FEMINIST THERAPISTS: WHAT DO THEY DO?
by Mary H. Guindon, Ph.D.
Melissa, a 14 year-old honor role student, shrugs when asked why her grades have dropped the last year. Cheerful and outgoing as a child, she has become increasingly shy and withdrawn.
Diana, a 29 year-old attorney, is sad and doesn't know why. She treasures her husband and her job and hopes to start a family soon. Nevertheless, she feels torn, guilty, and hopeless about the future.
Terri, a 36 year-old bank teller and mother of three school-age kids, feels trapped and terrified whenever she's in her car. She has severe heart palpitations and diarrhea. She thinks she might be going crazy.
Carol, a 48 year-old homemaker, has felt incompetent and fearful since her husband of 25 years left her. She knows nothing about finances beyond the small household allowance he gave her. She doesn't know what to do or where to turn.
What do they have in common?
They may be experiencing distress related to being a female in a world where the dominant culture is still male. Each is feeling the effects of constricted, controlled lives. They have been unable to fully investigate who they are or act on what they really want. Each could benefit from work with a counselor/therapist trained in women's unique biological, psychological, and social issues.
What is a feminist therapist?
First, a feminist therapist IS a therapist. Her basic training can come from many different related disciplines. She (and it is almost always a she) may be a psychologist, social worker, mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, or psychiatric nurse practitioner, but she is a licensed and/or certified professional in her field.
Second, although she may or may not use the term feminist, she is well trained in the psychology of women as a distinct field. Because traditional psychology was predominantly developed by men and usually based on research about men, its techniques may not always be effective for many women's issues.
Next, although she may have both men and women as clients, she knows that counseling women is different from counseling men. She is aware of the roles gender and sexism play in our society. She specializes in concerns many women bring to counseling such as depression, anxiety, stress, reproductive concerns, career matters, physical and sexual abuse, body image and eating disorders, and self-esteem.
Last, because she knows "the personal is political" she understands that oppression comes in many forms. She seeks to help women realize they have a right to equality and dignity in all facets of their lives. She may be involved in some aspect of reforming the systems in which we all live.
What are the goals of feminist therapy?
When you seek the assistance of a feminist therapist, you will find a person who sees herself as your equal not as your superior. She sees her job as one of working with you in a mutual relationship of caring and support. Her goals are to help you toward psychological growth and well being through increased knowledge of yourself and your world. She believes you are the only "expert" in your own issues and will help you develop tools you need to reach your potential as a unique and valuable person.
She operates from these principles:
1. External forces in the "real world" rather than your internal "shortcomings" may be the source of many disorders and psychological distress.
2. The feminine attributes of connection and caring are seen as strengths to draw on rather than inherent weaknesses.
3. Reproductive and biological issues are a reality that play a role in women's lives throughout all life stages.
4. Violence - physical, , emotional, psychological -- is an all too common consequence of being a woman in our culture and often goes unrecognized.
5. Women need information and education about these and other issues and the therapist's role is to provide it.
What do feminist therapists actually do?
A feminist therapist may use any of these techniques:
1. Raising consciousness. She strives to help women realize the effects of living unfulfilling lives based on prescribed gender roles that limit potential and result in anger, resentment, and frustration. This can manifest in self-destructive behaviors and harmful relationships.
2. Making appropriate choices. She may help you realize you have choices regardless of your present circumstances. She will give you support to make the choices you need to make based on what you authentically want.
3. Enhancing self-esteem. The therapist will assist you in learning how to value yourself and recognize your true strengths and talents.
4. Doing group work. She may facilitate your growth in the company of other women. Many women feel isolated in many aspects of their lives and having support from other women can be healing.
5. Giving information. She may use community resources when you need them. She may refer you to a career counselor or recommend an abuse shelter. She will recommend books to educate and train you.
6. Using expressive approaches. She might you use one or more of the expressive arts such as music, art, dance, or guided imagery to help you heal and grow.
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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