What is feminist psychotherapy?
Feminists are people who advocate political, social, and economic equality between women and men. Feminist therapy is much more difficult to define, because interpretations of feminist therapy depend on the particular feminist philosophy and therapeutic orientation that a therapist adopts. At the most basic level, feminist psychotherapy involves the integration of feminist principles with psychotherapeutic practices, but the nature of this combination takes many forms. A wide range of psychotherapies may be employed or combined in feminist psychotherapy, excluding those that are gender biased.
An assumption underlying feminist psychotherapy is that personal behavior and social expectations are interwoven in an intricate, complex manner. Problems are shaped by social and cultural environments that limit choices or encourage individuals to see themselves in restricted ways. Psychological conflicts are not viewed as personal deficits; they often arise from efforts to cope with or survive unjust or oppressive environmental conditions. When problems are viewed solely as internal conflicts or symptoms that need to be removed, women learn to feel responsible for and guilty about pain that is promoted or reinforced by inequality or gender-role expectations. The personal is considered political in the sense that personal change should be connected to social change that allows all people to meet their goals effectively.
Feminist psychotherapy emerged during the women’s movement of the 1970s in response to traditional mental health practices that contributed to an unequal, oppressive environment for women. Phyllis Chesler, in Women and Madness (1972), charged that women were diagnosed for both underconforming and overconforming to gender-role stereotypes and that the higher treatment and hospitalization rates of women were related to sexist mental health practices. Feminists within the mental health field noted that the goals, psychological theories, and practices of psychotherapists were based on masculine criteria of psychological health, encouraged hierarchical relationships between therapists and clients, and promoted adjustment to traditional, stereotyped roles for women. Feminist psychotherapy became a method for counteracting these negative influences.
The consciousness-raising groups associated with the feminist movement also influenced feminist psychotherapy. These groups provided women with an increasing awareness of sexism and its impact on personal lives and choices. Women reported therapeutic benefits of consciousness raising, including increased feelings of self-esteem and autonomy, awareness of commonalities between women, an expanded ability to express strong feelings such as anger, and an awareness of the ways in which sociopolitical forces influence the female experience. Feminist psychotherapists incorporated many elements of consciousness-raising groups into their work, and the group practice of feminist therapy has remained important.
Feminist psychotherapy began as a strong reaction against traditional therapy rather than as a particular form of therapy; however, feminist therapists have also transformed mainstream therapies by applying feminist perspectives. Feminist therapists have also developed personality theories that value women on their own terms rather than viewing them as diverging from the male norm. During the early 1970s, the feminist movement and feminist therapy did not adequately consider the needs of women of color and the combined impact of racism and sexism. Subsequent efforts have focused on acknowledging the diversity of women’s lives and increasing the sensitivity of feminist practices to these complexities. Feminist therapy has also extended to counseling men and emphasizes the importance of integrating relationship and achievement needs, increasing the capacity for intimacy, creating mutual, collaborative relationships, and learning noncoercive problem-solving methods.
Feminist psychotherapists are often critical of the standard diagnostic criteria adopted by psychiatry and psychology and outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . They believe that these categories have highly judgmental qualities and are based on a medical model that implies that psychological problems are lodged primarily within the person; such categorization may lead to blaming victims rather than solving the social problems that contribute to these personal problems.
The therapist-client relationship in feminist psychotherapy is based on egalitarian values. Therapists inform clients about their orientation and goals and attempt to demystify the counseling experience. Clients are encouraged to take on the attitude of a consumer and to ask questions of the therapist to ensure that they receive what they need from the therapy. Although feminist therapists work toward equalizing the balance of power, they also recognize that, because of their professional skills and the special status given to helping professionals, the relationship will not be fully equal. Clients are seen as their own best experts, as competent and powerful, and as capable of making productive choices.
The goals of feminist psychotherapy emphasize the importance of healthy, self-chosen change, rather than adjustment to status quo definitions of mental health. Consciousness raising about sexism in society is a central feature of feminist therapy, and clients are encouraged to understand the role of socialization and culture in shaping their lives. Because women are frequently socialized to define themselves according to expectations of significant others, feminist therapy emphasizes the importance of self-nurturing behaviors and defining one’s own identity. In addition, since women are frequently taught to use covert, indirect forms of influence and communication in relationships, special emphasis is placed on learning direct, constructive, assertive forms of expression. Finally, it is hoped that as clients meet personal goals, they will become interested in working toward social change that will benefit all women and thus, indirectly, all people.
Although many forms of therapy can be integrated with feminist therapy, certain techniques are associated with feminist psychotherapy. Through gender-role analysis, clients are encouraged to examine their own gender-role behaviors and attitudes and choose alternatives to behaviors that are not productive for them. Gender-role analysis helps people identify how they learned from their culture the behaviors and emotions that are expected of them as “normal” women or men and to consider other ways of fulfilling their potential as competent persons. In addition, feminist analysis, or social analysis, is used to convey information about the sociocultural barriers that limit the development of women. This analysis may focus on the ways in which job discrimination, sexual harassment, stereotypes, or poverty may contribute to personal problems, and it helps clients understand the ways in which the environment limits their potential. Insight into these power structures decreases their damaging effects because clients recognize that they are not to blame for many of the problems they experience. In feminist analysis, clients are encouraged to separate internal causes of problems from external ones. When clients are able to distinguish between these factors, they feel greater freedom and commitment to make active, constructive changes within their own lives and within their environments.
Two additional techniques are the expression of anger and therapist self-disclosure. The recognition of sexism and oppression in society may lead to intense anger, and the healthy expression of emotion within a safe, mutual relationship is considered essential. Because women are frequently socialized to express only “soft” emotions, they may not have a vocabulary with which to express anger or may fear its destructive qualities. Techniques that help individuals express strong emotion in healthy, constructive ways contribute to their confidence. Finally, appropriate self-disclosure on the part of the therapist is an important tool because it decreases a client’s feelings of aloneness and models the healthy expression of issues and feelings. The human qualities of the therapist help motivate and empower the client.
Feminist psychotherapy provides an alternative to traditional psychotherapy. The differences between a feminist approach and a traditional approach to problems can be illustrated by the discussion of depression in women. From a traditional perspective, depression is often viewed as resulting from biological vulnerabilities, faulty thinking patterns, skills deficits, or a depressive personality style. Psychotherapy focuses on removing the symptom and alleviating suffering so that the client can readjust to her living environment. A feminist perspective does not ignore personal factors and vulnerabilities, but it goes beyond them to examine the ways in which depression is associated with women’s limited access to power and with other environmental factors.
The American Psychological Association National Task Force on Women and Depression has reported that women are significantly more likely to experience depression than men and that the interpersonal violence, poverty, and discrimination that women face contribute to these higher rates. Multiple roles, inequities in division of labor at home, the presence of young children in the home, and expectations that women will define themselves in terms of others contribute to suppressed anger and frustration and may lead to depression. In feminist therapy, the therapist and client identify and understand these factors, practice healthy ways of expressing suppressed emotion, focus on ways the client can define herself on her own terms, and establish ways of altering the environment so that the client can reach her potential.
Therapy for survivors of violence, such as rape, battering, or incest, is an important application of feminist psychotherapy. Gender-biased attitudes that were based on Sigmund Freud’s view of women have promoted psychological myths and encouraged blaming the victim by suggesting that women are inherently masochistic and gain pleasure through experiencing pain. Other cultural attitudes contribute to notions that women’s personal flaws lead to abuse, that sexual violence is caused by women’s seductiveness, that women precipitate battering incidents through verbal provocation, and that women tend to remain in violent relationships. Many survivors of violence, having absorbed these negative cultural myths, struggle with low self-esteem and suffer in secrecy. Feminist therapists help clients talk about and deal with the intense feelings of shame and guilt that are fostered by myths about sexual and interpersonal violence. They validate women’s experiences and acknowledge the painful circumstances, such as poverty or limited resources, that contribute to their pain. Feminist psychotherapists help women place blame outside themselves and deal with the anger that must be expressed toward perpetrators and a social system that condones violence against women. Providing support and a safe physical environment are also crucial components of feminist intervention. Finally, many survivors of violence experience further healing and empowerment by helping other women. They may become advocates on behalf of other women, engage in political efforts to establish new programs, or become involved in peer-counseling activities in a crisis center.
Group work is another component of feminist therapy. Groups enable individuals to decrease their isolation from other women, construct mutual support systems, and validate one another’s strengths. When group members share experiences, the similarities of their concerns are often striking, and they become aware that broader social issues are often mistakenly identified as individual problems. Groups help counter the negative aspects of socialization that encourage women to adopt passive roles; they provide a safe environment in which members can practice new skills, develop confidence, and make new choices. The original feminist therapy groups were modeled after the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s. Specialized feminist therapy groups deal with many issues, such as eating disorders, self-esteem concerns, or incest and abuse issues.
Feminist therapy not only is a distinct entity but also seeks to transform mainstream psychological practice. For example, because of the efforts of feminist psychologists, the American Psychological Association adopted the “Principles Concerning the Counseling and Therapy of Women,” a document recommending that counselors and therapists become knowledgeable about and seek training in women’s issues, use skills that will facilitate women’s development, and work toward eliminating gender bias within institutions and individuals. Feminist therapists continue to work toward heightening the sensitivity of all therapists to women’s concerns.
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