Feminist Therapy: Moving forward from and processing abuse (even when the abuse is not our own)

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,

Even after escaping an abusive relationship, I continue to encounter them over and over again. The abusive relationship I left prompted me to examine the abusive nature of past relationships; the most significant of which was with my mom. I continue to struggle with guilt and shame around the trajectory of my life, asking myself, “What am I doing wrong? Is there something about me that makes people want to hurt me? How is it that I continue to find these people again and again?” I know I haven’t done anything to deserve this treatment, I can’t help but believe there’s something about me that makes me an easy target. What changes do I need to make to break the cycle of abuse in my life?

– F

Dear F,

Deciding to examine your own role in the relationship patterns in your life is very scary and brave. Because relationships with others are so central in shaping who we believe ourselves to be, when those relationships are abusive and follow similar patterns, it’s normal to wonder if we play a part. I’m glad that you are making a distinction between what you deserve, and what you can change. No one ever, ever deserves abuse. Choosing to move forward, and work towards a healthy life, healthy relationships, and healthy sense of self, though, is something you do have some control over.

What can often make abusive relationships so psychologically damaging — and can make these psychological wounds last longer than the actual abuse — is that the abuser convinces you that you are deserving of the abuse. Because of this, especially when the abuse happened early in life, occurred over a long period of time, was perpetrated by a person who is close to you, or by a person who is in a position of authority over you, it can destroy your self-worth and even normalize the abusive behavior. Later, when you meet a person whom others might consider abusive, the “red flags” that can go off in their heads or guts may not go off for you because abusive relational dynamics feel normal to you. Other people might recognize that they are in an abusive relationship, but may feel they deserve the abuse. Some people freeze or lose their words when things feel unsafe. There are also people in the world who draw in or are attracted to people they can abuse — some of them are very charismatic and may seem like a dream come true — even people who have no history of abuse can be drawn to them at first.

Often, people who come from abusive homes have a heightened awareness around situations that are unsafe — they have incredible “gut” feelings about people, having learned to trust their implicit reactions like a compass leading them away from recreating their former pain. For other people, their “gut” feelings, voice, and sense of worth has figuratively or literally been beaten so far down that it seems like it is gone. If that’s the case for you, it is not because you did something wrong or weren’t resilient enough. But if you’re safe now, it might be a good time to start working with a therapist who can help you process your relationship with your mom and help you see pivotal components within relationship patterns that you could learn to identify and then change.

When working with clients who have similar questions/experiences to yours, I try to help them learn to find their agency, “gut” compass, and confidence again. This can include doing trauma therapy, building assertiveness skills, and practicing identifying abusive behaviors using their body-based ways of knowing, so that they are empowered to trust themselves and react appropriately in the future. I’d recommend finding a therapist you feel safe with, who will help you learn from the past to change the future, without leaving you feel guilty or blamed. In the mean-time, you might like the following books:

Childhood Disrupted Donna Jackson Nakazawa

When Love Hurts Jill Corey and Karen Mcandless-Davis

In an Unspoken Voice Peter Levine


Dear Feminist Therapist,

I am old and have decided there are things in my life that need to be dealt with. I was a single parent in the 70s, when my daughter was four years old, she was sexually abused by a teenage girl from our building who used to babysit her. When my daughter told me what happened, I refused to ever leave her with anyone else ever again. A few years ago I was speaking with my now adult daughter, and eased into the subject to ask if she remember. I said, “You said she touched you and you didn’t want to be with her anymore. I never left you with her again.” She was astounded and genuinely did not recall. I am worried she may remember this sometime after I have died. Would she be dismissed as having false memory? She has mental health issues, and I’m worried she will have a breakdown one day. She won’t talk about these things with me. I was raped by a family member when I was young. I think so many of us have been sexually abused as children. I think there might be other readers that say “me too” to many parts of this story.

– R

Dear R,

I’m so sorry to hear that this has all happened both to you and your daughter. I can only imagine how scary that was for you both. I can tell that you’re worried about her and still want to protect her.

You’re right to say that so many of us as women have been sexually abused at some point in our life. It should not happen to anyone at all and it is horrific how often it does occur. We know more about sexual abuse than ever before, especially how to support people who have traumatic memories of their sexual abuse. There is a lot that can be done in therapy to help, even if the person doesn’t ever remember the sexual assault or know it occurred in the first place.

Although she might not want to talk about these issues with you, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t talking about them with someone. It may be that it feels too intimate or vulnerable for her to discuss with you. After you brought it up, it’s possible that she might feel able to open up and process how she experienced hearing that information from you. Although you care deeply for her and likely don’t want to be shut out of this part of her life, putting up boundaries with you around this issue may be her way of taking care of herself. And although this might not be what you want, the best way you can love your daughter right now might be in creating open and non-judgmental space for her in your relationship so that if she does ever decide there is something she wants to talk about, she can make that choice.

It may be time to release yourself from your guilt around what happened to her, if you still carry it, and restore your daughter’s autonomy. As an adult (as discussed in the previous question), it’s her job now to take responsibility for her own story, her own pain, and her own healing. To help her in this, you can love her unconditionally and model what it means to take responsibility for your own life.

The other part of your story I hear is one of existential fear. It’s normal, as we age, to start thinking about death and about leaving the people we love — it’s normal to feel afraid about what will happen to loved ones after we are gone. I can imagine how hard it would be, as a mother, to know that your daughter is struggling, and to feel afraid that, when you’re no longer alive, her suffering could increase but that there won’t be anyone there to protect her.

You might think about some of the fears you have about death. What are some of the fears that you have about this time in your life? What are ways that you could use those fears to allow you to live more fully now? While you may feel that your most important role is to protect your daughter, maybe she needs something else from you. Maybe you could ask her what she needs from you and what she feels is the most meaningful way you can support her growth and health as well as your bond with her.

Often when we are afraid, we forget to ask questions. Asking your daughter questions about what she needs could be your greatest gift to her.

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.