Feminist Therapy: Setting boundaries with abusive people, dealing with conflict, and facing our fear of rejection

feminist therapy

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. When in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who 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 feeling incredibly guilty and confused. The short of it is that my mom used to hit my when I was growing up. I think she did it because my dad hit her when they were together. I’m the youngest of three and I have the suspicion that my two older siblings were hit too, but we’ve never talked about it. I’m living on my own now, and I recently decided that I didn’t want to have a relationship with my mom because of how she treats me in my life currently (some verbal abuse is still going on), and because of her refusal to apologize for the way she treated me in the past. I think it’s the “right” thing to do, but just feel so bad… Like I’m being a bad daughter. Because I know she was being abused too, I sometimes feel like choosing not to talk to her is hurting her more. Help!

– C

Dear C,

Thank you for taking the time to write in about this. I’m certain that you’re not the only one who has struggled with an issue of this sort.

Experiencing abuse at the hands of someone who is also providing for you is a very messy thing and is extraordinary complex to process — especially when the abuse happened early and/or continuously in our development. Our brains often do not know how to make sense of the ongoing relationship we have with the abuser, unlike when we are abused by a stranger on a singular occasion — something that we can more easily label “bad.” When a child is abused by someone who is in a position of power over them, the child’s brain has to find a way to cope with staying in a situation where they are being hurt but where many of their other needs are being met. Because of this confusing situation, kids often end up believing they deserve the abuse in some way, even if they weren’t told that from the outset.

Children who were abused by their parents often learn early on — and with a high degree of sensitivity — how to read their abuser’s moods, body language, and tone of voice in order or predict if abuse is coming. They also, consequently, learn how to disappear, bend over backwards, or step in in “just the right way” in order to (try to) prevent the abuse from happening or stop it from happening as severely. (See: The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller.)

I can hear in your question both your loyalty to your mother and your desire to be your own person and have a healthier life. I can also hear the inner dialogue of someone who has experienced abuse by a parent — particularly the feelings of guilt over how you might hurt them by setting boundaries to protect and care for yourself.

While I don’t think that there is any “right” way to heal from an abusive childhood (for example, the trauma isn’t necessarily “over” if you confront the abuser, like some people might tell you), I am proud to hear that you’re listening to yourself and choosing to live a life that isn’t dictated by what your mom feels anymore. You are allowed to have your own life, to make your own choices, and to have your own feelings.

In this situation, your guilt and confusion doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing the wrong thing. Your compassion for your mother and your awareness of her hurt also doesn’t mean that you’re doing the wrong thing. Those feelings of guilt and compassion might actually be relics from the abuse. The internal dialogue that you needed, as a child, to protect yourself from abuse is likely (re)emerging because, on an implicit level, your brain may not be certain that the danger and threat is over, so the guilt and compassion could be your brain’s way of saying, “Act like you used to, and maybe you won’t get hurt again.” We all have feelings and inner dialogues all the time that we don’t need to act on, but can consider as information about the way we’ve grown up and the situations we’ve needed to survive in the past. These dialogues and feelings can be important in present situations as they remind us on some level of something we’ve been through before. But, especially when we’re aware of our feelings and what we’ve lived through, we can decide whether or not that information suits our current reality.
It’s not your job to take care of your mom’s feelings and you’re allowed to do things to protect yourself from abuse, even if that makes her upset. I don’t think we always have the license to do whatever we want in relationships, but in situations of abuse things are different.

I am impressed by the extent to which you are aware of your feelings and by your desire to make the changes you are making, even though it can feel uncomfortable.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I have been seeing my therapist every few weeks for about two years, and she’s been really helpful. We have done a lot of work to help me accept myself and learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions, but something happened in our last appointment that feels “off.” I brought up our relationship and the fears I have about people leaving me — especially if I tell them all of my “hard stuff,” and it felt like she shut me down and said I just have to learn to “deal with it.” Since then I’ve felt unsettled, and am not really sure what to do about it. We haven’t had another appointment yet, but I feel like her response changed something for me. I’m not sure what to do, if anything.

– A

Dear A,

Yikes. I’m sorry that happened. Therapists are human, and make mistakes. Lots of them. It’s also not unusual for therapists to make mistakes that also line up, in some way, with their own issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if your question somehow triggered your therapist’s own issues with relationships in her personal life. While it’s possible she was having an “off” day, there may also be something going on with her, or between the two of you. It seems to me like it would be extra painful to experience this since, in a symbolic or emotional way, she did the very thing to you that you told her you were afraid of happening more literally.

While I don’t think it’s your job to repair the relationship, there are lots of things you can learn through this situation. Therapy, if it’s functioning as I believe it should, is the safest place for you to explore new ways of being in the world and in relationships. So, if you really trust your therapist and have a good relationship with her, maybe it’s time to risk doing the very thing you’re afraid of doing: talking about the “hard stuff” and the real, messy things you feel. Tell her how painful it was for you when she said what she did about “just dealing with it.” In doing that — especially if she responds well — you have the chance to learn that sharing hard stuff doesn’t always lead to rejection and abandonment, but (when done with the right person) can lead to healing through connection.

That being said, there is a chance her own personal attachment and relationship issues might have been triggered, and that you might have stumbled into a realization that you have outgrown your therapist. (I do think that’s possible — as long as you’re sure it’s not just a mask for running away.) So, if you feel like your therapist’s response changed something to the point where you don’t feel safe or comfortable working with her, it’s worth addressing for two reasons: 1) Your therapist deserves to hear that feedback; 2) You get an opportunity to practice having a voice and sharing your feelings in a difficult situation.

Whether you stay with her or find someone new, I think there is a possibility to grow because of this experience, through addressing it in a way that honours you and the relationship you have built with your therapist over time.

Regardless, it’s important to keep addressing the question you brought up when things went sideways: how to balance feeling authentic and afraid of abandonment at the same time. In the future, you could look at ways to manage feelings of disappointment and sadness that come up when people don’t meet your emotional needs after you’ve taken risks with them. It’s not a promise, but sometimes the mistakes I’ve made with my clients have led to the most exciting and productive growth within them and within our relationships. It’s a risk, but I’m hopeful that you’ll learn something through this no matter what.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I hate conflict. I hate it, I hate it! It makes me feel horrible, awful, panicky, and sweaty — sometimes I even freeze. What can I do about this?

-D

Dear D,

I’m inspired by your courage to even ask this question. Conflict is hard for lots of us. It can be especially difficult for women because we are socialized to be agreeable and to put relationships first, at times at the expense of our own needs. A researcher and feminist psychologist named Carol Gillian (she has two books that address this topic: Birth of Pleasure, and In a Different Voice) was the first to introduce the idea of women’s “ethic of care.” What she means by this is that, as women, we often decide what is right, what is wrong, and what to do about it, based on preserving relationships (sometimes at all costs). What I mean by this is that your difficulty with conflict might not just be your own personal issue, as if you live in a cultural vacuum, but could also be connected to the way you have been socialized within our culture.

Sometimes our difficulties coping with conflict stems from our inability to share space in relationships — sometimes it’s easier either to dominate or to disappear than it is to collaboratively exist in relational space. I often help clients who have issues with conflict examine how their difficulties in relationships reflect their beliefs about themselves. These beliefs can be connected to questions like: Am I allowed to have my own opinions, ideas, and needs? What am I afraid will happen if I articulate those opinions, ideas, and needs? What would it really be like if that happened? What do those fears tell me I long for in my life and long to know about myself in the eyes of others? These questions are meant to help you reflect on the underlying issues that make it hard to do conflict well in the first place. But skills help too!

When people are learning how to do conflict well, I suggest the following:

– Rehearse what you want to say. Try writing notes down and using them if you think that might help.

– Pick and time and place to bring up the issue you want to address that makes you feel more comfortable

– Remind yourself about what’s true about you and the other person before and after the conflict happens

– Try to listen to what the other person is saying instead of worrying about what you will say in response

– Take lots of time when you are responding — there is no need to speak right away

– Use “I” language — talk about how things affect you instead of describing the other person or telling them what they are doing

– Take responsibility for the things you could have done differently

– Try to think about how the two of you can work together to resolve the problem

If you need to, tell the other person that you need some more time to think about what you want to say and about how to resolve the issue and set a time to discuss things in the future. If someone springs something on you, you don’t have to talk about it right at that moment. You are always allowed to say, “It sounds like we need to have this conversation, but right now doesn’t work for me, would sometime later this afternoon work?” Or, “Can you give me a minute or two to think about what you just said? I want to make sure I really heard you, and sometimes I find it hard to think about things like this on the spot”.

You don’t have to tolerate people being rude to you, but that does not give you an excuse to be rude back. If someone is being rude, you can say, “It seems like this conversation isn’t productive right now and I’m not feeling like we’re getting anywhere — could we try it again in [x amount of time]? Would that work for you?”

Of course, all this can get complicated when the conflict is with someone we love, when the topic is something we feel extra insecure about, or when it occurs with a person in a position of power over us. All of those situations might require more careful planning and support from an objective third party, or even some support in therapy.

In addition to the questions you can ask yourself and the practical ideas listed above, there are lots of great books out there on the topic (look up things like “assertiveness” or, specifically, books by Harriet Lerner).

Practice helps, and it might be fun or useful to start practicing with people in your life who are safe. You might even want to give these people a heads up that you’re learning to bring more of yourself into your relationships. Instead of always agreeing to their ideas about where to go for dinner or about what movie to watch, try finding your voice with them and articulating what you need — practice ways of coming to a conclusion that makes you both happy. Be patient with yourself and have fun discovering new ways of being in relationship to those around you.

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.

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  • Rachel

    I’ve probably said this in response to you before but I have bipolar 2 also – makes me feel less crazy and alone reading someone else does too! It’s wreaking havoc on my life at the moment. I still blame society for adding extra complications to it too, but I refuse to believe my illness means I can’t think critically about society and that my thoughts are just wrong because I’m “crazy”.

    Anyway, back to your comment sorry. I think your reaction to your therapists religion pushing was completely natural, and I think many people feel that way about religion even outside of the therapists room. Sure, maybe you could’ve had the conversation with her then, but you probably weren’t ready or quite equipped to as you were still processing your own stuff. At the end of the day I don’t think the onus is on your to discuss things like that as the client, but as Hillary said, therapists are human and do make mistakes. Life is so strange sometimes – how we can grow and learn and think how we should’ve said or done things differently.

  • fragglerock

    These are great topics. I wish there was more about setting boundaries as well as being assertive after years of abuse. I endured a lifetime of it and often feel doomed to be victimized over and over again. I ask myself, as so many women do, “What’s wrong with ME that I keep getting into these situations?”

    Breaking the cycle of abuse in one’s own life is monumentally hard, especially with little or no support. The last therapist I had helped me tremendously to recover from a very abusive relationship only to cross my boundaries then abruptly end our therapy. She was my only support as my family was also abusive.

    Many women live their lives unaware of the abuse they’ve suffered, only feeling damaged and unlovable. I’d love to read more about the changes that need to happen in order to break the enduring pattern of abuse in our lives.

    • HillaryLMcBride

      @fragglerock would you consider asking a question about some of this? Email me or pm me on Twitter or send it through fem current and we can anonymize it. Thanks for sharing

  • will

    “Off reactions by therapists, especially when treating women, can evoke strong feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation and inadequacy.”

    In the 1980s when I was a 20 year old student I went with my then boyfriend for couple’s counselling with a well-know Vancouver therapist. I had not, at that time, ever spoken about being raped at 15 and was not even capable of naming what had happened because I, like most victims of sex crime, believed it was my fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and trusting the wrong person (and being too ugly, etc, to be treated like anything other than a garbage can, but I digress).

    My boyfriend and I were having sex issues and I mentioned in our first session that I had started having sex with men at a young age. This therapist sat back, crossed his arms and said “Well, lots of people start having sex at 12”. It was clear from the outset that this man saw my boyfriend as the good guy and me as the one doing him wrong by not fucking my nice boyfriend enough. I felt he saw me as a disobedient whore.

    The only upside I can see to the experience – and we were paying this incompetent misogynist money for this – is that we did not go back. He has gone on to establish himself prominently in the community and that is very troublesome. I have since tried to find a therapist who is capable to taking cultural conditioning into account and I have not managed to do so. In my experience, most counsellors take male entitlements and female grooming to servitude as “givens”, gender essences, I guess, that are not worth questioning.

  • Karla Gjini

    I love Feminist Therapy, so so insightful. Thank you Dr. McBride.

    • HillaryLMcBride

      Thanks for the encouragement, so glad you’re liking the column- feel free to send in a question if you like

  • HillaryLMcBride

    Thanks for sharing your story of struggle and strength. I’m so glad you’ve found your voice and worth, and can use your story to have compassion for others.

  • HillaryLMcBride

    It’s such an awkward thing for therapists too. I sometimes run into old clients, Forget where I know them from, stare awkwardly at them in the eye until it clicks, remember that I am bound by confidentiality and then run away before whomever I’m with asks why I was staring at someone for so long. Last week I was at an exercise class next to a current client and we sweat next to eachother for over an hour! I try in my first session to say to people “if you see me out, I’ll ignore you so I don’t “out you” as my client, but if you want to say hi, go for it”. But you don’t need to worry about how your therapist felt about that interaction, that whole relationship by definition is about you getting a safe place to explore you-who you’ve been and who you want to be- and should never be about you worrying about how the therapist felt, hopefully if they’re decent, they can handle their own feelings!! Sorry, on behalf of therapists everywhere for the awkward run ins!!!