respect your animal nature. Plants need sun and water and fresh air. We’re animals. We’re supposed to be in the sun moving our bodies, outside, and the way we’re living now is very sedentary and indoors.

And feel your feelings. I think a lot of tension comes from repression, the pushing down [of emotion]. You don’t want to be sad, you don’t want to be scared, you don’t want to be angry so you push it all down. It takes a lot of psychic energy to do that. If you would just take 15 seconds to deeply feel what you’re feeling, get in touch with it, and let it go through your entire body, breathe it in and breathe it out, you’ll be more at ease. We’re all sort of avoiding feeling anything and it’s taking its toll on us.