Illustration by: Louisa Cannell
Female Friendship & the Office
The differences in typical female vs. typical male relationship styles are important to understand for overall mental—and, as you’ll see here, physical—health. As Dr. Habib Sadeghi explains, how those relationship styles play out in the workplace, where many of us now spend the majority of our waking hours, appears to affect women more profoundly than men. Generally, women are more affected by the health of their social relationships, including those with their coworkers. Below, Dr. Sadeghi outlines how to be sure your relationships are contributing to your well-being, rather than detracting from it, causing distress and even disease.
Room to Grow: How Female Friendships Can Help or Hinder Personal Growth in the Office and Beyond
Not long ago, a young woman walked into my medical practice desperate for help. She’d been to no less than seventy-three physicians before me, and none of them had been able to solve her problem: At the age of twenty-three, she’d lost more than 95 percent of her hair.
Alopecia is a difficult experience for anyone, but especially for someone like my patient, Amanda, a young, single woman and former model who now worked in the fashion industry. Appearance was a crucial factor in how she defined herself, how she made her living, and the social environment she was a part of every day. Her confidence, self-esteem, psychological well-being, social well-being, even her standing at work were on the line. Amanda was at her wit’s end every time she looked in the mirror.
I see a lot of patients who have been unable to find lasting solutions to the conditions they suffer from, no matter how many doctors they’ve visited. This is a common complaint about the way Western medicine is practiced today: Physicians treat symptoms, but far too often don’t help cure the root cause of their patients’ conditions. I like to think of myself not as a physician, but a metaphysician, someone who can help even after traditional medicine has failed and who looks not just at an isolated set of symptoms, but at the total functioning of my patients, mind and body alike.
There was a time in human history when the link between mind and body was well understood, particularly in relation to a person’s health. Socrates said, “There is no illness of the body apart from the mind.” The term psychosomatic comes from ancient Greek, with psycho meaning mind and soma meaning body. Healers then believed that all illness was psychosomatic—a mind-body event requiring treatment on both fronts. Sadly, today the term is used to suggest that an illness is only in your head.
I, too, believe the vast majority of disease is psychosomatic, and has its origins in the mind. So the first thing I did when Amanda walked into my office was talk to her. I would do a physical examination as well, but first, I wanted to know as much as I could about who she was and what was happening in her life.
As we talked, Amanda came across as a competent and ambitious young woman. It was when we began discussing her work that I got my first clue about what could be contributing to her hair loss. “I like my job,” she said, “but it’s not the ideal environment for me. The people I work with on a day-to-day basis are all women, and I really prefer working with men.”
The statement caught my attention; I wanted to know more about Amanda’s workplace. She told me that she typically worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Her time away from the office consisted mostly of eating, sleeping, and getting ready to go back to the office, so her workplace relationships were her primary ones. Many people don’t realize that social relationships, whether among colleagues at work or friends in their personal lives, can be a tremendous source of stress, particularly for women.
Women vs. Men in Friendships
Research has shown that women and men tend to approach social situations very differently. A 2013 study that looked at the different ways in which male and female brains are wired concluded that women are more likely to be social than men, hanging out with peers and doing more activities in groups. On the other hand, it’s rare to see four, five, or six men in each other’s company unless they’re playing some kind of sport. A separate study tells us that, on average, men tend to be more productive working alone, while women thrive on collaboration and work better in groups. Yet another shows that women are more likely than men to be users of social media. Obviously, not all women and all men show these tendencies, but they’re important to be aware of nonetheless.
Because they often have the gift of social connection, women tend to be more profoundly affected by the health of their social relationships. Any group of people who associate regularly with one another creates their own kind of culture or environment, made up of elements like the language they use, their personal history, and preconceived notions about themselves, each other, and life in general. This happens in much the same way that different generations share commonalities in the way they talk, dress, or view the world—think hippies with their “flower power” or the new language of texting invented by millennials. If the environment that a group co-creates becomes toxic, it can have a negative impact on the psycho-spiritual health of each member of the group.
As I questioned Amanda further, I began to understand how her social environment was impacting her. Because women are inherently social, they tend to fight that way, too. When a woman disagrees with a member of her group, she might try to get others to take her side and then begin to exclude that member from the club. This usually results in one being the odd girl out. This isn’t to say that women are inherently crueler or cattier than men, just that women and men tend to express their dislike or anger for people in different ways.
These different social dynamics between women vs. men start early in life, according to research. In school, when girls bully one another, they tend to use what’s called “relational aggression”—for example, name-calling, ostracizing, spreading rumors, and gossiping—while boys are more likely to resort to physical bullying. This same contrast follows us into adulthood: Men usually handle things one-on-one, offering to “take it outside” and settle an issue physically. While certainly not all adults bully, when they do, women are more likely to use the community to shame or shun someone with mostly behind-the-back verbal abuse, rather than physical abuse. And many people don’t realize how painful it is to experience social bullying.
Amanda described a culture of backstabbing and undermining in her workplace; it became clear that she felt like the “odd girl out” and was suffering because of it. For the odd girl out, the result is often self-hatred and doubt. When any group singles someone out through negative attention or ostracizing, it can take a heavy toll on that person’s self-esteem. Chronic stress like this always has an impact on physical health. As we discussed it further, Amanda realized that she started feeling targeted at work about the time that she started losing her hair.
Amanda’s hair loss turned out to be the result of an autoimmune condition triggered by stress. Her body had become confused and started producing antibodies that attacked her own hair follicles. That describes what was happening to her, but it doesn’t explain why her body turned on her in this way. Because I believe in the mind-body connection, I’ve often suspected that stress and low self-esteem play a part in autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system sees the body as the enemy and attacks its own tissues. Most people don’t realize that of the 23.5 million Americans who suffer from autoimmune diseases, 75 percent are women. When we look at specific diseases, the ratio between women and men is even worse: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis 10:1, Grave’s disease 7:1, and lupus 9:1. In 2000, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that autoimmune disease had become the tenth leading cause of death in women between the ages fifteen and sixty-four. The reason these statistics aren’t more widely reported is because of the limited way cause of death is determined. Other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis are only considered contributors to death, never the actual cause.
Fortunately, it’s possible to protect yourself against social stress and the physical suffering that can result. Friendship for all of us can be a mutually fulfilling and supportive experience as long as we’re aware of the kind of culture or environment we’re creating with our social cohort—and just how important it is to maintain a healthy one. To do this, it helps to understand how relationships evolve.
The Four Relationship Phases
Any relationship between two or more people is considered a symbiotic association. Sym means together, while biosis means life: two lives converge and relate to each other in a way that affects their existence. I call this a symbiotic constellation.
Relationships always begin in the parasitic phase. (Keep in mind that these normative terms are neither good nor bad—they just are.) In parasitic symbiosis, we tend to take from the other person without any real thought of giving back. This is true in romantic relationships as well as friendships. When we meet someone new, we’re largely concerned with how fun they are, if we enjoy being around them, if they are willing to go places with us so we don’t have to go alone, and so on. We’re always thinking about how others can enhance or benefit our lives and not necessarily how we might contribute to their experience. People who get stuck in this phase become “takers,” never allowing themselves to grow and mature in the relationship, keeping it in a sort of infantile phase. In the same way, a baby in the womb takes nutrients from its mother, thinking only of its comfort and safety, while not contributing much to the mother’s well-being.
Once a baby comes into the world, the baby’s relationship to the mother transitions from parasitic into competitive symbiosis. As a separate being, the baby now competes with the mother for the same food, time, attention, and so on. In the same way, as friends become more familiar to us, we move into competition with them. This competitive attitude can be overt, but more often it’s a subtle yet tangible undertone in a friendship. Getting stuck here leads to resentment, jealousy, and antagonism, and if the competition continues to increase, possibly the end of the friendship itself.
If the need to compete dissolves, the relationship moves into commensal symbiosis, a sort of live-and-let-live association where, while we may not be giving anything to the other person or competing with them, we’re not taking anything from them either. We’re simply allowed to be ourselves and live our own lives. Think of it like a barnacle that attaches itself to a whale: While it’s not giving anything to the whale, it’s not taking anything from it either. It’s just coexisting with it, going along for the ride. There is a kind of an uninvolved apathy where neither party is fulfilled.
The final phase of relationship is mutual symbiosis. I invite everyone to strive for this kind of structure in their relationships. Here, we mature beyond the selfishness, insecurity, and apathy of the parasitic, competitive, and commensal constellations and move into a mutually supportive and fulfilling relationship. Giving is equally as satisfying as getting, and we celebrate the success of others knowing that our joy on their behalf elevates the group dynamic and contributes to everyone reaching their highest potential.
Each relationship phase has its own energy and dynamic, as well as its own effect on the physical and spiritual well-being of both the individual and the group. If we are conscious as we enter new relationships, we can pass through these initial phases rather quickly and avoid a lot of trouble for ourselves and our circle of friends. We can also use this knowledge of how relationships evolve to examine our current relationships—including those in the workplace— and better understand how they might be impacting our lives, and even our health.
This is what happened with Amanda. Over time, she realized that her work environment was stuck in the competitive phase and was far too corrosive to be saved—so she quit. It was amazing to see the level of antibodies in her blood drop consistently over a period of six months after she left, and watch her hair grow back as a result. For her next job, she was careful to examine the social environment before determining if it was the right fit for her, and she spent more time establishing positive relationships once she got there. Eventually, she even went on to start her own business, where she had even more influence on not just the work she did, but the environment in which she did it. She wanted to go to work every day in a place filled with mutually symbiotic relationships, not the competitive kind that had so adversely affected her health.
Your Relationship with Yourself
The interesting thing about competitive consciousness is that it’s really ourselves we’re competing with. It’s when we compare ourselves with others that we feel we’re not good enough, beautiful enough, successful enough, rich enough, admired enough, or that we fall short in some other way. We then compete even more to compensate for our internal inadequacy. The primary relationship we have is always with ourselves, and how we treat others is always a reflection of how we are treating ourselves. That’s why I encourage everyone to examine the challenges they face in their relationships, then explore how they might be judging, neglecting, deceiving, or hurting themselves in similar ways. At the end of the day, in order to be a true friend, you’ve got to be your own best friend first. How are you treating you?
For more health and inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit Behiveofhealing.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter, as well as his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow Dr. Sadeghi on Twitter at Behiveofhealing.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.