Feminist Therapy: Art therapy for healing, class resentment, and learning to lean on women

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 experienced seven years of unrelenting physical and psychological harm inflicted on me by my peers. I have been in therapy for years and have come a long way. One of the things the bullies focused on was destroying my art. I couldn’t take it, so I suppressed my creative impulses. If I didn’t make art, they couldn’t destroy it. However, now that I am an adult and in a safe space to make art, I find that I have a hard time doing it. I find that projects slip far enough down my priority list that I too rarely end up doing them. I feel immense relief and joy when I am able to engage in art — even a connection to what I might call divinity. My therapist suggested working with someone who specializes in creativity. I want to, but I don’t exactly know what it means. So how do I do it more often? What might work with a creativity specialist do to help me? How would I even find one? How do I find someone who “fits” well with me?

– H

Dear H,

I am really moved by your story. Art — or any expression of our creativity — is such a vulnerable and sacred thing. It has the power to help us heal, but when it’s destroyed or defaced in hateful ways it can be traumatizing and can make us feel like our expression, or even who we are, is being destroyed. I’m so sorry that this happened to you at all, let alone for so long.

I’m glad you’ve noticed that art is an important part of your ability to thrive as an individual, and that you see your relationship with art and creativity as a reflection of your inner and outer experiences. Social worker Brene Brown famously said, “Unused creativity isn’t benign. It metastasizes.” What she goes on to explain is that we all have creativity within us and when we don’t use it, express it, or do something with it, it hurts us. As women we are discouraged — and often punished emotionally in our relationships with others — when we make space for ourselves. When a particular activity is associated with pain, even historically or unconsciously, it can be difficult to feel freedom in that activity even if we are safe now.

I have lots of clients who struggle with creativity (and taking care of themselves) when they have been through trauma. The trauma survival process is all about safety, not freedom. So I might encourage you to continue pursuing trauma therapy. At first it might not seem conducive to the freedom associated with creative expression, but it can be helpful to develop a discipline around creativity. Set aside a few hours a week — maybe in a chunk, maybe in smaller portions each day — to allow your creative self to come out. Welcome her back into the world, coax her out, and prove to her that she is welcome with you and you will not shame her like the bullies did. What I mean by this is that you will likely need to make time for yourself to get into the groove, and it might not happen right away, but be careful not to judge yourself when creativity tries to emerge.

When I was feeling most stuck in my life, I would try to write about it. Writing had always worked for me, but I would judge everything I wrote to the point that writing, although initially helpful, became another way for me to beat myself up. I have a friend who is a minister but used to be a designer at a few large design firms. We were talking about coming up with a title for a writing project I’m working on and he told me to do something that his boss at the design firm used to make him do. His boss would ask him to do 100 sketches — to come up with 100 original ideas — and only start to think critically about them afterwards. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to be in a process, to let something unfold, and take the pressure off what comes out.

As your therapist recommended, there are people who specialize in art therapy — find out if this is what she means by a creativity specialist. In BC, you can find someone through BC Art Therapy Association. As for “fit,” it’s always important to be able to tell that person the truth about what you’ve been through and feel safe with them. A lot of art therapists offer group work or workshops. An art therapist will likely help you explore yourself through art, guiding both the exploration of yourself, and the creative expression of what you find. While you’re looking, it could be useful to find out if a local college, community center, or studio, is offering art classes for community members. This could be a great way to start prioritizing your art-making and have someone skilled lead you in a direction with specific lessons or assignments. If you have any pieces that represent healing, please share them — or find another appropriate venue to display your art in order to allow other people to benefit from your healing process, so you can have a corrective experience where instead of defacing your art, it is celebrated.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I’m not in therapy now, though there is a therapist I’ve worked with on and off with for many years. When I first began seeing her, she worked out of her home. I sometimes feel resentful of her because she has a lot more money than the family I come from and I don’t feel she gets this. The area I live in is middle class and there are some people who live in the area who are even upper middle class. My parents are not poor by any stretch of the imagination. However, they have had serious financial problems. I have brought up my own financial concerns with her numerous times, she seems to brush them off. If she gives me advice about finances, it often comes from an upper middle class perspective. I have not spoken about my feelings of resentment and I’m not sure I would feel comfortable doing so. She does not accept insurance, though she was willing to give me a discount. I don’t think I would feel comfortable asking her to do this again, though. I may not end up seeing her again, for this and other reasons. Is it wrong to feel resentful of my therapist for being much wealthier than both myself and the family I come from? Do other therapy clients ever harbour feelings such as this towards their therapist? What are your thoughts on this?

– L

Dear L,

Thanks for taking the risk to share this with me and our readers. I should start by telling you that you’re not alone in having feelings of resentment for your therapist — not even close. This is so common, in fact, that I regularly ask clients to give me their feedback about this: How am I missing what’s important to you? How have I let you down? What are you needing from me that you’re not getting?

I start every therapeutic relationship by telling clients that I want them to tell me when they are upset about something in our relationship or something I’ve done. While that might seem strange compared to what we’re used to in most relationships, therapy is built on honesty and openness, and I find that anything getting in the way of us building an alliance impairs the therapeutic process.

While what’s coming up between you two is about money and privilege, I find resentment also often comes up around things like weight and relationship status. I know of clients struggling with their weight who are resentful towards their therapist for not struggling with their weight. Sometimes people who are struggling with romantic relationships or loneliness feel frustrated with their therapist for being in a happy, committed partnership. These feelings are actually important for the therapeutic process. While it’s sad that your therapist dismissed what was important to you, I’d hope that if you brought your feelings up to her that she would help you understand in new ways what they were about and where they were coming from.

Understanding that our feelings about our therapist can be about something more than just feelings about our therapist is what we call transference. But not every therapist works with transference in sessions or is comfortable even acknowledging it. I think exploring your feelings towards your therapist is an essential part of therapy and is likely to help you understand yourself better.

In addition to that, it’s important that you feel safe sharing these feelings with her. Anytime we’re vulnerable — even in therapy — it’s a risk. In therapy you are more likely to be safe in taking an emotional risk than in most other relationships. That is especially true if your therapist is trustworthy and you feel safe with them. However, you have no obligation to continue therapeutic work with someone who you feel unsafe talking to about hard things, especially when that hard thing is the therapist-client relationship.

The fact that you feel uncomfortable talking about this with her might be a sign that it’s time to find someone new to work with.

(As an aside, if someone offers to give you a “discount” — or as is often called in our field “a sliding scale” — it’s never a one-time offer, it’s a change in your set rate. Clarify if need be, but you’re allowed to assume that, unless something else is discussed, that the new lower rate is your set rate from that point on.)

If you feel like taking a risk, you might try one last session and put all the cards on the table. I’m not you, but if I were in your position, I would tell her that I respect our work together, but feel that some of my feelings towards her are getting in the way of that work and that I want to try and process those feelings together. I would tell her that I feel resentful about her privilege and that when I brought up finances, I felt brushed aside and like she couldn’t see my experiences — perhaps  because they are different than hers, or because she didn’t understand how significant my distress about finances is. Then, I would decide what to do in the future based on of how she responds. You have an opportunity to learn something here, whether you address your feelings with her directly or with someone else. If this resentment is still bothering you, it might be time to talk about it with someone.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

How can I stop relying on men for emotional support? When I was a teen, and struggling with depression, my male “best friend” would listen to me — I could spend hours crying with him. In exchange, I thought I had to let him do what he wanted with my body, even though it often upset and disgusted me. I freed myself from him at 17, but it took me years to realize it was abuse. These years of abuse made me even more vulnerable and emotionally unstable. Whenever I felt sad or frightened I needed a male person to be there for me like a therapist does.

I’m still doing this with my current male partner. He’s kind and understanding, a pro-feminist, and is easy to open up to about past traumas big and small. But I think that I am reproducing the old pattern with him. I have female friends, but I am incapable of opening up to them in the way I open up to my partner. I feel I have to keep up a facade of strength when I’m around women — even those I know well and trust, even when they have told me their own sad, intimate stories. I wish I could talk with a woman about my issues, and I don’t like the fact that I need a man. Why do I need a male shoulder to cry on, and how can I overcome this?

– D

Dear D,

Thank you so much for you question. I so admire your desire to change this pattern in your life. I’m not surprised, because of what you’ve been through, that this is a struggle for you. It’s not unusual that, when abusive relationships also meet some of our needs or include some elements of things that feel good, we get confused about what is healthy and what is not healthy. I’m so glad you’re aware that this relationship in your teens was abusive and unhealthy and that you’re aware, now, that this pattern might be continuing in some of your relationships now.

I want to be very clear that needing emotional support from others is not bad — certainly not from a partner. It’s part of being human and knowing we are not alone in life. That said, there are times when trying to get emotional support (because of how vital it is for us) can be unhealthy or create other problems for us. This is about healthy boundaries and learning which people are safe to rely on, what healthy boundaries look like and how to set those boundaries. At the same time, we also need to learn how to self-sooth (or support ourselves emotionally), so that if we need support we can hold out until someone who is safe can make that space for us.

I’m glad you mentioned the difficulties you have connecting emotionally with women — that might actually be a big part of your struggle. If it’s hard to connect with women, you’ve had lots of practice connecting emotionally with men, it makes sense to me that you’d do the thing that feels the least uncomfortable. It might be a good idea for you to do some therapy around your relationships with women, particularly with a female therapist — to help you break the pattern and lay down a new mold of connecting with another woman in a safe and constructive way. Maybe it’s uncomfortable to connect emotionally with other women, but there might be some women in your life who have shown you that they are safe for you and are willing to be authentic with you. These might be friendships to work on building and, if it feels right, you could even disclose how much you want to be able to be emotionally closer to other women, but that it’s hard for you.

It’s worth noting that as women in a patriarchal culture, we’re raised to see men as more valuable than us. We often want to seek approval and affirmation from men in order to validate our insecurities, including emotionally and with regard to our physical appearance. It wouldn’t surprise me if going to men for support was at first more validating than going to women, because having men be gentle and affirming feels more special in some way. While that could be part of it, like I explained above, having an abusive and very intimate relationship with that man might have made the relationship  feel safe and close, when it actually wasn’t.

I believe that joining together as women – emotionally, politically, in any way really —  is a political act of resistance. I would encourage you to build more relationships with women. In situations where you need support, notice your tendency to go to men and choose instead to reach out to those women who you’ve built trust with in. Remind yourself while doing this that changing old patterns is uncomfortable and takes time, but can be very freeing.

Thanks for taking the risk to trust me, and for starting to change this pattern in your life by asking this question.

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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  • rosearan

    The first case interests me because I also struggle with creative expression.

    I’m a gifted painter – no conceit; I’m good. Taking that much-needed time out to work at my art has been a monumental uphill struggle for as long as I can remember. When I was married, giving my husband the time to fulfill his career ambitions took priority. Then as a mother, my children’s needs came first – even though my husband made no compromises as a father with HIS career ambitions. Now, as a result of my husband’s bankruptcy, I’m a poverty-stricken divorcee. Struggling to pay my bills is now my first priority.

    I walk around my house at night screaming at the unfinished paintings on my easels, and all the paintings I haven’t started, because I have neither the time nor emotional energy to work on them.

    Oh, dear. What self-pitying tragic. Any advice would be appreciated.