FEMINIST THERAPY: WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
by Mary H. Guindon, Ph.D.
We've seen big changes in the ways we women experience our worlds over the last two decades. Changes in our home and family structures as well as greater career opportunities mean we often face too much work and too few resources. We can find ourselves overwhelmed by our many responsibilities. Our jobs, children, husbands, parents, plus housework, all make demands on our limited time and energy.
Some of us feel in conflict and fearful over the choices we must make. Some of us feel life gives us no choices at all. Others of us feel opportunities passed us by when we followed the traditional path of staying home to meet our family's needs. Most of us feel overstressed and overworked. Many of us feel isolated, anxious, even depressed and resentful. If you can relate to any of this, you might be interested in learning more about feminist therapy.
Why Feminist Therapy Is Needed
Is it any surprise women turn to counseling for help in dealing with the many issues overwhelming them? While traditional therapeutic approaches can and are helpful, feminist therapy is distinct in its addressing the role of gender in psychological distress. Gender is a reality that shapes our behavior. Our world is organized through its influence. Feminist therapy recognizes that environmental pressures affect a woman's identity. Women live in a world dominated by males and masculine patterns of thought and behavior, or the patriarchy.
Until recently, studies of human behavior were almost always conducted by and on men. So men's ways of being often were -- and are -- used to describe women as well as men and therapy techniques useful for men are applied to women equally. Feminists argue that men and women are not the same and, indeed, have developed from early childhood in different ways. Men tend to view the world in terms of power and competition, or in a hierarchy. Women, on the other hand, view the world through relationship and connection to others. So most psychological theories and the therapy techniques derived from them may not fit women very well.
How Women Don't Fit
Whether through our biological makeup or through our socialization, or both, we all grow up knowing exactly what is expected of us. We are routinely bombarded with gender-role messages from our culture and our society and from our families. The media gives young children strong gender-biased messages. Boys are independent, self-sufficient, aggressive, dominant, ambitious, stoic, and above all, successful. Girls are sweet, well-behaved, self-sacrificing, passive, submissive, overemotional, and, above all, attractive.
The problem is these same traits in a "good" woman are considered inappropriate in a healthy, mature adult. All adults get the message they "should" have traits typical of male behavior. Women's natural gifts of nurturing and caring for others don't have much value in the "real" world. In this world, men still hold the power, politically, economically, and physically. Too many women feel they have no real control over their lives or destinies. They believe what they do has no worth and that they, themselves, therefore, are worthless.
Obstacles -- within themselves and in the outer world -- prevent women from achieving a sense of their own strength and power. Theorists like Jean Baker Miller (http://www.wellesley.edu/WCW/scsub.html) and Carol Gilligan make the point that, women's characteristics of cooperation, connection and nurturance are creative, problem-solving strengths. Yet society as a whole sees these as weaknesses, or at the very least, unimportant. Women tend to feel a certain "wrongness" about themselves because they don't fit the male idea of strength and maturity. They may discount and "swallow" their own identities, hiding or even losing, a sense of who they are in service to others in their lives. They end up acting out of a belief of who and what they "should" be and may not trust their own experiences and instincts.
Why We Need Feminist Therapies
Women, come into counseling with a sense of powerlessness, a lack of identity, and a fear of trust in themselves. Traditional therapies encourage women to be independent and self-sufficient. Women's very natural desire to care for and nurture others can be overlooked or even seen as pathological.
Feminist therapy, on the other hand, recognizes the central place relationship and connections hold in women's lives. It considers the nature of sex-bias in a male-dominated culture. It honors women's experiences as valid and unique. Focusing on the damaging effects of gender-role socialization, it seeks to address the inequalities in educational and career opportunities. Feminist therapy also helps women overcome barriers they experience in achieving their personal goals and assists them in recognizing and reaching their full potential. It specifically addresses such questions as family and marriage relationships, reproductive concerns, career issues, the role of violence and fear in their lives, physical and sexual abuse, body image and eating disorders, and self-esteem. Most of all, feminist therapy seeks to empower women in today's world.
Mary Guindon, PhD, is the Chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Johns Hopkins University. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and has more than twenty years private practice and consultation experience.
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