Feminist Therapy: Recovering from sexual trauma, living with misogyny, and finding a good therapist

Feminist Therapist

*I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. And when it doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

 

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I’m middle aged, healthy, and have a great life. But I’m struggling with a lifelong, deep, pervasive anger about having not only to endure almost constant sexual harassment, being treated as less than, having to be afraid of sexual and emotional violence, etc. Some of my friends and family members, whose solution to these issues is to pretend that they don’t exist, and call me a “man hater.” Where does one go with all these feelings about a problem that is not going away — indeed, it seems to be getting worse in some ways!  I have tried living separately from men, but still, this anger is always with me. What is your suggestion?

L

 

Dear L,

I’m saddened to hear that, in addition to experiencing in personal ways the ubiquitous oppression of women, you have been silenced and shamed for doing so by people close to you. I wish that instead of blaming you, they would attempt to understand what it is that’s making you angry, and what their part is in it.

What you are experiencing is common for those who experience pain of any kind — the people around them often get uncomfortable, and somehow the person hurting or telling the truth gets blamed. But it becomes more complex when the pain you are feeling and the truth you are telling means that you are “calling out” an oppressive system which they are a part of, and likely want to remain ignorant to.

Most of us tend not to know how to deal with unpleasant emotions — either our own or others. We often feel like when we’re angry, sad, or scared that there is something wrong with us. One problem with this for me — particularly as a feminist therapist — is that I believe that anger, outrage, and disgust are appropriate reactions to have when we are devalued, harassed, humiliated, and violated, simply because we are women. These are things that I believe should make us angry — and our anger, in this case, is a marker of injustice. For this reason, we should continue to be angry.

It seems unfair that, as the people being hurt, we should also be the ones to be responsible for making things change. However, our position of hurt has given us insight into oppression in a way that also allows us to do something about it. I sometimes use the analogy with clients of anger as fuel in our car: we can use it to spin the wheels or we can allow it to move us forward towards something. This might mean that you find a way to use your anger to motivate you to create or participate in something you believe will instigate meaningful change.

One of my favorite feminist psychologists, Carol Gilligan, wrote, “Education is the only non-violent means to change.” Although this takes patience, among other things, I wonder if you could trust that your anger was an appropriate reaction but then find a way to use your anger to educate those around you, in a way that transforms the anger into some thing life-giving.

Regardless of what feels fair, or appropriate, or what you have the energy for, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been living with anger for so long. But I in no way think it is wrong — in fact, I think the opposite. But it is your choice about what you want to do with it.

 

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I went to therapy last year after a project I’d had been working on for almost 10 years dissolved in conflict. Those first months of therapy were helpful for me to start to realize some of my relational patterns. But after a few months of therapy it seemed like my therapist was bored with me. He talked to me about movies and politics, and once even fell asleep while I sat there unable to think of what to say. After mostly recovering, I didn’t know what to talk to him about. I don’t have depression or anxiety, but just want to understand myself better, to learn from my mistakes, and how my family might have impacted me negatively. How can I go about finding a therapist? Where do we fit if we don’t feel we have any of much of the “bigger issues” therapists are used to dealing with?

J

 

Dear J,

Firstly, your therapist fell asleep in session? That’s messed up. And on behalf of the mental health community, I’m sorry that you happened to get that dude among so many hard working people. It’s hard for me to say what was going on for him, but I imagine that because you were ready to talk about things other than psychopathology, it might have been challenging for him to give you what you needed. It’s possible you wanted something from him that he didn’t know how to give you… Maybe even because he had never “gone there” himself.

It’s really easy as a therapist to feel like you can rescue someone when they’re “sick” or if their pathology is easy to identify, but as soon as you have to be human, or authentic, or equal with each other in the room, it seems like a lot of therapists don’t know how to do that.

Here are a few of my suggestions about finding a therapist:

1) Most provinces, states, and countries have licensing or regulatory bodies — in B.C. they are CPA, BCACC, CCPA and BCPA — find their websites, and you will usually find a directory of some kind. You should be able to search based on certain criteria, like “trauma” or “gender” or “addiction.” This will help to narrow down people in your area who specialize in the kind of issues you are hoping to work through. Then call them — all of them. And if it matters to you, ask them if they consider themselves a feminist, and what kind.

2) When you get a potential therapist on the phone, ask them about their training, how they deal with the issue you need help with, and if they’re ok working with you even though you don’t have any identified psychopathology and just want a place to work through whatever comes up. Be upfront about this, and you’ll find out quickly if the person is a good fit for you or not.

3) Sometimes you can’t tell from a phone call what the person is like. It is worth it, even if you have to pay for a half or full session, to just go sit down with someone to see what your relationship dynamic feels like. You need to feel safe, most importantly, and also that you’re willing to trust them.

4) Trust your gut. If you don’t feel “safe” with a person, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad therapist, but rather that you likely won’t be willing to take chances with them and say how you really feel about things. Therapy, after all, is a relationship — and chemistry matters.

5) Ask what their theoretical orientation is. This is a fancy word for how we as therapists understand illness, change, the nature of the relationship between client and therapist, and what kinds of things you are likely to do in therapy. I work from a relational psychodynamic perspective. This means that I pay particularly close attention to the dynamic between myself and my clients in the room, address and process these dynamics as they come up, and use them to understand relational patterns which occur outside of therapy. From this perspective, we also examine how past experiences and relationships (particularly with family) shape us.

6) Some might disagree, but I don’t believe that a therapist can excel at their craft unless they have been on the other side of the chair — either in supervision or their own therapy. So it’s ok to ask why they became a therapist, and if they are currently undergoing supervision (which is basically a fancy word for therapists’ therapy — so therapists can figure out how their own unfinished business might be getting in the way of their work with clients).

7) If you’ve started a relationship with a counsellor, and at any point you feel misunderstood, or like they are bored with you, tell them! If they blame you, or don’t explore it, ask for referrals.

 

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I think about my rape every day. It’s not usually particularly traumatic or triggering, but it is there, at the back of my mind, especially during sex. I accept that it may never just disappear completely, but I worry it is almost self-reinforcing… Like every time I think about it, the groove digs in a little deeper, and now I’m not sure how to start digging myself out. Do you have any methods to start to short-circuit these feedback loops?

V

 

Dear V,

The problem with the kinds of thoughts you’re having is that they’re most likely what we call “intrusive thoughts” or spontaneous “flashbacks” of a traumatic event. They are different than normal kinds of thoughts that we consciously want to access, like trying to remember what we ate for breakfast this morning. Anything can trigger them, and because of how traumatic memory is stored (it is formed and stored differently than non-traumatic material), they are most likely getting triggered based on sensory memory. This can be anything from a similar smell, room lighting, or proprioception (muscle position relative to the body). Because you are not consciously trying to access them, there is not a lot you can do in those moments to stop them from coming up. I’ve heard these kinds of thoughts explained like they are your brain’s reminder notices of unprocessed traumatic material, which is not because of something you did wrong, but how your brain works to protect you after a traumatic event.

One thing that has proven to be helpful in stopping this from happening is doing trauma therapy with someone trained in the field. It’s often different than normal “talk” therapy and is effective in proving to your brain that the trauma is over, so that it stops sending these spontaneous thoughts/memories to your conscious awareness. Most of the people I’ve been trained by (in specific trauma therapies) and who work in the field, are very aware of power hierarchies in clinical settings, and of contextual and sociocultural values that reinforce trauma (such as victim-blaming), so are generally quite open to — if not proficient in — feminist approaches to psychotherapy.

One thing you can do if they do come up is to simply say to yourself, “It happened, and it’s over,” then redirect yourself to the present moment to prove to your brain the trauma is not still happening. One way to do this is to get into your body by taking some deep breaths, by wiggling your toes, feeling your feet on the floor or legs on the chair. This reminds your brain/body system that you’re safe, and that it’s over.

Here are some books about how traumatic memory is stored, and how to manage how our brain/body system works after trauma: Trauma and Memory (Peter Levine), The Body Remembers (Babette Rothschild), Healing Trauma (Peter Levine), The Body Keeps the Score (Bessel Van Der Kolk), 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery (Babette Rothschild), Trauma and Recovery (Judith Herman).

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to info@feministcurrent.com or hillarylmcbride@gmail.com with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)

Hillary McBride
Hillary McBride

Hillary McBride is a registered clinical counsellor working in the Vancouver area. She specializes in women’s experiences and feminist therapy. Hillary is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where she researches women’s experiences using feminist methodologies. She is the author of “Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are” and recently won the International Young Investigator Award in Human Sexuality from Taylor & Francis for her research and clinical work on sexuality in mothers.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • Spark658

    I relate with L so much. I was considering writing in and didn’t get around to it, but that’s similar to what I would have asked. I really appreciate your response, Hillary. It’s nice to have those feelings validated for a change.

    The only thing I would add is that I know my anger is justified, but I do worry that I let it get to me too much and wonder if I’m losing out on enjoying the simple things in life to some degree because of it. I often try to forget about it so I can focus on doing things I enjoy, but you can’t go anywhere or do anything without being reminded of women’s subordinate status. It’s exhausting and I am sure it can’t be healthy, as stress takes an enormous toll on the body. If anyone has any tips on how to find balance I would love to hear them.

    • Tera

      I can relate to this a lot too. It’s difficult to just be out and enjoying whatever it is you’re doing with out some offensive reminder. I find these reminders really sour my mood and take away a lot from my day to day life. Some are just irritating and some can be quite traumatic.

    • oneclickboedicea

      I can relate to this too. I have used my anger to propel me to get more involved with the active feminist movement, helping organise Feminism in London 14 in a small part, working towards starting a website to help young girls steer clear of sexist/DV, campaigning and commenting on line. Anger can be very useful for propelling you out of a rut, particularly when you don’t like the view from the bottom of the ditch. Also, for the frustration of not speaking out with the perfect answer at the time of being treated in a sexist manner, then practise and hone what you would have liked to have said and then comfort yourself that when confronted with a similar situation, next time you will be ready! Meditation and hanging out with other feminists also works for me too. And sometimes, just simply being honest and saying that the person’s behaviour comes across as sexist and did they mean it that way is also a gentle way of putting a shot across the bow of a sexist … the more you find ways of speaking out by practising holding your ground, the less your anger will run around inside your head! xx

    • Rachel

      I completely relate too, and feel like the question could’ve been written by me. It is liberating to have the anger justified and so well explained with how people react to women’s anger. I find I float between knowing my anger is justified and thinking that maybe I have it all wrong. Sometimes I crash violently between the two feelings within the space of days or even hours. It’s awful, and I feel so bad for the other women who experience this, but also comforted knowing that we aren’t all as crazy as they make us out to be. I try to channel my anger into positive things too, making a difference in the world, or just making some more avenues for independence in my own life. However I do find that I often take a step forward and then a few steps back. I find reading Feminist Current articles and comments really helps to ground me too. But I do worry about my anger getting the better of me and keeping me back in life. I worry I’ll never be able to see men the same, and make a relationship work, and I find myself directing my anger at me again. But if I read enough on here and try to take care of myself too, I find it easier to re-direct the anger and propel me forward again. Next step is not letting the down periods take me too far back and undo all the hard work. I admire women with the strength to channel anger into positive things.

  • For the flashbacks, would EMDR work? Also binaural beats (not much research – but I think they helped me a lot). I can identify with worrying about digging a rut.

  • In response to L., can I just add that anger is often a response to feeling helpless. I find my anger builds up when I can’t bring myself to confront someone who is treating me badly, or in a way I don’t like. I can never speak up right in the moment, unfortunately. But eventually I have to. Most women are trained not to confront and not to say or do anything that would discomfit another person, particularly a man. If a person in L.’s situation could do something as simple as say “That was a terribly disrespectful response” to a friend or family member, I think she would start to feel her anger get small enough to be handleable. There’s a difference between having a feeling, and being consumed by a feeling. If someone is consumed by anger, maybe they could identify small things they could do to show themselves that they’re not entirely helpless. It’s true we live in a society in which women are constantly subordinated and diminished, but we also live in a culture where we’re trained not to speak up about it. And that’s part of the problem too.