Your two-year-old daughter hurls herself on the floor for the third tantrum of the night. Your mother calls to ask if you can come over and help fix her leaky faucet. And you have a deadline looming over you at work like a guillotine. You feel strung-out and overwhelmed. Your man comes home and asks you how your day was and you uncharacteristically bite his head off with a sarcastic, “How do you think it was?”
When he asks you what’s the matter, you remember yourself and feel appalled at your behavior.
You apologize and say “I’m sorry, it must be PMS.” But is it?
Most women believe that PMS causes them to get emotional and cranky, but the last twenty years of research tells us otherwise. Study after study shows that the great majority of women do not get a mental disorder every month.
Sure, changes in hormones may make us feel more emotional, or physically uncomfortable, but these symptoms are not outside the range of normal feelings we have at any other time of the month.
And while there are some women whose functioning is seriously impacted by their menstrual cycle — about 3 to 8 percent of the population — this is a small minority, and the widespread use of "PMS" is much higher than that.
And it's not just women misusing this term.
When a man insists that a woman's anger is because of PMS, it's an easy way to completely shut her down. He no longer has to listen, take her seriously, or take any responsibility for causing it.
Actually dealing with the source of her anger would be way messier, and would require him to examine his own behavior. Calling it PMS frees him from acknowledging that something else might be going on.
So if the science says most women don’t suffer from a monthly syndrome, what makes so many women feel like they do?
1. Guilt about not doing it all or "having it all".
The answer is all about guilt. Guilt about not doing it all. In this modern age, the ideal woman is educated and successful in her career.
An attractive, supportive partner, a doting, generous mother; a housekeeper; a diplomat in family relations. And a de facto caregiver to the sick and the old. That is one mighty full plate.
The good news is that overall, women who have multiple roles are emotionally and physically healthier than those who don’t. But when those roles become overwhelming and women feel unsupported, they suffer from stress and strain.
2. It's an "acceptable" reason for withdrawing from usual responsibilities.
Why is saying you have PMS more acceptable than saying you are exhausted and need a break? Because people believe that the very essence of a good woman (and particularly a good mother) is the willingness to sacrifice for your loved ones. Any mother who complains, yells, or talks about needing to escape her duties for just a day can be branded a “bad mother.”
This is probably the worst thing you can call a woman. So when a woman can’t keep up the “good mother” standards, she blames her behavior on PMS, which allows her to assure others that this state is temporary — not her real self. She gets to keep her "good woman" crown.
3. Guilt about losing emotional control.
Another benefit that women get from the PMS myth is that it offers them an acceptable excuse to lose control. Feeling moody, irritable, the urge to withdraw, the need to communicate dissatisfaction, as well as a strong desire to put their needs first, can feel threatening to women because these behaviors are the opposite of the feminine standard. Women who attribute their bad moods to PMS describe themselves as lacking self-control if they have an emotional outburst.
Why are women so afraid of losing control over their feelings? While ideal masculinity is manifested by “doing” — being active and assertive, ideal femininity is manifested by “not doing” — not being loud, coarse, or selfish. To “act like a lady” is to be polite, calm, and graceful. Achieving this ideal involves substantial self-regulation. It takes a lot of self-control to put your needs and emotions last.
Having an influence that is out of a woman’s control, like PMS, is advantageous because it suggests that her hormones are controlling her emotions without her permission. Who can be expected to fight biology? So attributing unpleasant, unladylike emotions to PMS helps a woman (and others) believe she hasn’t willingly defied the standards of good womanhood.
4. For the short-term gain (and long-term pain).
Blaming PMS for feeling cranky or needing a break may be useful in the short-term but there are some long-term consequences.
Sweeping your emotions under the PMS rug removes the possibility for you to figure out why you are feeling upset. And if you don’t figure out why you are upset, you can’t do anything to fix it, so the same issues keep coming up again and again.
Also, attributing your anger or contrary opinion to PMS makes it easier for others to invalidate your opinions in the future. It makes people less likely to take you seriously and harder for your voice to be heard if they can dismiss your opinions with a cavalier, “Is it that time of the month?”
What should you do?
If you are upset and it happens to be the week before your period, take a quiet moment and sit with your feelings. Consider what is going on in your life that might be upsetting you. From there you can decide if this is a problem you can do something about.
You may need to think about a job change, or limiting your contact with a toxic relative. Or you may have a source of stress that you can’t change in the near future, like caring for a difficult and ailing parent. In this case, you can seek out ways to soothe yourself, like quiet meditation or a walk outside. Acknowledging these realities can be painful and messy, but it unlocks the potential for permanent positivity.
So, the next time you feel the urge to automatically chalk up your bad mood to PMS, give yourself some space to allow for the possibility that something else may be going on.
Forego the guilt and be generous with yourself. It’s normal to sometimes have angry feelings or bad moods. Owning your emotions puts the power in your hands to reflect on your situation and cope effectively.
If you want to learn more about the myth of widespread PMS and how it hurts women, watch Robyn's TEDx talk, “The Good News About PMS” or read her book The Hormone Myth: How Junk Science, Gender Politics, and Lies About PMS Keep Women Down.