Category: Chinese Medicine / Philosophy

Psychologies of Women and Men

Popular media and folk psychology would have us believe that men and women are radically different from one another. Modern thinkers often proclaim that men and women are very much alike – all human beings, beneath the physical differences. Which is true?

The psychological contrasts between genders are determined both by biology and society. Three ways of looking at this issue indicate that we are more alike than we think.

Chinese medicine, based in Taoist belief, identifies masculine traits as yang and feminine as yin. The classic symbol, the taijitu [Cantonese: taigei], demonstrates how these traits flow into and contain one another. Each has its own attributes; however, each also possesses elements of the other and they are mutually interdependent. In fact, while we refer to these as yin and yang in English, they are more accurately represented as yinyang, and optimal health is represented as balance between them.

Jungian psychology identifies animus (masculine psyche traits) and anima (feminine). Both men and women contain both animus and anima in their unconscious, and while one is generally more dominant, it is the goal – typically in middle age – to embrace and integrate the other.

Biological science tells us that, while men are driven by testosterone and women by estrogen, in middle years these begin to balance out; each decreases, which then gives men more “feminine” attributes and vice versa. In addition to the more obvious changes in appearance, men often become more emotionally oriented in later years, while women experience the opposite.

How do we grow psychologically, in order to increase harmony between women and men? One such way is by the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation we are focused on the detail of our lives, in order to live mindfully or have a greater awareness – and also detached from the emotions that arise within us, identified but just as quickly allowed to disperse. This brings us to a state of grace, or homeostasis, beyond either emotion or rational thought…a state of simply being.


This morning I found myself thinking about expansion and contraction, as I watched the ebb and flow of the tide and felt the warming breezes of spring. The earth goes through these cycles with each season, more obviously so in the temperate zones but also, though more subtly, in the tropical regions.

And so do we. Not only do we correspond to the seasonal changes by contracting — turning inward, drawing away from the external world — in winter and expanding outward in summer (or at least, in the hotter climates, in spring), but we also go through similar cycles in our individual lives. There are times when we are more naturally sociable, expanding outward, seeking out the company of others — and times when we draw inward, contracting, pulling away from others and seeking solitude.

There can be so many reasons for this. In part, I think these cycles are as natural as that which the earth experiences, as our bodies reflect and correspond to same. We may also withdraw because of our personal experience — grief, exhaustion, or depression, or perhaps the need for reflection, contemplation, deep thinking. Conversely, we expand into the society of others when we seek companionship, collaboration, love, or perhaps when we’re feeling stronger, safer, more relaxed.

We can also consider a more existential version of expansion and contraction in that, when we are feeling uncertain of ourselves or our way, we draw inward and away from others; when we’re feeling self-assured and confident, we tend to go out into the world. The process of psychological development is one of individuation, of understanding and accepting who we are in the fullest sense possible, which is indeed a process of expansion. We meet, and know, and claim who we are — at our very core. And we become enormous, full, whole.

In Asian cultures, this idea of individuation may not fit so well, as varying measures of collectivism are valued. Psychological health can be found in relationship, in how one relates to others in a healthy and loving manner, and in how one relates to groups — such as family and colleagues — and to society as a whole. Expansion takes on a different meaning in this context and to my mind, in that psychological development can be found not so much in self-discovery but in learning how one relates to, and can improve upon the relationship with, one’s surroundings. It is still expansion.

Carl Jung identified two core personality types of introvert and extrovert. While extroversion is given great value in youth, and introversion in middle and later years, and while societies generally place more value on extroversion in terms of individuals acting as responsible and involved members of the society, people are typically born with the tendencies of one or the other. This doesn’t mean that the introvert hides away in a cave or that the extrovert is always the life of the party, however; rather, it’s a matter of where one gets one’s energy. The source of that energy for the introvert is found in solitude, and upon “recharging”, he or she can freely enter society again; the extrovert needs society for that energy, and must discipline him- or herself to also seek out solitude in order to develop an inner life through contemplation.  

Expansion and contraction. Natural cycles. And perhaps, like the ever-expanding universe of which we are both a part and a reflection, we are actually following a spiral pattern — one which includes these cycles of expansion and contraction, but ultimately moves toward an ever-greater expansion of who we are.


These blog posts are often inspired [note: to breathe in, preferably deeply] during my early morning meditations at the beach.  And today I found myself contemplating that very action, a bit of recursive thinking if you will, contemplating the contemplation (and/or the one contemplating?).  That is: I found myself thinking about the act of morning meditation, along with the need for, desire to, act of daily renewal.

Each morning I go to the beach and I let go of all of the concerns in my life — to the best of my ability — as well as the cares I may hold regarding the world around me.  While I’m not a deist, I hand over all those worries, all that negativity, to Nature, to the Cosmos, to Spirit, letting go of my need to hold it and claim it as my own.  This doesn’t absolve me of responsibility, either for my own life or the world around me; rather, it frees space within my mind and heart to more fully take up that charge, the call to action for social justice, for sustainability, for world peace, and for living a responsible life.

I have a need to do this daily, at the very beginning of each day.  Being human, I’m all too prone to reclaim those concerns, those negativities, as my day progresses.  And at the dawn of the next day, I’m back at the beach, letting go of my cares once more — and once again dedicating myself to living in keeping with my values and ideals.

The process of renewal must be a regular act, I think, both in terms of letting go and of commitment.  They are complementary, just as yin and yang are actually “yinyang” in the Daoist cosmology.  I need the reminder each and every day — and, I need the opportunity.  Every day gives me another chance to renew my soul.  Nothing is too great to bear, nor can I get too preoccupied with my own life and my personal concerns, when I live one day at a time and begin fresh each morning.

And in letting go of my cares about the world around me, while retaining my sense of responsibility toward the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, I can focus on the positive and gather all my energy for the greater good.  My own being as well as that of the world around me is renewed and refreshed each day.  And each day I am — it is — again made whole.  

That’s the best — the very best, in fact — that I can do.  That any of us can do.

Animus-Anima, Yin-Yang

In my meditation at the beach this morning, I found myself contemplating the balance of yin with yang — in myself, in others, in our societies and in the world. I also became more aware that Jung’s concept of animus (masculine psyche) and anima (corresponding feminine psyche) could be rather closely equated to that of yin and yang … or, more appropriately, yinyang, as they can’t actually be separated except for conceptual analysis.

Yin is often considered a ‘feminine’ aspect, while yang ‘masculine’, and just as with animus / anima, each person contains both aspects. The concept of yinyang extends to everything in nature, not just humans, and an excess or deficiency of either creates an imbalance which results in disharmony, disease, chaos. When it comes to the human psyche, we do often align with one aspect or the other largely on the basis of gender and biology, hormonally as well as culturally induced. However, some of us are exceptions to this and manifest more of the opposing force — for example, more of a ‘yang’ personality in a woman, more of the anima in men.

This doesn’t necessarily indicate ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities as we might interpret them. Both the concept of ‘anima’ and that of ‘yin’, for example, have a good deal to do with nurturing, sustaining, maintaining, supporting, while ‘animus’ and ‘yang’ exhibit in ways of creating, destroying, short-term and strong results rather than a more long-term approach.

A related concept in Jung’s framework is that of ‘archetypes’, or imagery, icons, prototypes, constructs that are found to have similar meaning and attached feelings throughout the human species — such as ‘mother’, ‘hero’, ‘fool’, ‘teacher’. So, for example, the Creator / Destroyer archetype(s), which we can conceive of as two, or as two faces of one, might be equated with ‘yang’ and ‘animus’ — that is, the masculine aspects within a person or a society tend toward creation and destruction, externalized manifestations, powerful acts that are quickly undertaken with potentially long-lasting results. While most often viewed as separate archetypes, I believe that they can also be seen as twin faces of the same phenomenon, and the person who is focused on creation — in the start-up phase of a business, the early days of a relationship, the initial passion of a project — is just as likely to destroy everything at once in order to achieve a clean slate … and the opportunity to build again.

Other archetypes — the Lover, the Caregiver, perhaps even the Ruler — are looking toward gradual growth and development, nurturing, sustaining, and are less interested in either creating or destroying. These characteristics are more often equated with ‘yin’, and also with ‘anima’. Again, while there is a feminine aspect attached to both ‘yin’ and ‘anima’, each is found in men as well as women, and each needs its opposing force in order for balance and harmony to be present.

And so, we come to the practical application as was the focus of my morning meditation. If one’s nature, regardless of gender, leans more toward the Creator and/or Destroyer archetypes, for example — more toward ‘yang’ energies — then there is a direct and obvious need to cultivate the opposing characteristics, in focusing on nurturing, sustaining, longterm investment in people, projects, ideas. The opposite is also true. Time, and aging, and biology will take care of this to a certain extent, as our hormones and our life values tend to shift in mid-life. Biologically, men experience a ‘feminizing’ to some degree, and women the opposite. In Chinese medicine, this is conceptualized as women becoming more ‘yang’ in their middle years, while men tend more toward ‘yin’ aspects.

But what if, for example, you are female, yet align more with ‘yang’, with ‘animus’, with archetypes and life patterns such as Creator and/or Destroyer? Does biology in mid-life then move you even further in this direction?

It’s a paradox. Estrogen decreases, leading to a different ratio with progesterone and thus more ‘masculine’ characteristics not only physically but psychologically as well; this would indicate a preponderance of ‘yang’ energy, though Chinese medicine conceptualizes women’s peri-menopausal process itself as a ‘false yang’ — not a yang excess but a decrease of yin, ultimately leading to what seems to be a more yang state of being. In the psyche, what seems to happen in reality is the attempt at a new harmony, a re-balancing. Those women who were focused on nurturing, sustaining, gradual building and maintaining processes seem to become more creative and take on a more externalized manifestation of power; the reverse phenomenon is also evident.

Perhaps the greatest process in our mid-life phase is the righting of seeming imbalances, the exploration of all that we have not — yet — been, or haven’t emphasized, the reclamation of shadow material. While this can be a conscious choice and process, it can also seem to happen almost in spite of ourselves. We become that which we were not. The same process seems to occur in both women and men.  

May it be so. In our quest for conscious living, in our need for balance, may we continually grow and explore the ‘opposing’ forces within our psyches — and experience wholeness.