Monthly Archives: October 2012

Dieting is the Best Way to GAIN Weight

(Photo by Panniculus Aspen 04)

The video that went viral a couple weeks ago, in which news anchor, Jennifer Livingston, chastised an e-mailer for making negative comments about her weight, inspired me to set straight some misconceptions in our society about weight management. This is the second of three posts on this issue. In the first post, Obesity Is One of the Last Bastions of Prejudice in Our Society, I talked about some of the ways our bodies are physically programmed to resist losing weight.

Today I want to talk about some of the psychological issues related to weight and eating in our society. As I pointed out in that previous post, this is what I used to do for a living, so I know of what I speak.

The Three Reasons Why Dieting is Often Disastrous:

1) As mentioned last time, if we suddenly go on a calorie-restricted diet, and especially if we don’t also increase our physical activity, our bodies will go into survival mode and slow down our metabolic rate. We stop losing after a few weeks–that awful ‘plateau’–and go off the diet. But our metabolism is now slower, so when we go back to our old eating patterns we gain all the weight back and then some.

2) Being hungry is not psychologically healthy. If we make ourselves resist eating when we are hungry, we will feel more and more resentful and deprived over time. Eventually we will snap and overeat. Then the guilt sets in.

Are we having fun yet? No!

Hunger, resentment, guilt… this is not a set-up for success! These are the makings of depression, and nothing but nothing undermines motivation quite like depression. We no longer feel like doing anything (like exercising) and we no longer care about much of anything (certainly not about losing weight).

Then we go off the diet and feel truly awful about ourselves because we have failed once again! Feeling bad about ourselves is not likely to motivate us to improve our lot in life. But more on this in a minute.

3) Deprivation in general is not psychologically healthy! If we never, ever allow ourselves to have the things we really love to eat, well, the resentment will build tenfold, a hundredfold. And we’ve already established where resentment leads.

Before we go any further, I’m going to give some Helpful Hints here, so things don’t get too depressing (cuz we’ve already established where depression leads!)

HH#11 (see previous post for HH#1-10): Don’t make calorie restriction your initial goal! Even though fewer calories is indeed necessary for weight loss, your goal needs to be to CHANGE YOUR EATING BEHAVIORS FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Stick with me here and you will learn how to replace high nutrition foods for poor nutrition foods and to fill yourself up with fiber, not junk-food fluff!

Yum!! (Photo by Lynn Kelley Author, from WANA Commons)

HH#12: Learn to recognize true hunger. All too often when we have problems with weight management, we have lost touch with true hunger. There are two signs of true hunger: a grumbling, growling, gnawing feeling in your stomach and feeling weak and lightheaded. Anything else is psychological hunger, not physical hunger. More on this in a bit.

Societal Cues for Eating:

Food is linked to love for us humans. We don’t just use it to fuel our bodies. We use it to celebrate holidays and achievements. It is the lubricant for most social events. Take the kids for pizza if they get good grades, meet a friend for lunch, put out a big spread for your sister’s baby shower, etc.

And we are trained to be good hosts and hostesses which includes encouraging our guests to take seconds and to eat dessert.

HH#13:  At the restaurant, order carefully (and if the portions are huge, ask for a box and put some aside right away). At the shower or party, take a small amount of everything that appeals (including one or two desserts, but small amounts). Eat slowly while you socialize. Avoid the food table once you are pleasantly full. Pat your tummy and exclaim about how good it all was when your host/hostess encourages overeating. Resist that pressure, keeping in mind that they really don’t care whether or not you eat more; they’re just doing what they’ve been programmed to do.

Self-Esteem and Motivation in Our Society:

The assumption in our society is that the best way to motivate people to lose weight is to flog them with how bad they are for being overweight and for being out of control of their eating (an assumption that is not always true). This was where Jennifer Livingston’s e-mailer was coming from–let me point out to you the error of your ways and that will get you on the right track. I was so, so impressed with her response. “What, you think I don’t know that I’m fat?”

Contrary to popular belief, feeling bad about ourselves is NOT a good motivator. It actually sucks the motivation right out of us. We have to believe that we deserve to be healthier and happier before we will be sufficiently motivated to stick to the difficult tasks of learning to eat better and lose some weight.

So if you have less than good self-esteem and you are carrying around some extra pounds, ask yourself: Which is the chicken and which is the egg?

Would you honestly truly like yourself if you were suddenly sleek and slim? Be honest now… Is that the ONLY thing that’s undermining your self-esteem, or is your weight just a handy target to blame it on?

If you can honestly answer that yes, back when you were thin you liked yourself just fine but now you’re down on yourself because of the extra weight, then here is my advice.

STOP THAT! Are you really willing to define the value of your whole being by some numbers on a scale?!?

Here is a quote I read recently on the internet, credited to JK Rowlings:

Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?

If your answer (to my question above, not to JK Rowlings’) is that, no, you really don’t like yourself in general, not just because you’re heavy, then that’s another kettle of fish. Stop blaming your self-esteem on the weight and look at the real reasons. I know that sounds scary, and you might want a good friend and/or a therapist to walk this path with you. But you’ll probably find when you take a closer look that you really don’t have very good logical reasons for disliking yourself. Those negative feelings about yourself probably go way back.

The best way to understand self-esteem is to look at it’s two components. One is self-worth, how we feel about our being. Are we basically a good person? Ask yourself that. Are you basically a good person? Wait! I’m not talking about whether or not you always manage to do good things. But is your heart in the right place?

Okay, the other component is self-confidence. This is your faith in your ability to handle whatever life dishes out, your sense of competence.

And here’s the most important piece of the self-esteem puzzle: you do NOT have to be perfectly good to be a good person and you do NOT have to be competent at EVERYTHING in order to be a competent person.

Nobody is perfect!

Okay, I’m probably not going to turn around your self-esteem in a simple blog post, but hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought here, no pun intended. And I will be blogging more on improving self-esteem in the near future, so stay tuned.

Back to motivation.

HH#14:  Practice changing your ‘self-talk’–the things you say to yourself in your head. Change ‘I’ve gotta lose this weight to prove that I’m not worthless’ to ‘I’m going to eat healthier because I deserve to be healthier!’

HH#15:  Learn to distinguish between guilt and shame. Guilt is about behavior; shame is about being. Feeling guilty can be motivating, if we know how to use that feeling appropriately. Feeling ashamed of ourselves is debilitating. Guilt can inspire us to mend our ways. If we vow to do better, we can banish guilt. Shame just makes us want to curl up in a fetal position and suck our thumbs!

So if you eat more than you should, or something that isn’t all that healthy, let the guilt inspire you to correct that behavior. But don’t indulge in beating up on yourself! That is counterproductive shame. Vow instead to change the behavior, and not tomorrow, but now. From this moment forward, I will do my best to do better.

Yeah, I think I’ll be doing a post soon on guilt as well!

Psychological Associations with Food:

Food: how do we love thee, let us count the ways!

As mentioned above, we use food to celebrate, but also to cheer ourselves up when we are down. And since we eat on average for about 1 ½ hours a day, every day of our lives, there are millions of opportunities for other things to get associated with eating.

I could go on and on about all the ways that food becomes classically conditioned to a whole lot of other things. And I may do another post later about those multiple connections. For now let me explain how classical conditioning works.

Classical conditioning (if you had Psyc 101 in college, remember Pavlov’s slobbering dogs?) occurs whenever two things happen together. They don’t have to be intrinsically related to each other. They just happen together enough times that they become associated in our minds with each other.

And these associations are not occurring in our cerebral cortex, the thinking part of our brains. Unh-uh, they are stored in the cerebellum–a part of the brain that is totally outside of our conscious awareness and conscious control.

Let me give you one example (Note: I have changed the details of this story to protect my client’s confidentiality but the gist of the story is valid). I had a client whose grandmother died when she was five. She had no conscious memory of the woman. But she did have an insatiable and uncontrollable urge to eat candy whenever she was stressed out or feeling bad about herself. This was a problem because she was diabetic. She tried keeping sugar-free candy in the house to feed this craving, but found herself getting in the car and going to the store to buy ‘real’ candy when she was really stressed out. After she and I poked around in her psyche a bit, we stumbled on a vague memory of her grandmother taking her to the corner convenience store and buying her candy.

She called her mother and asked if this was a common occurrence. Her mother said, “Oh, yes, your grandmother used to take you for a ‘walk’ every time she came to visit. But I knew she was taking you to the store to buy you candy.”

This client’s childhood household was stressful due to the fact that her father had died when she was an infant. Her single mom was constantly struggling to balance both a tight budget and her job and home responsibilities.

Enter Grandmom: a source of doting and undivided attention, unconditional love, an escape from the house with a relaxing walk to the store AND CANDY! So every time she felt stressed out as an adult, she went for a hit of Grandmom in the form of a candy bar.

This is President Gerald Ford’s mother and daughter, not my client and her grandmother. But I thought she was cute!

HH#16: Make a list of things you like to do that are self-pampering and that do not involve food. Things like taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, spending an evening or afternoon reading a good book, etc. Carry this list with you! Take it out and use it to decide what to do to celebrate, console yourself or de-stress yourself, as the occasion demands. You might also want to post a copy on your refrigerator!

And if you find yourself totally, compulsively driven to eat under certain emotional circumstances, you might want to consider getting some counseling to help you dig out the roots of that compulsion.


I had hoped to get this subject covered in two posts, but this is getting really long. So I’m thinking I will post again on how to change our eating behaviors to healthier patterns. So more Helpful Hints to come. Please stay tuned!

Let me leave you with this reminder that your goals are:

#1: To be healthier and happier!

#2: To change your eating patterns to accomplish goal #1.

And now I’m off to Zumba class! Please let me know what thoughts or questions all this has stirred up. I’ll reply when I get home.


(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address toward the top of the column on the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

Hair, Hair, Everywhere

Maybe you noticed that we missed our Monday post. That’s because we were moving our site to this new location. Still some boxes to unpack but we’re loving the neighborhood! (Note: It’s really me, Kassandra Lamb. I don’t have a door key. Shannon hasn’t made me one yet, so I had to borrow hers. That’s why it says this is posted by her.) 

Today is just for fun Friday, so let’s talk about hair.

I was cleaning my house the other day because we were having guests over that evening. I vacuumed my bathroom floor, then wet a paper towel and wiped it down, and still I found hairs on the floor! Why is it that hair gets into everything? And that got my bored mind to thinking about hair (it doesn’t take much to distract me from cleaning).

Hair can be very symbolic and can also have a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves.

I have long hair. I am now officially a senior citizen and most women, by my age, have cut their hair into a short, easy-to-care-for style. But I don’t like the way I look in short hair. My mother used to make me cut my hair every spring, insisting it would be cooler during the summer. I hated it! My long slender nose suddenly looked like Pinocchio’s, with a golf ball stuck on the end of it. (I inherited my mother’s nose so maybe it was a “misery loves company” thing for her.) When I was 14, I refused to cut my hair that spring, and I’ve worn it long ever since.

 (Me in 8th grade, the last spring I let my mother talk me into cutting my hair; my 12th grade yearbook picture.)

Of course I look at these pictures now and realize it maybe didn’t make as much difference in how my nose looked as I thought at the time. But you know how it is when you’re a self-conscious 8th grader.

My hair is thick, naturally wavy and very dry. At least now that I live in humid Florida, I fit in. Down here, everybody’s hair is frizzy. But despite the frizzies, I love my hair (most days). Every now and then I monkey with the style, to see if there’s something I like better, but I always end up coming back to long, curly layers–the style that works with my facial features whether it’s ‘in style’ right now or not.

I know a lot of women, however–and a few men–who don’t like their hair. Or in the case of some of the guys, the lack thereof. What I find interesting as a psychologist is that a person’s self-esteem and how they feel about their hair are often linked, and not necessarily realistically.

This is also true with weight, of course. All of us probably know more than one woman with luscious, shiny hair and a gorgeous figure who thinks she’s fat and has ugly hair. It makes those of us of average attractiveness tend to shake our heads in wonder (scattering a few hairs in the process).

Actress Elizabeth Taylor

Quote by Liz Taylor: I don’t like my voice. I don’t like the way I look. I don’t like the way I move. I don’t like the way I act. I mean, period. So, you know, I don’t like myself.

How sad. What’s going on here is that the person has poor self-esteem, probably for a lot of bogus reasons that nonetheless seem valid to them, and their dislike of themselves is projected onto their physical packaging. They then focus tons of energy on trying to improve the packaging to perfection (and thus many an eating disorder was born) thinking this will make them feel better about themselves. But it never works, because their psychological mirror is broken. They think they are not okay so they’re never going to look okay to themselves. At least not until they work on those self-esteem issues.

Wait, this was supposed to be a fun post. Okay, who remembers these little guys?

Of course, these are the cute version, but when a creature is portrayed as bad or evil, like real trolls (trolls are real, aren’t they?) or mad scientists, they often have wild crazy hair, the external symbol of their internal evil.

We writers use hair references a lot to set a scene or describe an emotion.

“He grabbed his hair and yanked” is much more interesting than “he was frustrated.”

photo by cellar door films, from WANA Commons

And how about, “He tossed his wayward hair out of his eyes as he trapped her hands against his chest.” *swoon* Oh, yeah, he’s about to kiss her.

You get the idea. What are your thoughts about hair? What do you like or loathe about your own? Have you noticed that different hairstyles change how your facial features look?

And for my fellow writers, a little challenge. Who can come up with the most original and creative hair imagery (you are limited to one sentence)?


(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series. Check out her site at

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please sign up to follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!





“Obesity is One of the Last Bastions of Prejudice in our Society.”

Last week, an obese news anchorwoman, Jennifer Livingston, confronted a cyber bully. That confrontation went viral on the internet and the young woman received a lot of public support. A writer friend of mine, Ginger Calem, who is a well-known blogger on health and fitness issues, then wrote a great blog post about this incident, Being Mean Sucks.

These two events got me thinking that the time might be ripe to dispel some myths about weight gain and loss.

I started my psychotherapy practice thirty years ago specializing in weight management and compulsive eating issues (later I became a trauma recovery specialist). I thought this specialty would be an ‘easy’ way to jump-start my practice. It did get my practice rolling quickly, but dealing with these issues turned out to be far from easy.

Weight management (Notice I don’t call it ‘weight control.’ We cannot control our weight; we can only attempt to manage it.) is one of the most lucrative industries in this country. Want to make a fortune? Write a book, develop a program, or better still come up with a pill that will supposedly help people lose weight quickly and effortlessly.

There’s just one problem. Weight loss is neither easy nor quick. And all these get-slim-quick schemes do is perpetuate the myth that it is.

The title of this post is a statement made by one of my clients years ago. She went on to say, “And sadly, this group of oppressed people believe they deserve to be oppressed.” Why do they believe that? Because they too have bought into this myth. If they are fat, it is simply because they are lazy, out of control, lacking in willpower and/or just plain inferior human beings. Doesn’t matter what other remarkable things they have achieved in their lives, they are not completely okay in their own and others’ eyes.

Nothing is simple or easy about losing weight. The mechanisms that control human weight, both physical and psychological, are the most complicated I have ever encountered as a psychologist. I’d rather try to explain how someone ends up a serial killer than try to explain why we have so much trouble losing weight.

But I will attempt to do so here because I think the time has come for our society to stop making people feel bad about something they have little control over.

During the next couple posts, I will share with you the reasons why it is not easy, and some helpful hints on how to combat the problem. These reasons can be broken down into four categories. I will address the first two in this post.

  • Physical factors that affect everyone’s metabolism and eating behavior.
  • Physical factors that make it hard to lose weight.
  • Social connections/issues with weight and food.
  • Psychological connections/issues with weight and food.

Our metabolism slows down in winter and/or when we are inactive:
Our bodies were designed to handle much more primitive conditions than we experience in modern society. In order for the species to survive, human beings needed to be able to make it through cold winters and other times when food was in short supply.

So imagine this. It is early summer and the elk have grown fat eating that rich spring grass. The hunters chase the elk herd down and manage to kill a good number of them. The elk are butchered, a portion of the meat is set aside to be dried for winter consumption, and let the feast begin!

The guy who eats until he can’t possibly stuff anymore in ends up nice and fat. The prissy little miss who says, “Oh, no, I can’t possibly eat all that” stays nice and slim.

Then winter comes along.


Snow covering ruins of cave dwellers in Cappadocia, Turkey (photo by Nevit Dilmen)

Fat guy emerges from his cave the following spring, lean and hungry. But he emerges. Skinny miss died of starvation in mid February. Fat guy woos himself a bride and starts a family, passing on his genes for overeating when highly palatable food is available. Skinny miss didn’t live long enough to reproduce.

Fast forward a couple of eons and you have an entire human race that overeats when delicious food is available in large quantities. Except that we now don’t just overeat a few times a year, after a big hunt, with lots of lean times in between. Now we are invited by every clerk in every fast food restaurant to supersize that high fat, highly palatable meal we just ordered. So we have a huge cup of sugary drink and a large container of fries to go with that quarter pound of beef and cheese and special sauce. The sandwich, by itself, would have provided enough calories to get us through the day, but more importantly it would have filled us up. But we eat it all because it tastes so good!

Fat people don’t lack willpower any more than skinny people do. Human beings in general are not programmed, as a species, to have the willpower to resist highly palatable food laid out in front of them!

Back to that winter-time cave. There’s pretty much nothing to do. So everyone huddles around the campfire and tells stories. This is a good thing, because activity burns more calories and they need to conserve their food supply and their bodies’ fat reserves to make it to spring. Some of those cave dwellers have a natural tendency to have their metabolism slow down when they are inactive. They survive better than the people who can’t relax and pace up and down the cave until spring, or until they die of starvation, whichever comes first.

Eons later, we have an entire species whose metabolic rate slows down when we are inactive. And we have television and computers and video games enticing us to be less and less active.

Okay, time for some Helpful Hints before this gets too depressing.

Do NOT make losing weight your goal. Make becoming more fit and healthy your goal. You can’t control the first, you can the second. And chances are pretty good that if you get more fit and healthy, you will lose weight, or at least inches. More on this in a bit.

Participate in some kind of rigorous physical activity two to three times a week for at least an hour. Go to the gym, aerobics or Zumba class, take up running, power walking, whatever. (If you have been completely sedentary, work up to this gradually.) Aerobic activity not only burns calories but it also raises our metabolic rate for some time after we stop. But try to find something you really enjoy, otherwise you may not stick with it.

Do some kind of activity every day. Walk the dog, mow the lawn (ride-on mowers don’t count!), do something. Park your car at the far end of the parking lot, take the stairs instead of the elevator, etc. Look for ways to put more activity into your daily life painlessly.

NOTE: It is impossible to lose weight and keep it off while remaining sedentary! It is also impossible to be fit and healthy while remaining sedentary.

HH#4: Limit eating in restaurants, especially fast-food ones, to a rare treat. At fast food restaurants, don’t
order the meal. Order a sandwich and water, coffee or tea, and if you must have fries, order a small one separately. Trust me, you will be just as satisfied when you are finished eating, and you’ll feel less guilty. At regular restaurants, ask for a box up front and put one third to one half of the meal in the box before you start eating. You will be less tempted to overeat if it is out of sight, and you can anticipate how yummy it will be tomorrow when you heat it up for lunch.

Sleep deprivation increases hunger:
There are several chemicals in our bodies that regulate the delicate balance between calorie intake and energy expenditure. Two of them are ghrelin, a hormone secreted by the stomach lining that stimulates hunger, and leptin that is secreted by your body fat and inhibits hunger. These two hormones, ideally, counterbalance one another. But when we are sleep deprived, our bodies compensate for the lack of rest by decreasing leptin levels and increasing ghrelin levels, i.e. our appetite goes up.

Get enough sleep. This will also give you more energy to be active. If you are sleep-deprived on any given day, be extra careful to avoid high-calorie, low nutrition foods.

Genetics does play a role for many people:
Ever heard either of these statements. “Being overweight is not inherited.” Or, “if someone’s had a weight problem all their lives, it’s probably not caused by biological factors.” These are both myths.

And sadly, the second one is a direct quote from an endocrinologist regarding a client of mine. She was resisting taking a referral from me for an evaluation because he had “always had a weight problem.” (To me that indicated it was more likely to be biologically based.) I insisted; she gave in. Good thing, because it turned out he had a rare disease that would have killed him if it had gone undetected for even a few more months.

Research has found that there are a multitude of genes that affect body mass and metabolic rate so yes, genetics do predispose us to be skinny or heavy or somewhere in between. But our behavior and the environment also impact on how those predispositions pan out.

In addition, genetics may or may not play a part in a couple other factors. Obese people tend to have leptin resistance. Their brain just doesn’t absorb all of the leptin their fat cells are releasing so their appetite is not inhibited like it should be.

Obese people also tend to have a lower number of dopamine receptors in the part of the brain that registers pleasure. So how do dopamine receptors affect weight? Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has many roles. One of them is to stimulate reward centers in the brain that give us that “ah, that felt good” feeling. Without these reward centers, we would not be all that motivated to do the things we need to do in order to survive as individuals or as a species, i.e., to eat, drink and have sex. With fewer dopamine receptors in these reward centers, it takes a lot more pleasurable activity to achieve a sense of satisfaction. So these people are motivated to eat more (this is also related to other addictions).

Metabolism slows down when we cut back on our eating:
To make sure we survive periods of short food supply, our bodies are designed to maintain our current weight (this is called ‘set point’ or sometimes, ‘settling point’). If our calorie intake goes down, our metabolism slows down to compensate. So after a few weeks of dieting, we plateau, get frustrated and stop the diet. And then gain all the weight back, and then some, when we go back to our regular eating patterns. So dieting doesn’t work. We have to change our eating behaviors for the long haul (more on this next time).

‘Set point’ is no longer a theory. Scientists now understand how this works biochemically. But I think we’ve had enough chemistry lessons for one day.

HH#6: Cut back on calories slowly (while increasing your activity to keep your metabolism stimulated). Start by reducing and then eliminating empty calories (high calorie, low nutrition foods). Don’t buy the junk food; don’t bring it into the house. Nobody in the family needs it. Not you, not your spouse, not the kids, not the dog. Again, human beings are not programmed to resist highly palatable food that is readily available!

HH#7: Next step is to reduce portion sizes. Again, do this gradually. Notice how many spoonfuls of something you tend to put on your plate at a meal (especially starches). Cut back half a spoonful for the next few days, then another half a spoonful for a few days.

And if you are like me and are used to taking seconds (a hard habit to break), slowly cut back the first serving, while not allowing yourself to increase the second one, until you are taking two servings that equal what used to be one.

Replace desserts with something equally satisfying but more nutritious. When you feel a yen for something sweet after a meal or as an afternoon snack, have some fresh or canned fruit, perhaps with yogurt.

Men can indeed lose weight much easier than women (in general):
A woman will naturally have more fat and less muscle than a man of the same weight. Women are hormonally programmed to carry more fat reserves so that if we are pregnant or nursing a baby when famine strikes, mother and child are more likely to survive. Muscles burn calories, fat just sits around and, well, gets fatter. So men have a higher metabolic rate, in general, than women do.

If you are a guy whose woman is trying to lose some weight, tell her you love her and you are rooting for her. And then shut up, because you have no idea how much harder it is for her to lose than it is for you. If you are woman trying to lose weight, show this post to your man.

HH#10: Put the scale in the attic! As you start to lose fat by increasing exercise and slowly reducing caloric intake, you may not lose much weight right away. Muscle is more dense than fat (think a small, lean steak versus four sticks of butter). So as you increase the muscle and decrease the fat, you will slim down and tone up without necessarily losing all that much weight. Indeed, you may even gain a little, but if the inches are coming off, if your clothes are looser, if you are feeling better, that is what counts.

How you look and how you feel is what it is all about, not numbers on the scale! Those numbers may just discourage you and make you give up even though what you are doing is actually working. The numbers on the scale have also become tied to our sense of self-worth in our society. But more on that next time.

And also more next time on ways to improve eating behaviors, after we talk about the psychological and social implications of weight and eating in our society.

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address at the top of the column to the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

Men Are More Aggressive, Women More Emotional–Actually NOT

Most people assume that men, in general, are more aggressive than women, and that women, in general, are more emotional. In fact, the genders do not differ with regard to their natural tendencies in these areas. You heard me right. These are not true gender differences.


It is true that testosterone when injected in animals, immediately makes them more aggressive. This experiment, to the best of my knowledge, has never been done with humans because of ethical and legal issues. But my guess is the results would be the same.

Male Nyalas fighting

It is also true that men have far more testosterone in their bodies than women do. So logic says that men should be more aggressive, and they are, physically, but not when you consider other types of aggression. More on that in a moment.

In the 1970’s, researchers attempted to prove the testosterone/aggression link in humans by looking for a correlation between testosterone levels and violent crime. They compared the levels of this hormone in violent criminals in prison with those of non-violent criminals, i.e., those who committed “white-collar” crimes such as embezzling or insurance fraud. Sure enough, the violent criminals had more testosterone in their bloodstream. There was just one wee little problem with this study. It couldn’t be replicated. Several attempts to repeat the study did not get the same results. Some studies found no differences. Several found that the violent criminals actually had lower levels of testosterone than the nonviolent ones.

Here’s another piece of confusing data. If one just considers physical aggression, elementary-school-aged boys are more aggressive than girls. But guess what? They don’t have all that much testosterone in their systems yet. This hormone is not released in any great quantity until the onset of puberty.


Strasbourg porcelain ca. 1775, in Victoria and Albert Museum, photo by Valerie McGlinchey

There are several kinds of aggression. But first let me define aggression. It is the act of invading another person’s territory, physical or emotional, or of violating their rights. So here are the different types:

Instrumental aggression:
the goal is to get something the person wants or avoid something they don’t want. Examples would be a child grabbing another kid’s toy because they want to play with it, someone intentionally butting in front of you in line, or the little brats above fighting over a bunch of grapes.

Reactive aggression:
the person responds to something they perceive as a hostile act with their own aggression. One kid pushes in front of another in line (instrumental aggression); the other kid hits him (reactive aggression).

Unprovoked aggression: intentionally hurting someone, physically or emotionally, because the act of inflicting pain is pleasurable or rewarding for the aggressor. This ranges from the schoolyard bully to the sadistic rapist or serial killer.

And here is the one that levels the playing field gender-wise. Drum roll, please.

Relational aggression:
using ostracization, spreading rumors, withdrawal of friendship, etc. to punish, manipulate or otherwise intentionally harm others’ social standing.

Studies that only look at physical aggression–be it instrumental, reactive or unprovoked–will most definitely find that boys and men, as a group, exhibit more. But when you include relational aggression, the gender difference disappears.

So despite the whole testosterone issue, level of aggression does not seem to be a true gender difference. What is different is the way girls and boys are socialized
to express aggression. “Boys will be boys” while girls are admonished to “play nicely.” So the girls quickly learn to use other tactics to express their aggression.

Now, think about the men whom you know personally. How many of them are truly aggressive, physically, verbally or relationally? Probably just a few. Most men are as uncomfortable with anger and conflict as women are. Fighting is not fun, bottom line.

Now think about the women you know. How many of them are spiteful, or at least rather snarky when gossiping about someone they don’t like. You probably know about as many spiteful women as you know truly aggressive, ready-to-pick-a-fight men. Maybe more.

As an author, I struggle with making the emotional reactions of my characters realistic and also believable. But aren’t these the same thing? No, because people believe that women are more emotional than men. While realistically, they actually feel the same emotions, at the same level of intensity, as women. They are just socialized not to express them!

Say what?

Yup, you heard me right. Studies that tease apart how men and women actually feel from what they are willing to express find that the feelings are the same. One particularly good study asked both men and women to place themselves in the shoes of the protagonist in hypothetical situations. They were given several scenarios to read and then asked to identify what emotion they would feel if they themselves were in such a scenario, and then to rate the intensity of that feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. After they had done that with all the scenarios, they were asked to go back and describe how they would express those feelings.

Both the men and women identified the same emotions. The anger-provoking scenarios provoked anger; the sad scenarios, sadness; the scary ones, fear; and the you-screwed-up ones, guilt.

The more surprising finding, however, was that there was no significant difference between the genders in the intensity of the feelings!

But, boy, did the differences start to show up when it came to expressing those feelings. That’s where the learned gender roles came into play. These are called display rules–which emotions each gender is or is not allowed to express in any given culture.


Paris, 1940, the day the French army pulled out and the Nazis took over the city.

When I talk about gender differences with my developmental psychology students, I ask the question, “What emotions are women allowed to express in our society?” They list every emotion out there, except anger. Okay, they might say things like “annoyance” or “frustration,” the milder forms of anger.

Then I ask, “Guys, what emotions are you allowed to express?” There is a long silence, and then one of the male students will say, “Anger.”

“None of the others?” I ask. They think about it for a minute or two, then the guys all shake their heads.

“What?” I say. “You haven’t heard that women like a sensitive guy? Isn’t it okay for you to cry now?”

At this point, the room usually erupts into a lively discussion. The guys cite examples of times when they’ve let their softer sides show to girlfriends, and it didn’t go all that well. Unless she was a platonic friend. Then it was okay, but not with romantic partners.

And some of the gals will admit that it unnerves them when their guys cry. That they might feel empathy for him at the time, but there is a subtle loss of respect. But more and more, in recent times, the female students tell me that they are more assertive, more comfortable expressing anger. And yet the guys still can’t admit to being scared or sad.

In our society, gender roles for boys and men are actually more rigid than for females.

Are women still discriminated against in the workplace and a variety of other arenas? Sadly, yes, all too often. But when it comes to gender roles, we are much more accepting of females exhibiting more masculine roles than we are of males exhibiting more feminine ones. Think about the different implications of “tomboy” versus “sissy.” And girls and women have been wearing pants since World War II, but how often do you see a man in a dress?

While a female police officer or firefighter may still experience harassment by some of her male colleagues, society in general will admire her for choosing that profession. But that same society will look askance at a male interior decorator or hairdresser, or even a male nurse, and may very well question his sexual orientation.

So, times have changed regarding gender roles in our culture, but perhaps not as much as we pretend they’ve changed.

What are your thoughts on all this? What gender differences have you observed recently in how men and women express anger and other emotions?

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address at the top of the column to the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

Readers, Rebels and the Rules of Writing

(The third installment on gender differences in relating will be posted soon. Here is a post in our ongoing series on what Readers Really Want.)

I have always been a rebel. When I was a kid, telling me that something was against the rules was a sure-fire way to get me to do it. As an adult, I try to resist the temptation to break a rule at least once, just to see what happens.


From a 1915 musical score, public domain in the U.S.

When I retired from being a psychotherapist and turned my writing talents toward fiction, I was so relieved. No more having to follow the ‘introduction, literature review, evidence, conclusions’ format required for professional journal articles. My creativity would finally be free and unfettered.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that writing fiction had rules! (One of which is to avoid using exclamation points. Teehee!) My editor probably ended up with muscle spasms in her neck from shaking her head so much over my first manuscript.

My editor probably could have used some of this. (Photo by Craiglduncan from Wikimedia Commons)

An internal battle then ensued, between the part of me that wanted to ignore the rules and the part that wanted to get published. The latter won and I beat the rebel into submission. Now, as a somewhat more seasoned novelist, I’ve developed a bit more of a compromise in my view of these rules. But before I get into that, let me present a few things to you, the reader.

Here are three rules that I find somewhat, shall we say, stifling: (1) Use exclamation marks very sparingly (as in, almost never); (2) only use said or asked in dialogue tags; and (3) avoid adverbs like the plague.

So imagine the hero is trying to seduce the heroine. He is nibbling on her earlobe and then starts trailing kisses down the side of her neck. *pauses to fan face, is it getting hot in here?* She is trying to resist but her body has other ideas.

“Please, stop,” she gasped breathlessly.

“Please, stop,” she said, in a breathless voice.

“Please, stop.” Her voice was breathless.

You tell me, which do you like better? Which is more powerful? And which will tend to slow the story down?

Example number 2: The protagonist tells his buddy that his pet gerbil can talk.

“No way,” Jimmy said.

“No way!” Jimmy said.

No way,” Jimmy exclaimed.

“No way.” Jimmy’s voice was incredulous.

I don’t know about you, but the first one sounds to me like Jimmy isn’t all that interested. Either the second or third one works for me, although I like number two best. Technically, according to the rules, the fourth one is correct. But looking at that one, and the third one, through my reader eyes (instead of those of the writer trying to follow the rules), I can’t help wondering why there isn’t an exclamation mark there, if Jimmy is so all fired incredulous.

Now, some editors would respond to this by saying, if you need an exclamation mark or the word exclaimed in order to convey the speaker’s emotions, then you need to rewrite the dialogue to make it stronger, or show (not tell; yet another rule) the emotion through action.

Okay, how about:  Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way.”

Nope, sorry, I’m still feeling like this reaction is too lukewarm without that exclamation mark. For me, first prize would go to:

Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way!”

So here is the middle ground I have found, with three–soon to be four–published novels under my belt. These rules should be guidelines, because they have merit, but they should not be strictly enforced.

Use too many exclamation marks and they lose their punch (not to mention the fact that the speaker starts to sound silly.) Let’s not outlaw them completely, however.

Use said or asked most of the time as dialogue tags, because the reader’s eye glides right over them and they don’t interfere with the flow of the dialogue. But when describing the emotion or tone of voice would interfere with the flow of the dialogue, use a different dialogue tag to convey that emotion.

Likewise with adverbs; use them sparingly, but sometimes they may be the tighter way to convey the mood or tone.

Protagonist and her husband are in the middle of a disagreement that is about to heat up:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never!” he teased.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously,” she shot back.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said softly, hoping to appease her.

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention the rule about avoiding italicizing words for emphasis. So here’s the same conversation, following all the rules:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never,” he said, a teasing note in his voice.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously.” Her tone was now angry.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said, softening his voice, hoping to appease her.
Now there’s nothing wrong with the second version. But, in my opinion, the emotions aren’t as powerful. And we have ten extra words that slow down the pace of the scene, which makes the interchange sound less heated.

Let me reiterate, however, that I have matured enough through the years to realize that rules usually exist for a reason. These elements should not be used too often. Note the following, which is not far off from several first-page samples I have read on Amazon in recent times:

Jeannette sat down on a bar stool, longingly glancing in Carlos’s direction, then blatantly ignoring him.

Suddenly, she felt hot breath on her neck. Carlos gently picked up her hand and, lovingly and tenderly, kissed the soft palm. “So you can’t resist me, querida!” he breathed lustily into her ear.

Jeannette shivered deliciously but kept her face turned away.

Another man had taken the stool on her other side. “Can… uh, I buy you a drink?” he stammered nervously.

Carlos leaned forward and stared aggressively at the interloper. “She’s taken!” he growled emphatically.

“I am not!” she protested, equally emphatically.

Carlos instantly jumped from his barstool and grabbed her arm firmly. “We’ll see about that!” he growled menacingly as he hauled her off her stool and moved her hurriedly toward the door.
Now this writer has promise (Ha, ha! It’s me, several decades ago), but the mood of the scene is ruined by all the melodramatic adverbs, exclamation marks and overused irregular dialogue tags. It reads more like a farce than a serious scene. My fingers are itching to go back and edit it. (I would keep two of the fourteen adverbs, one of the four exclamation marks, and two out of the five irregular dialogue tags.)

But I won’t bore you further by ridiculously hammering home an already obviously made point about the annoyingly frequent habit of over-using these temptingly easy elements rather than writing truly fabulous and exceedingly tight, emotionally tantalizing dialogue.
Please, wade in, readers! (Yes, I do so love those exclamation marks.) What do you think about these rules? Writers and editors, feel free to join the fray.

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address at the top of the column to the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!