Feminist Therapy: How to talk (or not talk) about trauma and how to find validation outside male approval

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,

After I was sexually assaulted, acquaintances talked about it on social media, at parties, and shows. People cracked jokes about the assault when I spoke out about it on my private blog. Then, my “friend” told people my story, without my consent or any consideration for how it would affect me. I even got a call from the lawyer of the person who assaulted me, threatening me and bullying me into recanting my story. Since then I haven’t been able to attend shows or parties. When I do go out people say, “Where have you been?” “You’re not on Facebook!” I need some advice on going out in public spaces and dealing with my anxiety after the experience I had.

– C

Dear C,

Thank you so much for reaching out. It sounds like, in reaching out in the past, in order to process your experience and not feel alone, you’ve been hurt even more.

I have found that the general public does not understand trauma, how it works, how it changes your life, and how they are participating in the trauma itself by responding so inappropriately. It is a delicate balance when working to recover from a trauma, because sometimes things have more power over us when we keep them secret, other times it’s going to hurt us more when we share, especially if we get an ignorant and/or disrespectful response. Because of this, whenever I work with someone who has been through a trauma, we talk specifically about how to deal with OTHER people when it comes to that trauma. We will make decisions about who needs to know what in order for the person to stay healthy (and doesn’t feel alone in their experience), what are the best avenues to do so, and who does not need to know. We also discuss how respond to people in a way that is respectful, but fairly ambiguous, and in a way that doesn’t reveal too much, as a way of protecting the person from sharing the truth in a way that leaves them vulnerable.

Talking about the trauma is one of the healthiest things you can do, but it has to be with the right people: ideally that includes someone who’s trained to help you as well as listen to you. I’m glad you are going out again and doing things you like, but when people ask you where you’ve been, you are allowed to say simple things like, “I had some things to deal with” or “I just needed a break from that stuff for a while.” In those moments, with those people, you do not owe them an explanation, or an apology.

As for the “friend” who told your story, if you feel like that person is someone you’d like to continue to have a relationship with, you could consider sitting down and telling the person how you felt when your story was told for you. This would likely only be productive if the purpose was to help the person understand the effect of their actions, not shame them. People tend to get defensive if they feel shamed, and if you think it’s the right thing to do, you might be able to educate that person in a way that stops them from doing the same thing to someone else in the future. There is no guarantee this person will listen or not hurt you more, so it’s also ok to not say anything if you feel that there might be backlash from her and if you’re still in space where you need to protect yourself from that.

I think it’s a good idea to keep doing things that bring you pleasure, even if that means finding new and different things to do for a time, so you can do them without worrying about who you’ll run into. I sometimes advise people to bring a friend who knows what you’re going through to events — someone who can can step in and intervene if they see you’re uncomfortable and debrief with you afterwards. Avoiding certain things — particularly right after a trauma — can be a normal and healthy way to stop ourselves from feeling very intense levels of anxiety. However, over time, this avoidance can keep us stuck, letting the trauma control our lives, reminding us how much it’s taken from us. So, doing the things you used to do, as long as they’re safe for you, can be a part of recovery.

When you’re doing things that create anxiety for you, it’s a good idea to intentionally create space before and after these events for self-care. You might find that some things calm you down, and you can leave time to do those things after stressful events to bring your brain/body system back into a state of rest and safety. For some people this might be exercise, journaling, calling a friend, yoga or stretching, reading, drinking tea, or watching your favorite show. Trauma recovery is a tension between keeping yourself connected to the good things in your life that remind you that you are more than what happened to you and also protecting yourself so you can heal, honouring the time and work that takes. Only you, maybe with the help of good people or a therapist, can decide what that looks like. Good luck!


Dear Feminist Therapist,

I’m 26-year-old heterosexual woman who has kissed two men and had (horrible) sex with only one man in my entire life. I feel invisible to men even though I’m thin. Now that I’m a feminist I realize why being invisible makes me feel so terrible. All I want is to be able to have relationships with men, casual and serious. This is killing me and making me feel terribly depressed. I keep asking myself, “What the hell is my problem? Am I ugly? Do I stink? Am I not interesting?” This tortures me. I have always been a very shy person when it comes to flirting, so I’ve tried being less shy but guys don’t show any interest in me. How can I get over this need to have a boyfriend?

– 26

Dear 26,

It sounds like what you’re going through is really confusing for you — like you’re trying to make sense of all the different things you’re feeling and wanting, while also knowing that those things aren’t always healthiest for you. I appreciate your honesty and your desire to find empowerment for yourself, regardless of whether or not men desire you.

I think what you’re experiencing is really human. I believe that, as people, we all generally want to know we are “enough as we are,” to be connected to others, and feel meaningful to those around us. It gets complicated because, in our patriarchal culture, we’ve been groomed as women to think that the only way to get the things we need is through our appearance or sexuality. This cycle is reinforced by the behavior of others when they praise us for our ability to conform to a narrowly-defined set of expectations, which, in the end, only leaves us further trapped in a cycle that objectifies and oppresses us.

It’s important for all of us, at some point, to examine whether we know how to provide that “enough” feeling for ourselves. This means learning how to know and believe we have worth and value, without depending on men to prove to us that this is true.

It’s great that you’re trying new things and taking social risks; and there is nothing wrong with sexual desire, but I think there might be more going on here. If men don’t respond to you in the way we’ve been socialized to expect, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is something wrong with you. And believing that it does could mean that there are some important issues for you to explore.

If you were my client I would probably want to ask you the following questions: What might you hope to feel if someone noticed you or showed an interested in you? What would being noticed in that way tell you about yourself? What would happen if you said the things you hope men will say to you, to yourself? What are the ways that you have relied on men, or others, to affirm or validate you in the past? How is that worldview and view of yourself shaped by hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal constructs of femininity? When are the times in your life that you knew you had worth and value, and weren’t relying on others — men in particular — to convey that to you? What did you know about yourself then that you might have forgotten now? What were you doing then that you might not be doing now?

When working on these kinds of issues with clients, I often ask them to write out a list of what they are hoping that being noticed by someone would communicate to them about themselves. This often includes some variation of the following: “You are interesting, I notice you and want to choose you, you are loved and lovable, you are likeable enough that someone would want to spend time with you, you are beautiful, you are special and different, you are worth noticing.” Next, we take the list that they’ve just made, and I ask them to say those things to themselves. Out loud.

It’s amazing how often people have really strong reactions to this, either feeling resistant or uncomfortable, or feeling incredibly sad as they realized that it doesn’t feel as meaningful coming from themselves as it would coming from someone else. But we can change what is meaningful, and can recalibrate where we get affirmation and value. I would recommend that you take some time to answer these questions, and be curious about what your reactions tell you about yourself. You might find that you have been looking to others — to men, specifically — to affirm your worth, which is not something they have the power to do. Rather, it’s something you need to learn how to do — and deserve to do — for yourself. I’ve found that while the connection need I described is important — even essential — it is never meant to substitute the “I am enough as I am” need.

I hope that, regardless of whether or not someone else shows an interest in you, you learn to show an interest in yourself. I hope that you take time to discover your own value and find freedom from the patriarchal fallacy that says that having a man notice you affirms you, and that you choose, instead, to affirm yourself.

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to [email protected] or [email protected] 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 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.