Feminist Therapy: Trump got you down? You aren’t alone

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 was shocked and horrified when the video of Trump talking about flagrant sexual assault came out, and by the apparent non-effect this had on his political campaign. I’m shocked both because of what that says about people’s values in America, and because he was saying things in the video that a man used to say to me either before or after he would sexually assault me. I said this to someone in my family, and they told me that I was overreacting. Am I? I am writing because I am wondering how many other women out there feel this way and how many of us have been told to “stop overreacting?”

– J

Dear J,

Before I answer, thank you so much for writing in with this question. I believe that sharing our stories with one another is a political act of resistance to patriarchal gender scripts that silence and oppress women, including how we share our stories and reach out to each other. It is also a psychosocial act: we can experience healing and health when we know that we are a part of a community that shares our experience. When something is hard, it’s better to not go through it alone — by asking your question I am certain that you have made someone feel less alone.

It is sad to say, but because of a lack of understanding about how sexual trauma is experienced, in particular the neurobiological substrates of post-trauma reactions, many people think of normal trauma reactions as “overreactions.” The people who experience these trauma-based reactions themselves know that they are not overreacting, but without the clinical and academic training in the neuropsychobiology of traumatic stress, they aren’t able to clearly articulate why their response is, in fact, very normal.

Clients of mine who have been through trauma tell me all the time that members of their family or social group regularly tell them to “get over” their reactions when they are having a flashback. So, to reiterate, you are not alone.

Because of how our brain stores trauma, events that are related to that trauma can trigger any number of appropriate and necessary survival response mechanisms which are automatic and nonconscious. For example, without your conscious awareness, a part of your brain can register the smell of alcohol on the breath of a person near you if it is the same smell that was on the breath of the person who assaulted you, and create a series of intense physiological and psychological reactions. You may push the person away if they are too close, scream, run, become unconscious, get very angry, start to panic, or experience any number of other possible reactions.

What is often scary for people who are experiencing these reactions is that they may have no idea what triggered them, leading to more social ostracization, shame, and anxiety. The reason for this is that, during a traumatic event, our brain stores all the sensory and environmental information about the trauma in such a way that if some of the stimuli from the traumatic event reoccurs, our brains respond as if the trauma is happening again.

Thinking about this in a different way might be helpful: Imagine walking in the forest, seeing the light stream through the trees and then hearing a slight rustling in the bushes about 50 meters away. A big black bear emerges and charges towards you. Because of how very primitive parts of our brains are wired, safety (both relationally and physically) is of utmost concern. When an experience feels that scary and threatening, our brains store all of the details of the event in such a way that the next time those details are “triggered” by our surroundings — or even by sensations in our body — we unconsciously react like we’re back in the scary situation in order to get ourselves ready, just in case this time is anything like that time. This means that next time you’re walking somewhere and that same specific kind of light is streaming through the trees and you hear some rustling in the bushes, your primitive, safety-driven brain says, “No way, I’m not going to let that happen again without seeing it coming,” and will get you ready, physiologically, to keep yourself safe.

As an aside, while many of us may not have experienced a single highly traumatic event such as a violent rape, there is a certain amount of low-grade trauma related to being a woman who is constantly objectified, devalued, and sexually harassed on a daily basis. For those of us who experience this as oppressive (although this is experienced by all women, some are not yet emotionally and socially conscious of this oppression, or are themselves complicit in it), our outrage or sense of feeling “triggered” at the election and inauguration of a misogynistic president is in no way an overreaction. Rather, it is a healthy response to a deplorable event in human history that serves to make us feel more threatened, oppressed, and unsafe than before.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I cried the night of the election, and again the morning of the inauguration. I was unable to stop. I have two daughters — one is old enough to grasp that something big happened, and she cried too. The other one is young enough that she feels what has happened, but cannot understand. What do I tell them?

– S

Dear S,

Thank you for writing me with this question. I feel your fear and, like so many other mothers who have asked me this question, I hear your desire to protect your daughters, to tell them the truth, and find the balance in between. Here are a few ideas to guide your conversations with them:

1) Remember to provide information to your children that is age appropriate. You might be able to use vocabulary with your older daughter that your younger daughter may not understand. No matter your child’s age, it’s important that you remind them that you love them and that no one person (or political party, etc.) has the ability to give them value or take their value away. You can start telling and showing your daughters, no matter their age, that they have dignity and value which is worth protecting, and no man, woman, or regime, has the power to change that. That value may not be recognized by everyone, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

2) If you have younger kids, it is not a bad idea to start discussing things like privilege, colonization, capitalism, and oppression. A friend told me recently that she has started talking to her four-year-old son about these issues by saying things like, “Can you imagine if someone said your sister was more stupid than you just she is a girl?” Or, “A long time ago, people lived in those forests, then other people came along and took away all their stuff, just because they thought they were better people.” Understandably these conversations need to be handled sensitively, and in such a way that they can support a child’s learning about social injustice without creating so much emotional distress that they are unable to cognitively process the information. So expect to have lots of these conversations in little bits, and look for teachable moments, like when your child notices something unfair happen on the playground. You don’t have to have these conversations all at once.

3) For older kids and teens, having conversations about historically significant events like the residential schools, the various genocides in the ’90s, and civil rights movements can be an important entry point. Perhaps some of these issues and events have been discussed in your kids’ schools already. If not, it might be time to take on the responsibility of social justice education in your family by watching (age appropriate) documentaries, reading books, or fostering conversation about significant political and historical events at dinner time. While doing so, find ways to highlight significant women and movements (like the feminist movement) that sought (and continue to seek) justice, reminding your daughter that women are an essential component of history, and have been creating social change in various ways for centuries. Remind your daughters that in times of distress we can mobilize towards action: Find groups to volunteer for; have her and her friends do a bottle drive in your community or her school for the local rape crisis shelter; call your local government representative; take her to protests, lectures, and political rallies. In addition to providing her with opportunities to participate in these activities and doing them with her, showing her that these actions are important family values is meaningful. What many of our parents used to say —  “Do as I say, not as a I do” — is actually empirically ineffective. Instead, let’s model for the next generation by doing what we want them to do, and using words to lace together our actions in a way that is consistent.

If this election and inauguration is emotionally overwhelming for you, you are not alone. It might be a great time to access support through your community, or through a therapist who can help you process what you are going through. Communicating your emotions is important and grieving with your children can be a beautiful way to help them feel less alone in their distress. It is also important that you help your children understand how to experience and resolve intense emotions in a healthy way — they can learn by watching you how to handle distress.

Thank you for writing in! I’m so glad that you and your family are joining together over such important social issues.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I feel like I’ve become addicted to social media through the last half of 2016, and now with the inauguration. On one hand it feels good to be informed and to read articles and commentary that connect me to a community of like-minded people. On the other hand, it feels like it’s taking over my life. I’m heading down internet rabbit holes of horrific news stories for hours on end, and it seems like it’s taking a toll on my mental health. What should I do?

– M

Dear M,

I totally get it (and the irony of the question in this context — we are publishing this online, after all). It’s very difficult because the thing that is a bridge to our community — and in some ways our identity — feels like it is in conflict with other parts of our wellbeing. I think that it might show up differently for different people, but our use of technology to access information has a big influence on several components of our lives. Especially with all of the big events recently, it might be a good idea to limit your media consumption to a certain period and/or amount of time during the day when you feel best equipped to handle what you might encounter. Try not checking your phone or news sites first thing when you wake up or right before you go to bed. That way you’re a little more in control of your ability to start and end your day well.

Some people I have talked to about this have had some success with placing a time limit on their news or social media use. Set an alarm for a certain amount of time, and when the alarm goes off, get in the practice of shutting it off — the article/post/video will still be there tomorrow. Or, you could try having more control over which sites you check, who you receive alerts from, and what content you follow. Being more proactive to determine which kinds of articles and what media you interact with can be an important part of helping you feel empowered and keeping you well. (I recently saw someone post something about a “Trump Filter” that you can use on your social media sites, for example, to avoid reading news about Donald Trump.) Putting boundaries on things that feel like they “suck you in” is never a bad idea. Consider redirecting your media use towards things that feel like they improve your psychosocial health for now.

What we interact with has a big effect on our mood, what kinds of information we remember, and how we feel about ourselves. So while things are feeling overwhelming, it might be a good idea to stick to posts/articles/videos that are inspiring, for example — look at photos from the Women’s Marches that took place across the world on January 21st instead of reading an article about “alternative facts” that makes you boil with rage or despair.

If everything feels too hard, a “detox” could help. Make sure that you’re getting regular exercise (it helps us feel better and think more clearly), spending time face-to-face with friends and loved ones, and reading books that feel stimulating, inspiring, informative, and healthy.

I so appreciate your self-awareness and honesty.

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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  • I’m coping with the Trumpocalypse by reading up on permaculture. I thought it was about chickens in urban spaces, but it turns out it’s about healing the Earth, and it’s so effective it can desalinate desert soils. It’s also way more productive than industrial agriculture, and more labour intensive without being a grind. So sustainable jobs, too!

    Like, it could save the world.

    I’ve always gone for positives to focus on when I’ve been overwhelmed.

    • Wren

      Lol, I’m also into small scale (like my yard) agriculture. Nature has been a huge sustaining and healing force for me. And I want chickens SO BAD.

      • Yisheng Qingwa

        I love chickens!!! I eat egss, so… lol no really, chickens are my avian sisters toooo 😀

    • FierceMild

      Me too!!!

  • will

    “while many of us may not have experienced a single highly traumatic event such as a violent rape, there is a certain amount of low-grade trauma related to being a woman who is constantly objectified, devalued, and sexually harassed on a daily basis.”

    I am so glad you wrote this. In my own process of understanding my post-rape self and that in the context of a physically and emotionally abusive childhood, I have often had a hard time differentiating between experiences brought into my life thought media culture, community and institutions and those experiences of direct, personalized abuse. It’s like a wide bed of boiling poison over which lies a thin barrier that we are all standing on. The rapes, the beatings, the personalized insults and attacks are little ruptures in the membrane, but there’s the general osmosis as well, so the very air we are breathing in this environment is toxic.

    • Rachel

      I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I understand what you mean about the general environment being toxic also – it’s so hard to work through any sexual trauma, when our society is filled with constant “lower grade” sexual trauma everywhere. It’s like there’s no place To go to be safe from it – like you said the air we are breathing is toxic. I find so many things triggering to me, just because the environment is so unhealthy.

  • Wren

    I’ve been told I overreact to everything (and this definitely got worse with Trump’s rise), or that I’ve developed my moral convictions based on “personal” experiences and not on the truth, that I’m a moralizer, blah blah blah.

    People who were my friends who have said such things to me have been shut out of my life, and I’ve never felt better. I no longer need to be nice to anyone who wants to make me small. I swear, this has been one of the most beneficial decisions I have ever made.

  • Cassandra

    This is a great topic and great answers. I think many of us are dealing with low-grade depression about this situation, especially in the US. It’s in my face all the time because he’s a New Yorker and his name is emblazoned on every other building. The only people here who don’t hate him are rich white men and rich white women. But not all of them like him either. (#notallrichwhitepeople!)

    We need Trump filters for more than our tv’s and computers. It really is a “deplorable event in human history.”

    One can only hope that more people will wake up and get out and vote in the next congressional election. We have a small chance to thwart him/big money from that angle.

  • Meghan Murphy

    My parents recently moved to island and my dad will be getting chickens. I am a HUGE animal lover, but have never been super stoked on chickens… This thread is making me feel more excited about the chickens! (And yes, in Vancouver you are now allowed to have chickens in your backyard. Some of my friends have some. Pretty cool!)

  • Meghan Murphy

    Yeah, if you don’t have roosters, I really fail to see why a couple of chickens would bother anyone…

    • FierceMild

      Right? You can’t have chickens but the neighbor can have a pack of nocturnal beagles and that’s fine.

  • Wren

    I relate to a lot of what you say about trauma.
    And you know there are women hunters? I have a book Call of the Mild which is pretty good. Anyway, there are better women hunter role models than Sarah Palin, just saying.

  • Wren

    I relate. I didn’t mention in my previous post that I also cut ties with all my family. It was necessary and good to do so with my parents as they are monsters, but I also had to do so with my brothers because they haven’t broke away from the family and are super abusive. Broke my heart because I love them and we all survived so much.

    And I finally cut relationships with friends and counselors (yes, this happened more than once. Hard to believe but true) who were supportive of the sex industry in roundabout ways. They just didn’t get it and I tried to pretend I didn’t care, but of course I do. I spent years blaming myself for being prostituted and once I let myself off the hook, I had to them go. I refuse to let anyone ever tell me how to think again.

    Sometimes I wonder how I manage to get up everyday. If it wasn’t for my dogs, I probably wouldn’t. Like so many other women who write on FC, there must be something deep inside of us, something we were gifted with, that manages to keep us alive. I honestly can’t take any credit for it. Sometimes I’m grateful and sometimes I wish I didn’t have it so I could sleep forever. I’m so tired. And, yes, the Trump disaster is magnifying everything. I have to find better ways to cope or I’m going to drown.

  • Wren

    Oh, you are not alone!! I will definitely check out Gilligan’s book. I need all the help I can get 🙂

  • Wren

    Yes, many towns in my state have also, with restrictions against roosters for noise reasons. My town has made several legislative attempts but it hasn’t happened. YET!

  • Wren

    I’m probably gonna do it this spring. I have enough room to keep them away from the neighbors fences and I don’t think they’ll complain cause they’re hippies.

    So I’ll have renegade chickens! Together we will fight the power. HA!!

  • FierceMild

    TV is horribly assaulting. I won’t have it in my house or around my daughter. The shows are almost universally woman-hating (even the bloody cartoons) and the ads seem like little more than thinly veiled misogynistic propaganda.

  • FierceMild

    I spoke to Joel about how to have chickens where they aren’t legal and there are companies from whom you can “rent” chickens. If the neighbors complain they’ll come pick them up.

  • FierceMild

    There is such a thing as a camouflage chicken coop for people in exactly your position. Also, change.org has a petition going to legalize chickens in my area, there may be one for your area as well. I find permaculture and small scale agriculture are good places to find strong-minded women.

    https://www.mypetchicken.com/catalog/products/ProductDetails.aspx?pid=493&

  • HillaryLMcBride

    I’m so fiercely proud of the comments and conversation going on below – I admire the risks you are taking in sharing, and how you are responding with kindness and compassion to each other. Such a powerful thing to witness!

  • Wren

    “It’s a tiredness I don’t think men experience. A tiredness just because
    we battle in our daily lives to walk this tightrope between getting by
    without arguing with almost every bloody person we have to interact with
    and being true to ourselves.”

    Yes. Exactly. It is exhausting and yet people think I’m outspoken, but they don’t know how much I actually refrain from saying. As i get older, it gets harder and harder to keep the peace. What’s the point?

  • Wren

    It’s not perfect but I fantasize about Sweden.Except for the cold.

  • Wren

    AMEN.
    I used to spend money on therapy that depoliticized all of my experiences and felt pointless (some of it was good, it was just limited) –
    Now I send my therapy money to Meghan.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Ha 🙂

  • calabasa

    How can we all get together and meet each other?

    I empathize with all of you. I, too, feel tired. I spent last year in a haze of trauma, and now I need to “get myself together” under Kafkaesque conditions. I have the unstable life of adjunct faculty at a community college and live with a surgically unchanged “non-binary trans woman” who has hung a poster of Michele Foucault on my bathroom door, glowering ominously and perving on me as I poop. My roommate cannot pay the rent, so I am helping with filing in small claims court against the landlord for forcing us to pay two units’ worth of electricity in order to forestall the eviction process. I need to think about my future–should I go back to school, go into editing, get survival work and work on my writing?–and yet it all feels rather pointless, with Trump and the Deplorables in office. I avail myself of free services for VAWA (at a rape crisis center) and who knows how that will be affected. I plan to work up a therapeutic plan with my counselor about how to process years of trauma and change my self-conception in order to have, first and foremost, a healthy relationship with myself, which seems the most I can do in a world that is totally fucked up and in which it is hard to have healthy relationships with others (particularly men) without compromising some vital part of my belief system.

    I sympathize with my roommate, but cannot talk to him about why I still think he’s a him, even though he’s gone to some lengths to change his gender on his birth certificate, because I don’t believe he can decide last year that he’s a woman and that somehow he can then appropriate the identity that was forced onto me; I don’t think he can begin to understand how male violence has shaped my life and the life of other women, and furthermore it seems he associates womanhood with submission, exhibitionism, being “pretty,” and taking the submissive role as a woman (as well as being pro sex work and pro-pornography). I don’t want to condemn him or all people supportive of queer theory, or all libfems, or all men, or all of anyone, but it feels tiring (I cannot talk about my take on any of this without threatening the core of his newfound identity and being accused of being a bigot; never mind whether I think it’s bigoted that he calls me “cis” or makes comments about how “cis people suck” with a quick “sorry”).

    I also get the distinct impression he thinks I am “sex negative” because he’s “polyamorous” and I don’t want a bunch of different women in and out of the tiny house we share (and yes, after being abused and raped last year I am not feeling particularly sex positive at the moment, no). My parents’ older liberal friends say things like “but there will always be prostitution” when I bring up leftist support of it, and it makes me want to throw something at their heads (“but there will always be slavery,” “but there will always be patriarchy,” “but, you know, this project of being a leftist is not really REAL, you know; we don’t give a shit about dismantling a system that threatens others’ rights, only about protecting our own”). A woman who has never had to face the specter of the terrible “choices” of poverty and who feels that prostitution doesn’t affect her life, or other women’s lives, is in denial or an absolute fool, in my opinion; she is also cruelly dispassionate toward those “other women” who have to work in prostitution to serve “men’s needs” and do the scut work for the rest of us.

    As someone neither liberal nor conservative, who feels both are as bad as each other only the former is more hypocritical about it, it feels impossible to talk to ANYONE about my beliefs. Even smart people have knee-jerk thinking, likely because a)they don’t want to threaten their own lifestyles (whether heterosexual or “queer”) that seem to be working for them and b)because they have not experienced the kind of abuse that I and other women on FC have experienced which has caused us to do a great deal of thinking (either that, or they have buried and/or internalized it and called that “empowering” because it’s just so hard to live with the reality that they have been victimized in a world that largely doesn’t care).

    Yes, it feels alienating, lonely, and exhausting. So, ladies, how can all the women who comment on FC meet up? Can we organize a meeting of radical feminists and all agree to be there or be square? Meghan Murphy and the writers of FC, what do you think? I would so save the money and travel to be there. It is a recurring fantasy of mine that somehow all of us could meet up in real life, because sometimes I feel so lonely, as a radical feminist, in my belief systems.