Feminist Therapy: Dealing with clashes between our politics and our work, and setting boundaries with difficult relatives over the holidays

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 grew up obsessed with magazines and toxic media and became a hairstylist right out of high school. I’ve worked at environmentally-conscious salons which are as non-toxic as possible, focusing on natural products and service. But after implementing feminist therapy in all other areas of my life, I am having such a hard time going to work and participating in an industry that is making money off women’s insecurities, contributing to the proliferation of impossible beauty standards. I just want to shake every woman and tell her she is perfect the way she is. I love the connection with my clients, but I don’t know if it’s time for me to look for something completely different. How can I reconcile my job with my politics?

– K

Dear K,

I’m sure some days are easier than others, but I can only imagine how hard it must be for you experience so much internal conflict about something you do every day. I’m so impressed by your effort thus far to be as responsible as possible concerning how literally toxic your line of work can be. I feel you are a bit of a  kindred spirit — hairdressers are often our community therapists!

Let’s take a theoretical detour for a moment to talk about why we work. As for some of the major theories on work (besides it being something that we do to make money and survive), there are two major ideas about why we work: hedonic and eudiamonic. In hedonic views of work, we do things that make us happy, meaning that success is defined on the basis of whether or not it feels good. With eudiamonic views of work, it’s about what matters most, what we consider to be most “right,” or what allows us to be most fully functioning as a human. Some people find a way to experience both kinds of work, but that’s not the case for everyone.

For the last five years I have been a part of a particular community within which I had a lot in common with other people, but still disagreed on a few specific things. I decided to fully participate in that community because I figured  nothing would change if every time people disagreed, they left the group. I actually found it really rich and challenging to be with people regularly who I disagreed with, but who I was getting to know as real, breathing, hurting, and lovable humans, not just as “opponents.”

This felt meaningful for a while, but recently I realized it was hard to spend so much time with people who I couldn’t really relax with. I decided that I didn’t want to have to feel so “on” during times of rest and play. So for the next little while I’m choosing to disengage from that community. I think it’s ok to decide that a thing is hard but important, and then decide after a while that it’s not important or necessary for you to participate in anymore. Maybe later you will feel you have the energy to go back to that activity or community again, even if you don’t wholly agree on everything — maybe not.  It takes a lot of energy to be a part of something (a group, a profession, a family…) that we don’t fully agree with.

I don’t think that there is anything wrong with getting a haircut or style to express ourselves or that makes us feel good. And, given how vulnerable and intimate the haircutting experience is for lots of people, I wonder if there is a way to communicate your message to your clients through words, touch, or body language? Maybe there is a way for you to convey that, even though they are getting a haircut or style to make them feel better, that doesn’t make them any more valuable, lovable, or beautiful than they were before the cut.

Think about the ways you will need to care for yourself — and be cared for — if you decide to say in the industry. Hair stylists are in a special position, as many women will listen to and take in their advice — that connection that you talk about having with your clients is so vital to helping women learn that they are valuable as they are! I wonder if you could take a stance on certain issues with clients, or sneak in little one-liners that make them think about themselves differently? Like: “Have you ever thought about growing your roots out and going full grey? I always liked grey on women, but it seems our culture doesn’t value aging women, so we’re always trying to stay young-looking instead of loving ourselves as we are.”

I don’t think that staying in your job means you are a hypocrite and I don’t think you necessarily have to leave in order to have a rich and meaningful life. While you’re trying to decide what to do, try thinking of yourself as an undercover patriarchy-crusher whose cover job is a hair stylist, and spend some time thinking about the things that you really want for yourself and your life, at least for the next little while.


Dear Feminist Therapist,

After reading this column, the things people are writing in about, and your responses, I’ve started to think a lot more about how the things I experience in life affect me. Not surprisingly, I’ve realized that the holidays suck for me because they remind me that I’m more alone than I want to be, and that the people I do have to spend time with see the world very differently than I do. There are several relatives who don’t seem to respect that I don’t want to talk about (read: agree with them about) several subjects, make insensitive jokes about women because they know I am a feminist, or are just outright rude. I’m wondering if you have any tips on getting through a difficult season or perhaps things I can try all year long? Thank you!

– J

Dear J,

What a great question — I’m sure you speak for so many readers. Family and friends, even if we do love them, aren’t always easy to be around. I’ll start with a really important concept: you can love your family, believe they are trying to love you the best they can, and disagree with them or not even necessarily like spending time with them. You can feel all of those things at once — you don’t have to pick one. The holidays can make it difficult to feel like we have a right to set boundaries with family. We often forget that in a season that is “supposed” to be about giving, thinking of others, and family, that our mental health also matters. Here are five things that you can do to get through difficult family situations during holidays, or throughout the year:

1) Increase time for rest, recovery, or self-care. During the seasons when we’re busiest, we often feel like we have the least time for these things, but it’s when we need it most. When something hard or busy is happening, make time to do something that feels restorative and, if you can, actually put it in your schedule. This can include solitary activities or time with people who make you laugh or feel valuable and heard.

2) Reconsider commitments. There might be some things that you feel you have to do because of traditions or pressure, but that you might not actually have to do. If going to an event and being stuck alone with a disrespectful family member feels intolerable, bring a friend or secure an ally who can help you exit an uncomfortable situation that feels intolerable. You could also always leave early, come late, or decline the invitation all together.

3) Bookend the difficult event with some stillness — add some in the middle too. If you’re feeling anxious about an event, instead of running straight from work to a party, plan a few minutes beforehand to take a few deep breathes, wiggle your toes, and rub your shoulders. After the event, instead of jumping back into the chaos of life, take a few moments to do the same thing: attend to your body and how you feel given what you’ve just been through. It’s always a good idea to sneak away for a moment at stressful events, even just to sit on the bathroom floor or step outside to take an imaginary phone call — check in with yourself, slow down, and breathe.

4) Tell yourself the truth. Before, during, and after events with people who challenge us or make us feel crazy or invisible, it can be a good idea to tell ourselves the truth about who we are and what matters to/about us. Try saying things to yourself like: “I can’t please everyone.” “Their disagreement with my ideas doesn’t make me less valuable.” “They’re not listening to me because of what’s going on for them — it has nothing to do with me, personally.” “I can’t change a person’s lifelong held political beliefs in this one family dinner, but I can notice and attend to how I am feeling.” Or “It’s ok to say that I’m feeling uncomfortable and would like to talk about something else.” Maybe there is a song, podcast, or poem that reminds you of these things, and you can saturate yourself in it before/after events with difficult people.

5) You can say “no.” We don’t have to say “yes” to everything. It’s helpful to know that when we set boundaries, it isn’t always popular, so you can expect some push-back, especially if you’re trying to do something different than what your friends or family may have expected from you in the past. Do your best to not add to the conflict by stating boundaries in a calm and respectful way that honours the dignity of the other person while maintaining your position. Imagine saying something like, “I really appreciate your invitation to have me over, but it’s not going to work for me this time” in a calm and respectful tone. One strategy that can be very useful, if the other person is keeping the dialogue respectful, is to suggest an alternative: “This time won’t work for me, but how about in two weeks we plan to get together for coffee — Wednesday and Thursday are best for me, if either work for you?” Or “I can’t come for the whole day, but I can stay for an hour if I come at 5 p.m.” If the person is upset, calmly take the “broken record” approach, stating your position again in a calm manner: “I know that this wasn’t what you were hoping for, and I’m sure it would have been fun, but I’m not able to attend this year.” If the person continues to push back or gets agitated after you’ve restated your boundaries several times, you can say: “It seems like this conversation isn’t productive right now so I’m going to leave, and if you would like to talk about it more at another time, when we can both hear each other, please let me know. For now, I’m going to stand by my ‘no’  and again remind you how much I appreciate your invitation.”

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.