Applied Psychology OPUS

The Gendered Landscape of Self-Silencing

Christie Kim

Self-silencing, the restriction of self-expression within intimate relationships, is the product of a gendered society (Jack, 1991). The concept of gender implicates a set of ideals and expectations for men and women, particularly within the context of interpersonal relationships. The construct of self-silencing, which represents concern for the other above the self, was originally developed among women whose experiences of depression were attributed to the silencing of their authentic selves in relation to men (Jack, 1991). Despite its gender-specific origins, self-silencing has been found to manifest in both men and women throughout psychological literature, though in significantly different ways (Cramer & Thoms, 2003; Gratch, Bassett, & Attra, 1995; Ussher & Perz, 2010). The distinction between men and women’s self-silencing may be symptomatic of the societal roles that are ascribed to gender.

The foundation of the gendered landscape of self-silencing was championed by Carol Gilligan, who identified a gendered division of morality between the masculine and the feminine. The masculine voice is individualistic and rational, free from the nuance of emotion; in contrast, the feminine voice is relational, dependent and considerate of others, characterized by a moral obligation to maintain harmony within a network of relationships (Gilligan, 1982). Through her work examining political, societal, and individual spheres, Gilligan identified an alarming lack of women’s voices. Women were not only omitted from patriarchal public discourse, but were found to have internalized the inequality by silencing themselves (Gilligan, 1993). Gilligan identified women’s lack of voice as products of interpersonal discordance. This process of internal restriction, labeled as self-silencing by Dana C. Jack (1991), and has since been empirically linked to depression, anxiety (Ussher & Perz, 2010), low self-esteem (Page, Stevens, & Galvin, 1996), perfectionism (Flett et al., 2007), disordered eating (Locker, Heesacker, & Baker 2012), and a loss of self (Jack, 1991).

Within the gendered landscape of society, self-silencing manifests as a symptom of the roles and expectations assigned to men and women. Self-silencing must be considered on both macro and individual levels as it is born of cultural dogma (Jack, 1991), and can determine the quality of interpersonal relationships (Harper & Welsh, 2007). This review sought to explore the underlying gendered elements of self-silencing (e.g., gender roles), and identify the ways in which self-silencing manifests differently between men and women.

Gender Differences within the Silencing the Self Scale

Because self-silencing was first identified among women, the Silencing the Self Scale (STSS; Jack & Dill, 1992) was developed based on a sample comprised entirely of women. Nevertheless, numerous studies have found that men report higher levels of self-silencing in comparison to women (Cramer & Thoms, 2003; Gratch et al., 1995; Harper, Dickson, & Welsh, 2006; Ussher & Perz, 2010). The elevated scores among men remain consistent across each of the four subscales: Silencing the Self (Ussher & Perz, 2010), Divided Self, which measures the dissonance between the external and internal self (Page et al., 1996), Care as Self Sacrifice, which represents prioritizing the needs of others in order to secure attachments (Locker et al., 2012), and Externalized Self-Perception, which reflects self-judgment according to external standards (Flett et al., 2007), although one study found the latter subscale to be higher for women than men (Lutz-Zois et al., 2013). The overall pattern of men’s higher self-silencing does not directly refute theoretical implications of self-silencing for women, but rather indicates that important distinctions between genders must be considered. These findings call for further investigation of the tradition of gender within society and its influence on the manifestation of self-silencing.

Patriarchy and Gender Roles

Jack’s (1991) initial theory that self-silencing was specific to women was attributed to the inferior status of women in the context of patriarchy (Gilligan, 1993). The imbalanced valuation of masculinity and femininity elicits different consequences for men and women, especially in relation to voice. Jack (1999) posits that self-silencing in women is culturally enforced as their expressions of discordance will often have a negative impact on their lives financially, physically, and throughout their relationships. In line with this theory, research has shown that the perception and experience of gender discrimination plays a critical role in undermining women’s voices. Women who experienced a higher frequency of sexist events throughout their lifetime (Hurst & Beesly, 2013) and presented higher sensitivity to gender-based rejection (London, Downey, Romero-Canyas, Rattan, & Tyson, 2012) were significantly more likely to engage in self-silencing as a method of coping. These findings were interpreted through the relational-cultural theory, which posits that cultural messages and expectations influence the ways people experience meaning and growth through relationships (Hurst & Beesly, 2013). The significant relation between perceived sexism and higher levels of self-silencing further supports the understanding of self-silencing as influenced and propagated by cultural norms.

Research has demonstrated that self-silencing in women is strongly predicted by the level of women’s adherence to traditional gender norms. For example, women who displayed passive acceptance of the oppression of women (Witte & Sherman, 2002), and were less inclined to respond to a sexist remark as opposed to a nonsexist remark (Swim et al., 2010), were far more likely to engage in higher levels of self-silencing. The qualities that comprise traditional gender roles can more powerfully influence the presentation of self-silencing, far beyond explicit sexism.

Masculinity. Within a patriarchal society, traditional masculine qualities are upheld as ideal for both men and women. Those who present as more assertive, independent, and dominant are deemed stronger than those who appear more feminine, or more sensitive and expressive of emotions. The rift between masculinity and femininity creates a societal environment which allows for the silencing of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs (Gilligan, 1993). In support of this claim, a study by de Medeiros and Rubinstein (2015) found that men’s self-silencing practices were largely influenced by the desire to appear stoic and stable. Men tended to restrict their conversations to small or superficial topics, emotionally isolating themselves from others, in order to appear more independent and therefore more respectable (de Medeiros & Rubinstein, 2015).

While the endorsement of traditional masculinity is predictive of self-silencing, research indicates that masculine qualities are generally more protective against self-silencing practices than feminine qualities. Studies found that stronger adherence to traditional masculine qualities yielded significantly lower levels of self-silencing for both men and women (Cramer, Gallant, & Langlois, 2005; Smolak & Munstertieger, 2002). Subsequently, men who identified more strongly with traditionally feminine attributes were found to score significantly higher on the Divided Self subscale (Smolak & Munstertieger, 2002). In contrast, among women, greater acceptance of traditional feminine roles did not significantly correlate with self-silencing scores (Smolak & Munstertieger, 2002), which suggests that self-silencing manifests more powerfully when men deviate from the masculine role, or in other words, when men step outside their patriarchal privilege.

Differing Effects of Self-Silencing Between Men and Women

Self-silencing is predictive of negative mental health symptoms for both men and women (Page et al., 1996), yet the impacts of self-silencing vary between them. Despite the findings that men reported higher self-silencing, women scored significantly higher on both depression and anxiety measures than men (Gratch et al., 1995). These distinctions may be indicative of the different motivations behind men and women’s self-silencing, as well as the varying purposes it may serve between them (Jack, 2011; Jack & Ali, 2010).

Depression and loneliness. The relation between self-silencing and depression as first posited by Jack (1991) has been found among both men and women (Cramer et al., 2005; Flett et al., 2007; Harper & Welsh, 2007; Lutz-Zois et al., 2013; Smolak & Munstertieger, 2002). Depressive symptoms are more likely to manifest in men and women who engage in high self-criticism (Besser, Flett, & Davis, 2003), are more sensitive to rejection (Harper et al., 2006), and display low self-esteem (Cramer et al, 2005), all of which have been identified as predictors of self-silencing as well. Furthermore, loneliness in both men and women is predicted by high levels of self-criticism and depressive symptoms, through the mediating factor of self-silencing (Besser et al., 2003).

Overall, however, self-silencing is more strongly correlated with depression among women, as compared to men (Harper et al., 2006). Moreover, the internalizing and interdependent nature of self-silencing may be explained by women’s increased susceptibility to interpersonal stress, and the repression of negative emotions (Morrison & Sheahan, 2009), rendering them at higher risk for depression (Frost, Hoyt, Chung, & Adam, 2015). In contrast, research found that men’s higher levels on the Care as Self-Sacrifice subscale served as a protective factor for depression, a link that was not significant for women (Lutz-Zois et al., 2013; Smolak & Munstertieger, 2002). This suggests that the men who do not fully comply with the traditional roles, but instead work to foster their close relationships, benefit from the intimacy, and may be less likely to have depressive symptoms.

Disordered eating. Self-silencing is significantly linked to disordered eating among both men and women (Locker et al., 2012). Men, however, are less likely than women to report body dissatisfaction and a drive for thinness, and are less likely to report bulimic behaviors (Morrison & Sheahan, 2009). This may be reflective of different societal expectations of men and women’s physical appearance, where the thin-body ideal is not as strong for men as it is for women (Locker et al., 2012; Morrison & Sheahan, 2009). Furthermore, women’s self-silencing predicted their emotionally-driven eating habits (i.e., eating when angry, anxious, and depressed) and bingeing, a relation which was not significant for men (Smolak & Munstertieger, 2002). The inauthenticity and internal division caused by women’s self-silencing (Jack, 2011) impede the support and healing found in interpersonal connections, which in turn can manifest as external modes of regulating emotional distress, such as disordered eating (Lutz-Zois et al., 2013; Morrison & Sheahan, 2009).

Self-Silencing in Women

Research has widely supported Gilligan’s original claim that women are relational beings, finding that women are predominantly driven to engage in self-silencing in order to preserve or foster an intimate relationship (Remen, Chambless, & Rodebaugh, 2002). A study by Besser et al. (2003) found that higher self-silencing is significantly related to higher interpersonal dependency. The same researchers found that women currently in romantic relationships were more dependent than both single women and men in relationships. The quality of such intimate relationships also plays a crucial role in women’s silencing: adolescent girls who report low levels of romantic relationship satisfaction engage in higher self-silencing; this relation was not found among adolescent boys (Harper & Welsh, 2007). Higher levels of dependency suggests that women may be more invested in and therefore more affected by their relationships than men.
Elevated dependency within relationships may render women more likely to derive their self-concept from the views of other people. One study found women to score higher than men on the Externalized Self-Perception subscale (Lutz-Zois et al., 2013), suggesting that relationships and the thoughts of others impact women’s sense of self more powerfully than men’s. The positive correlation between self-silencing and self-criticism (Besser et al., 2003) gives way to the finding that high levels of perfectionism predicted self-silencing in women, a link which failed to reach significance among men (Locker et al., 2012). Higher levels of perfectionism are more strongly predicted by socially prescribed perfectionism, performing according to other’s ideals, rather than their own (Flett et al., 2007). Such strong endorsement of perfectionism reflects the impact of external feedback on the women’s internal sense of self.

Societal influences of women’s self-silencing. Women’s self-silencing can be attributed to the societal belief that women possess an inherent responsibility to care for those around them (Jack, 1991). Starting in childhood, both men and women are conditioned to think of women as relational beings, as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. Research found this conditioning to be propagated not only on a societal level, but within the family as well. Mothers begin talking to their daughters about dating and marrying men prior to adolescence, a cultural norm that was found to persist when girls reach young adulthood (Packer-Williams, 2009). Furthermore, traditional gender roles for women were endorsed by both young boys and girls, yet boys report stronger adherence to the belief that women should be subordinate and self-silence in order to maintain harmony (Piña-Watson et al., 2014). The finding that societal expectations for women to silence themselves were sanctioned by boys in childhood reveals the powerful effect of men’s views on the behavior of women. The gendered messages communicated to girls during childhood quickly yield manifestations of inauthenticity (Theran, 2010; Tolman, Impett, Tracy, & Michael, 2006) and self-silencing in early adolescence (Thomas & Bowker, 2013). While gender roles provide explanation for women’s self-silencing, they are found to influence the behavior of men as well.

Self-Silencing in Men

Self-silencing in men is ascribed to a pervasive adherence to masculine ideals (de Medeiros & Rubinstein, 2015). Men report higher self-reliance than women (Besser et al., 2003), and intentionally isolate themselves from those around them in order to appear more stoic and stable (de Medeiros & Rubinstein, 2015). One study showed, for example, that single men display higher levels of dependency than men in romantic relationships (Besser et al., 2003), which may indicate that for men, intimate attachments elicit the need to establish a sense of independence and emotional distance. Not only does this suggest that men may be less socially dependent than women, but it may reflect the influence of traditional patriarchal gender roles as creating distance within a romantic relationship could be a mechanism through which men try to claim power in a relationship (Babcock et al., 1993; Jack, 1999).

Research suggests that men use self-silencing as a way to withdraw from relationship conflicts, rather than prevent them (Jack, 1999; Remen et al., 2002). For example, one study demonstrates that men who reported their wives to be highly demanding were more likely to be dissatisfied in the marriage, and thus engage in self-silencing and withdrawn communication (Uebelacker, Courtnage, & Whisman, 2003). Such findings offer support for the theory that men’s silence is used to move away from interaction or intimacy, distinctly contrasting the motivation for women’s silence. Uebelacker et al. (2003) also suggest that men who self-silence as a means to withdraw are reflective of the greater cultural norms which value and attend to a man’s needs before a woman’s.

Despite men’s desires to maintain social dominance, researchers theorize that their self-silencing can be better explained by the cultural expectations for men to be inexpressive (Duarte & Thompson, 1999). Rather than using silence as a means to withdraw, men may instead lack the emotional language to acknowledge or express their feelings in interpersonal relationships (Gratch et al., 1995). Therefore, gender roles may undermine men’s emotional experience or expression, but also imply that such silence is a mode of power.


The literature to date provides support for the impact of societal gender roles on the manifestation and effects of self-silencing. Although self-silencing was initially conceptualized as a construct specific to women (Jack, 1991), high levels of self-silencing have been found in men, as well. In fact, research has consistently shown higher levels of self-silencing in men than women (Cramer & Thoms, 2003; Gratch et al., 1995; Ussher & Perz, 2010), necessitating an examination of gender roles within the greater societal context. Social structures qualified by gender inequality (Gilligan, 1993) are reflected in the distinct motivations behind self-silencing: women widely self-silence out of fear, where as men do so in order to maintain dominance (de Medeiros & Rubinstein, 2015; Jack & Ali, 2010).

While existing research has identified consistent trends between men and women, a more robust examination of men’s self-silencing in particular may enrich the current understanding of self-silencing as a gendered construct. For example, one study found that the integrity of the Silencing the Self Scale may be ineffective for measuring the intent behind men’s self-silencing (Remen et al., 2002). Low variance in men’s scores were found to be due largely in part to the emergence of a new factor, which identified autonomy and concealment as meaningful components of their self-silencing. The consideration of gender differences regarding the function of self-silencing will potentially allow for nuance in measurement.
In addition to further investigation among populations of men, future research should seek to account for greater diversity particular with regards to gender and sexual orientation. Throughout the literature, samples were reduced to include only those who identified as a man or a woman, creating a profound lack of individuals who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. The translation, or possible discordance, of traditional gender roles in non-heteronormative cultures may influence self-silencing in ways unaccounted for among existing samples.

Finally, the body of research on self-silencing remains rather confined to patriarchal and western cultures. Considering the powerful impact of patriarchy and gender roles on the manifestation of self-silencing, an exploration of societies and subcultures that are qualified by matriarchy or themes of egalitarianism would serve to benefit the understanding of voice, interpersonal sacrifice, and self-silencing. As self-silencing is positioned upon the fundamental belief that interpersonal relationships are essential to well-being (Jack, 2011), research must account for the complex and contrasting modes of connection and the diverse world of individuals who sustain them.


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