Measuring Spirituality: Some Thoughts on Emotionality and Gender

I was an emotionally sensitive child, and I’m an emotionally sensitive adult. Despite the many years I spent trying to shut down my emotions, and despite my proclivities for philosophy and rational argument, I am easily upset by the daily events in my life. When I am extremely tired, I cry at the drop of a hat. When I am extremely stressed, I cry at the drop of a hat. I am also very easily affected by the emotional states of others.

I have a tense relationship with this aspect of myself. While I have grown to value the gifts I seem to possess of sensing and empathizing with the pain of others, I was raised to believe that having strong emotional reactions is a sign of weakness (I have been told too often throughout my life in a variety of ways to “buck up” and “get over my problems” because “crying doesn’t accomplish anything”). Growing up, I wanted to be more like my dad, who was strongly opinionated, mellow, and certainly not emotionally sensitive. In other words, I didn’t want to be one of those crazy “emotional women.”

In Western cultural discourse, emotionality is powerfully and unavoidably gendered. In her book Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory, Catherine Lutz argues that in Western thought, emotion has traditionally been aligned with the female (and the rational with the male). As a result, women’s emotionality has been used against them as a repressive technique: “Emotion becomes an important metaphor for perceived threats to established authority; the emotionality of repressed groups becomes a symbol of their antistructural tendencies” (62). However, Lutz points out that the binary of men/rational/good vs. women/emotional/bad isn’t that simple. Emotion is doubly-valenced in contemporary Western discourse:

emotions are associated, in their positive but secondary sense of the engaged, with the spiritual and the sublime. To have feelings is to be truly human, which is to say, transcendent of the purely physical. Whereas emotions stand in close relationship to the instinctual when contrasted with cognition, they emerge as opposed to the animalistic and physical connotations of the instinctual when contrasted with what can be called the spiritual death of estrangement. (66)

Depending on the context, “emotional” can reference either the “animalistic” (i.e. bad) or “spiritual” (i.e. good) aspects of human nature.

In the church I find regular manifestations of the double-valenced nature of emotionality, and these are often closely tied to gender differences. Women’s emotionality is seen as both a sign of their weakness and greater spirituality. While it is true that women are more emotional in church contexts (for example, though I have not done a statistical study, I would guess that women cry more often than men in testimony meetings), my purpose to today is not to critique their emotionality, but, instead, how we respond to and evaluate it.

In church contexts, women’s emotional demeanor as well as the emotional content of their comments often becomes a way for us to measure their spirituality. As Lynnette (and others) observed in a comment on Steve Evans’ BCC girls’ camp thread, one of the less tenable aspects of Girls’ Camp for her was “the testimony meetings where spirituality was measured in tear-production.” While this expectation of emotional production to affirm your spirituality grows less blatant and direct for adult women, it still exists in subtle ways. Additionally, I would be surprised if most men could point to similar experiences. While I am sure there are exceptions, I doubt that a large number of men have felt accused of a lack of spirituality because they did not shed a tear or two or did not tell a heartwarming story while bearing a testimony or teaching a lesson in a church class.

Yes, valuing the spirituality of women is important. However, when women’s emotionality is the primary tool by which we measure their spirituality, everyone suffers, especially women. We can fail to recognize the spiritual women in our midst who may not cry often, but instead, have a deep intellectual understanding of religious concepts. A double-standard can emerge for men and women’s spirituality: men get praised for their ability to explicate scripture and make sound doctrinal arguments; women get praised for their sensitivity and ability to tell stories about birds and children (yes, that last comment was both an exaggeration and slightly bitter). Additionally, women still have to deal with the negative valence of crying “too much” or being “too emotional” and being seen as weak and irrational.

While the Spirit often does affect us on a profoundly emotional level, and though we often talk about the Spirit in terms of “feeling,” spirituality is not equivalent to emotionality, and when we equate the two, women are the biggest losers. For men, an emphasis on emotionality can have the effect of reconditioning societal messages that men should be “strong” or “stoic” or “manly.” For women, an emphasis on emotionality reminds us of the ways in which we have been labeled as “weak,” and it traps us into a form of spirituality that is narrowly defined.

Yet I am torn. As I have learned to understand my own emotional sensitivity and developed my emotional gifts, I have come to increasingly value relationality and empathy, qualities long associated with “emotional women.” Over the past few years, I have made conscious decisions to more strongly encourage the sharing of personal stories and emotional responses while teaching both at church and in academic settings. While I don’t want to solely be associated with my own strong emotional tendencies, they are an important and valuable part of who I am, and I hope that they have an impact on my spirituality.

I have an idea. As long as you don’t tell me to stop being “irrational” or tell me that I’m more spiritual than the average human being or ignore other aspects of my personality that strongly impact my spirituality (such as my scintillating wit or intellectual prowess), I’ll express my emotionality in affirming and empathetic ways (this does mean no stories about birds). Do we have a deal?


  1. I believe the best emotions convey a strong sense of intelligence, significance, or meaning – that the Spirit is enhanced by the understanding thereof and of little value without it. Emotions are the most valuable when they have meaning, and meaning is a practical synonym for effability or significance of some kind, even if we have a hard time reducing the full significance to conventional language.

    Though we may not comprehend, Joseph Smith no doubt had something very specific in mind when he said a man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge. Inspiration without intelligence or effability probably doesn’t count in that regard.

  2. On and off there has been some significant criticism of those who mistake pathos for spirituality. It can be a real issue, and the use and abuse of it makes some things beyond tolerance for me. Every story is not made better by having a dead or dying child in it.

  3. A very interesting post, S, and one that hits home for me. I used to feel condemned for my sensitive (i.e., easily moved to tears) soul and tried for many years to control what I considered to be a weakness. I still often wish I would cry less. But at least now I understand the value of emotions better and I had a couple of thoughts when I read what you wrote:

    1. Christ was/is an emotional being. He wept, and not just a little. According to 3rd Nephi, he wept buckets. He could feel deep anger, such as in the clearing of the temple episode. And there are some interesting apocryphal writings that talk about how he used to embarrass the apostles because he would kiss his wife in public. These references and others point to Christ, and thus God, as being passionate, emotional Beings. So, the model that women are emotional and therefore weak doesn’t really seem to fit.

    2. Mark, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “…emotions convey a strong sense of intelligence, significance, or meaning – that the Spirit is enhanced by the understanding thereof and of little value without it.” We are taught that God communicates with us through “the still small voice.” The definition for “voice” that I think fits best is “a means or agency by which something is expressed or communicated.” This means the voice of God can come through feeling or emotion rather than just thought. Thus, if we discount our emotions as weakness or as something less important than our intellect, we cut off a significant avenue for communication with God. One of my sweetest interactions with God came through the form of laughter. It was pure emotion, yet it carried powerful meaning. Emotion and thought are inextricably connected, and I don’t think either is more spiritual than the other.

    While I still wish I could cry less (mainly because it’s hard to express myself verbally with a constricted throat. Some people can cry so gracefully — not me!), I now see that emotionality can be both a gift and a strength.

    Thanks, S, for your post. But I also gotta ask, as an ornithologist both professionally and just for fun, what the crud do you have against birds? 🙂

  4. I guess I’m the flip side of the emotional coin, S. I don’t think I’ve ever cried in Church–although there was this one time that I got slightly choked up during a song I was singing for the RS (not enough to mess up the song, thank heaven!), and weirdly I saw these nods and smiles of approval in the room as though they at last saw something in me with which they could relate….

    Don’t get me wrong, I feel things deeply, but my spirituality just doesn’t seem to well up in the form of tears, and I’m afraid people often think of me as detached–or even unapproachable–because I am so much more interested in scriptoral analysis or doctrinal discussions, and often feel impatient with “bird stories” (sorry Tam!). This has the double consequence of making the women (speaking in flawed generalizations, of course) feel as if I don’t connect with them, and making the men feel distrustful of me as a woman who doesn’t exude the correct womanly approach to the gospel. Ack!

    But on a personal level, I too have sort of bought into this idea that tears are a measure of true feeling. I often feel like I must not be truly repentant because my godly sorrow doesn’t cause me to weep with shame before the Lord. I remember thinking as a teenager that I probably couldn’t really be forgiven until I’d “proven” my repentance with tears, and I’d lie awake at night trying desperately to tap into the right angle of looking at my mistakes that would be personally horrifying enough to make me cry. In some ways I think I still feel this way, and wonder at my own detachment, even as I know I’m not truly that unfeeling.

  5. You make such interesting points, S, that I’ve never articulated to myself this way but that ring very true. I’d love to see both our suspicion of emotionality and our equation tears=Spirit questioned more often.

    I belong very much in EmilyS’s camp. I have never once cried in my life as a result of feeling the Spirit. For a long time, especially as a teenager, I was convinced (and my leaders were certainly convinced!) that there was something wrong with me because I was such a boulder. In spite of the fact that I felt things intensely, I simply did not weep over them, and certainly not publicly.

    On the other hand, I tend to cry profusely when I’m angry, so you’d better believe if you see me tearing up in Church that I’m in the mood to punch something, NOT that I’m having a tender spiritual experience. 🙂

  6. Mark, I do think that emotions are connected to spirituality (as I indicated in my post), but I was trying to push my analysis past this observation and think about problems that can occur when we connect emotionality to spirituality too closely.

    Stephen, I can definitely identify with your sentiment! I didn’t want to address this point too extensively in my post, since it was a slightly different focus than my focus on gender, but I do think there’s a tendency in the church to align pathos with spirituality, and it definitely drives me crazy sometimes.

    Tam, as I indicated in my post, I’m definitely in favor of reclaiming the emotions so that they’re not seen as something to be ashamed of. I, too, believe that Christ (and Heavenly Father as well) is an emotional being. I love Moses 7 (esp around verses 28-32) where God weeps because of the actions of his children. To me it indicates not 0nly is God an emotional being, but He is profoundly emotionally connected to his children and their actions.

    And I don’t have anything against birds (that’s cool that you’re an ornithologist)! The talks by women in General Conference and other church meetings that consist primarily of cute stories about flowers, children, birds, etc., drive me crazy. I think there was one women’s conference or General RS meeting where almost all of the talks mentioned birds, so that’s what’s stuck in my head as a reference point for these kinds of talks.

    EmilyS, I think your comments are very telling observations about what I was trying to communicate in this post. I think it’s interesting that both you and Kiskilili felt that there was something wrong with you (or had others think there was something wrong with you) because you weren’t crying during spiritual moments. My suspicion is that most men in the church haven’t felt like there was something wrong with them because they did not express spiritual feelings through tears.

    Kiskilili, hehe. I will cry at church or during spiritual moments sometimes, but I cry much more often when I get angry or frustrated or really depressed. It’s something I very much wish I could change because when I get angry I want people to take my anger seriously, not pat me on the head and try to comfort me.

  7. Thanks for this post, S. I would suspect that for the most part you’re right about the gendered expectation to weep copiously as evidence of spirituality, but I think it plays out for men in complicated ways as well.

    For example, my husband has told me about a not-favorite mission companion who wept a lot during discussions and, quoting scriptures about Jesus weeping over the little children (no birds mentioned :>) and who suggested that my husband wasn’t as spiritual as he because my husband didn’t tend to cry while teaching. My husband said that after a while he started to wonder if he really wasn’t spiritual enough because he didn’t cry.

    We’ve already talked about Girls’ Camp testimony meeting sobbing, but I’ve also seen it function as one of the few–maybe, in some circumstances, the only–acceptable emotional outlet for men. I remember being very struck by this as missionary, watching certain elders in one particular district who were chronically detached, cynical, and tough with each other get up in testimony meetings and sob. It was almost bizarre, the night-to-day transformation was so dramatic (and of course, once testimony meeting was over, they went right back to being their usual obnoxious selves). I think testimony meeting was functioning as an outlet for emotions that had no other place in their masculine lives.

    One of the things I loved, and love, about my husband is that he cries without shame. He doesn’t cry often, but when he feels the need to, he simply cries. He tends to cry when feeling the spirit (maybe more than I do) but also, once in a while, for the reasons we all cry. I was so struck by that about him when we were dating–early in our relationship something happened, he got emotional and cried, I comforted him, and then we went on to the next thing. Unlike most other men I’d known, he wasn’t in the least ashamed of it. It was very refreshing.

  8. The years I spent involved in theatre productions have wreaked havoc on my emotions. I can produce tears, or laughter at will, and can suppress either on command. Because of that skill I feel that tears and whatnot are just physical manifestations of emotion. Some of us are blessed to be very physically tied to our emotions (it’s a good barometer of how you’re feeling) and some of us are blessed to be physically detatched from our feelings, and some are blessed to be whatever they feel like. All have their ups and downs, and none is inherently better.

    I think the presence of tears or laughter (or lack thereof) doesn’t necessarily indicate anything, and as you mentioned it is incredibly unfortunate that tears = spiritual in many people’s minds. This may just be another case of universalizing personal experiences to the point of ostrasizing those that don’t fit the mold. (“I cry when I feel the spirit so you must too!”)

    I’m curious about how big of a deal it is when men cry during talks or testimonies. I remember Elder Eyring tearing up once during conference and everyone in the room grew very very quiet, and were watching very intently. It was sorta creepy.

  9. Eve, those are really interesting observations. It certainly seems like I need to rethink some of my conclusions based on your thoughts. Maybe across a broad spectrum, men don’t feel judged to the extent that women do when they don’t cry during spiritual moments (though it can happen at specific moments, like the story about your husband illustrates). But because of our emphasis in the church on the link between emotions and spirituality, it’s one of the few ways men can feel okay about expressing emotions without appearing “weak.” Going back to the stuff from Lutz, it seems like men in general don’t want to be associated with emotion, but at times when it’s tied to spirituality (the positive side of the double-valence), emotionality is “acceptable” and can even be encouraged. Anyway, I’m just restating what you said in order to try and wrap my mind around it. You’ve given me some things to think about. P.S. that’s cool about your husband.

    Starfoxy, I think you’ve made an important point–not only do we need to dissociate emotionality from spirituality, but we also need to dissociate physical manifestations of emotionality (i.e. tears, laughter) from both of the above.

    As for the big deal made of men crying, I think we’re often unusued to seeing men cry because our society usually labels men crying as a negative thing. Though I do think this is shifting, and not just in the church (in the instances that Eve identifies). I think that there are a variety of scenarios (i.e. fathers crying when discussing their children, patriots talking about how much they love their country) where it’s become increasingly acceptable for men to cry.

    I think the general lesson I would draw from my post and the additional thoughts by Eve is that we need to have a lot more awareness of societal messages and expectations when it comes to emotionality for both genders. Because I really think that misunderstanding on this subject can limit everyone’s spiritual and emotional understanding (because you’re being measured unfairly, or because you feel emotionally and/or spiritually restricted, etc.)

  10. Regarding the question of whether men get to show emotion, I recently read an interesting book by a female journalist who dressed as a man on and off for a year and a half in order to see the male experience from the inside out. One point she hit over and over in writing about her experience is that when “playing” a man, she felt the heavy expectation of not showing emotion. I think her words were something like “I was limited to about two notes, emotionally.” She felt like it was permissible for a man to be angry, but little else.

    (The book is Self- Made Man. I don’t know if I would recommend it, on the whole. Some of the chapters, particularly the ones where she dates and goes to strip clubs, I found to be too raunchy.)

  11. (The book is Self- Made Man. I don’t know if I would recommend it, on the whole. Some of the chapters, particularly the ones where she dates and goes to strip clubs, I found to be too raunchy.)

    I heard her on NPR, where she discussed, among other things, how she went crazy as a result of the experience.


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