Don't You Dare Call Me Drama Queen

Emotional Clarity is the path to emotional control

Don't You Call Me, Healthy Living Magazine

Don't You Call Me, Healthy Living Magazine

Repression and Lack of Self Awareness Lead to Outbursts

Too frequently I see adolescent girls and adult women who come to therapy believing they are overly “dramatic.” They often rely on an emotional coping strategy of minimizing and pushing away much of what they are observing along with the corollary feelings that ensue. At some point this habitual mode collapses, a straw breaks the camel’s back and containing the uncontainable is no longer possible. Because emotional upsets have been pushed away for so long, the emotion that is finally expressed is oftentimes disproportionate to the circumstances. The emotional outburst becomes uncontrollable and the woman involved is left feeling ashamed at her overreaction.

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This is seen in the case of 21-year-old Janie who around her friends was always easy going and happy-go-lucky. She tended to “suck it up” if someone upset her and as a result her friends often dismissed her feelings when she did express them. A pattern was established in her social circle where Janie was taken advantage of— always the one doing more for others and feeling resentful that she was not getting as much in return. When one of her friends began dating a guy who she was openly interested in, Janie could not suppress her feelings anymore. While at a party and observing the two flirting together, she became so irate that she went over to her friend, threw a drink on her and began to shout and cry. Her social group turned away from her after this event, noting how emotionally out of control and ‘psycho’ she behaved.

Of course the drama queen cycle repeats—Janie vows to keep herself in check, pushes away her negative experiences, avoids difficult emotions, all in the hope that this type of emotional flare-up will never occur again. All of which contributes to her having trouble connecting with others in an emotionally intimate/real way and, ultimately, may lead to feeling low or an ongoing depressed mood.

Girls and women are two times more likely to experience symptoms of depression than are boys and men. This is a well-established research finding and one 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 this trend continues throughout their development.

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New research demonstrates an important variable in girls becoming depressed, a variable that may explain why they are more vulnerable to depression than boys. The study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health points to the role emotional awareness plays in young female depression.

Demonstrating low “emotional clarity” (knowing what one feels, being aware of one’s emotions) increases the risk of depression for those girls who enter puberty at an earlier age than their peers. Although certain cognitive vulnerabilities may increase the risk for depression for early maturing boys and girls, this study demonstrates that emotional vulnerabilities are a precise risk factor for girls and may even be responsible for why they are at higher risk for depression than boys.

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It is difficult to use impulse control and manage mood and behavior when people have taught themselves not to recognize the more serious emotions they experience. Not being able to accurately label and describe emotions also has been linked with interpersonal issues in adulthood. Adults who have difficulty with emotional attunement share fewer of their emotions, specifically when managing difficult life events, compared to those who are more aware of their emotions. As I outline in my book Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships, women who can’t describe their emotions have less intimacy in romantic relationships and are vulnerable to patterns of one-sided loving.

This is seen in the case of Sue, a 40-year-old divorced mother of two. As Sue reenters the dating world, she continually feels that she is only able to get so close to men before the relationship fizzles out; she feels a block to feeling known and to fully knowing them in return. Because of her difficulty knowing what she is feeling and communicating this to the new men she meets, she partners with men who never really work or care to know the real woman and who are as crippled as she is. Instead, Sue finds herself invariably turning to sex as a way to connect. She is uncomfortable with the ‘getting-to-know you’ part of dating and short cuts to sex before knowing if the man can actually meet her needs. As a result, new relationships with men seem to never move to the next, deeper level.

Similar research also in the Journal of Adolescence examined what role emotional awareness has on the formation of male and female friendships. This research found that emotional awareness has a specific and significant impact on adolescent female friendship but not on male friendship. Researchers found that girls who start out with low emotional awareness in middle school (8th grade) tend to have fewer female friendships and more male friendships throughout high school. Notably, emotional awareness is an extremely stable trait—so those girls who did not have it by 8th grade (and who received no training or help in emotional awareness skills) are likely to be still at a deficit in their college years.

For example, Samantha, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, says repeatedly she can’t trust girls and thinks they are petty and insecure. She happily describes herself as ‘one of the guys’ enjoying watching sports and joking around with male friends. However, deep down, Samantha longs for female companionship to feel attachment and deeply known but does not know how to connect with women because she has difficulty connecting emotionally with herself. As a result, by her senior year in high school she has a ‘reputation’ and has no female friendships—she feels cast out, alone and this only further reinforces her tendency to use sex to gain closeness and companionship.

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Less emotionally aware adolescent girls tend to be more liked by male than female peers, perhaps because these relationships are more superficial and have fewer requirements for emotional intimacy. Less emotionally aware girls may find male activities more comfortable and easier than having to deal with the emotional intimacy and self-disclosure required in female friendship.

Being in-tune with one’s emotions—that is able to identify and describe emotions—has significant impact on the emotional health of girls and women and, indeed, connects them to one another. Feeling liked and part of the group positively influences psychological well-being, self-esteem, decreases depression and helps with a healthy adjustment to high school and college (not to mention adult) life. Friendships provide a place for intimacy and connection. The adolescent years are pivotal as this is the training ground for learning what goes into maintaining satisfying long-term relationships.

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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 and demonstrate healthier interpersonal adjustment. They have greater interpersonal 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, reflect. Ask yourself if you are avoiding your own 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. Emotional clarity is the path to emotional control.

Jill Weber, a licensed clinical psychologist, practices in the Washington, DC area. She treats adults, teenagers and couples. Dr. Weber writes a blog for Psychology Today and is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One- Sided Relationships. Follow her on twitter @DrJillWeber
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