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?”
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?
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.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.)