We're told to let our emotions out, intead of bottling them up. But does talking about our problems make us feel better or worse? That depends on who the "us" is, according to a new study from the University of Missouri at Columbia. The study published in this month's Developmental Psychology examined "co-rumination," which was defined as "excessively discussing problems ... characterized by mutual encouragement of problem talk, rehashing problems, speculating about problems, and dwelling on negative affect."
Smell like preteen spirit? No doubt, but ironically, this strategy for building close relationships and gaining moral support seems to have some unintended effects. In general, interpersonal discussions led to "high-quality" friendships for both sexes, but for girls, long-term "co-rumination" was predictive of "anxiety and depressive symptoms." In other words, airing all that dark "self-talk" may make girls feel closer, but it doesn't necessarily cheer them up. It may make them feel worse. The study, which looked at 813 kids age 8-15, found that boys reported no similarly adverse effects.
Yet, unraveling the conclusions from this finding is anything but easy. On the one hand, the researchers speculate, the activity of commiseration, because of its negative focus, may lead to an overblown sense of problems. On the other hand, both girls and boys struggling with more depression and anxiety in the first place tend to engage in more negative sharing. As the researchers note, the cause and effect could be cumulative with girls who have both close friendships and emotional issues, and who are inclined to excessive discussions that spiral toward yet more negative thinking and an increased dependence on their confidante.
The study didn't address why girls display a more negative reaction to this sort of bonding than boys, but the researchers wonder if girls' tendency to blame themselves for perceived failures has something to do with it. In other words, girls may not use a friendly ear simply to let off steam but to brood about their mistakes and shortcomings. In a society obsessed with enumerating women's failures, this seems like a fitting preparation for adulthood. Boys don't engage in as much co-rumination, says the study, but when they do they report that the only effect is closer friendships.
So, is the study reason to think that boys benefit from unbosoming and girls need to play their emotions a little closer to the chest? Maybe. One of the problems with the study was that researchers couldn't compare the actual content of conversations, so how do we know we're comparing apples to apples? Self-reporting from children and teens isn't the most reliable source of information.
Despite the study's obvious limitations in scope and depth, however, it gets at a central conundrum of our assumptions about communication and the therapeutic industry -- be it the 12-step movement or seven years in psychoanalysis. As another researcher told the Los Angeles Times, these findings support other studies that have found that support groups can intensify eating disorders and delinquency. "You might think having social support is conducive to mental health," Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, told the L.A. Times. "But getting people with issues together doesn't always make things better."
Confessional moment: The irony of girls trying to get support and feeling worse about it has particular resonance for me, even as an adult. As someone who grew up in Northern California in the '70s and whose family used to process every five-minute spat with several hours of grueling self-analysis, early on I developed an acute case of communication fatigue. Feelings, I decided in my own little Idaho of tough love, could be crutches, disguises and distractions from the things we want to do, the people we want to become. Somehow the adult culture of obsessive sharing inoculated me from a typical adolescence of high anxiety and low self-esteem. Still, even now, I don't understand how friendship exists without such sharing ... and sometimes I even notice that if a friend conveys only happy news for a period of weeks, I find myself wondering if they still like me.