Feminist Therapy: Reconciling political disagreements and conflict with friends, as a radical feminist

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,

As I’ve become more outspoken about my politics, it’s created a lot of rifts and awkwardness amongst my real life friends. I’ve been posting articles and comments that challenge things like porn and prostitution, but also that question things like “gender identity”… I had hoped that my friends could simply disagree and have a respectful conversation, but instead, I’ve been unfriended, ostracized, or publicly chastised and attacked by people who I thought cared about and respected me. It really hurts. How can I cope with this? Should I just forget about the people who treat me this way? Or should I be the bigger person and try to reach out and have a conversation?

– A

Dear A,

I’m so sorry to hear that being who you are — who you want to be in this world  — has made it hard to be in relationships with those you care about. This makes me think about Carol Gilligan’s work — she researched the lived experience of women and the way we are socialized to sacrifice ourselves for our relationships, slowly cutting of parts of ourselves for the sake of feeling togetherness. I believe that we are more fulfilled and secure when we have a sense of belonging. But I also think that we can’t ever fully belong if we are being less of ourselves to make our relationships work.

To be clear, I don’t mean to say that we should just say whatever we want to those around us because that’s just “us being ourselves.” What I’m saying is that we are most fully satisfied and fulfilled when we can share space with those in our lives, disagree with them sometimes, and know that agreeing all the time doesn’t mean that we’re more connected or loved. It is incredibly powerful to disagree with someone, see an issue from different points, and still respect the other person’s story, humanity, longings, and strengths. That does take two people, though.

I believe that our worlds are more rich when we have people in our lives who think differently than us. I find it is easier to think that way, personally, the more secure I am in myself. When I’m feeling insecure, it gets more uncomfortable and anxiety provoking when people see things differently than me because I feel like their approval of my ideas equates to approval of me. So maybe it’s hard for those people to see things differently because it makes them feel insecure. And maybe it’s the same for you. Having security in our sense of worth and in our identity can make it easier to go into conflict or into situations which feel conflictual.

From a place of groundedness and security in yourself, it might be interesting to see what happens if you reach out again. Try to do that with transparency and vulnerability. (That would be how I would do it, in any case, but we are different people…) I might touch base, ask how they’re doing, and then mention that it seems like it’s been hard to connect lately, and ask if that’s because you two see a few things differently. Then I might ask for the person’s thoughts and remind them that I value them as a person and don’t see them as an object that needs to agree with me all the time. I would say that I appreciate dialogue and friendships that are rich, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.

If it feels hard to have this conversation it might be because you aren’t very close, and this would be a big leap into vulnerability. Or it could also feel challenging because it’s hard to say things like this in general. If they shut you down or disrespect you, it’s OK to share with them that this hurts. Believe that if you’ve made an effort and it’s not reciprocated, or if the relationship doesn’t feel safe, it’s OK to not have that person in your life. Maybe there will be a time in the future when it feels like something you’re willing to try again, but you don’t have to have these people in your life if you make respectful and authentic efforts to connect, but they reject or hurt you.

I imagine that lots of readers will appreciate you asking this question. This reminds me that you’re not alone and that the invitation for belonging and community may be here, through this avenue, waiting for you in the comment section, or at the next protest, or lecture series. We need each other.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I am about one year into my new life as a radical feminist. It took a pretty major crisis to get my head out of the sand, and since then feminism has become a major part of my life. I spend a lot of time reading about feminism — both opinions I agree with and ones I don’t. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be friends with my female friends who don’t do this work.

I have one friend in particular who is from the same rural area, who has the same education, and works in the same profession as me. But she married a man who spent months trying to convince her to change her last name and legitimately wanted her to quit her job to have babies and be a stay-at-home mom. While he is a “nice” guy (in the way that we call these assertive, overconfident, slightly controlling provider types “nice”), I now find their relationship kind of revolting. Anytime I visit them, I feel like I might as well not have bothered because it’s like there’s a frosted glass door between me and my friend.

I found myself withdrawing from this friend since my feminist transformation began, probably as some kind of self-protective mechanism. Now our friendship just feels weird. Anytime I share things I’m excited about with her, like articles, for example, she takes the devil’s advocate/choice feminism position. When I share my thoughts/reflections on something I’ve discovered for my own life (often after months of reflection and/or counseling), she disagrees with me out of hand (certainly not from a position of reflection). Part of the reason it bothers me so much is because she’s actually highly educated and so I feel like she should know better.

What’s the answer here? Just let this friendship drift away? Is there a way I can not be an asshole around her? Maybe I’m just being a jerk by sending her articles that challenge her life choices?

– K

Dear K,

You are not alone. I can imagine that what you’re going through is hard. Similar to the question above, it’s hard when we grow in a different direction than someone we love.

I don’t think you’re a jerk for wanting to share the things that are important to you with the people you love. We do that when we are excited and passionate about something. But I don’t think it is always fair for us to expect that other people will “get it” or agree. It is also possible that she might get it more than you think she does, but feels defensive and insecure about her life choices, so feels like she has to push the content away, argue back, and dismiss it, in order to protecting herself. The point is, you don’t know what’s going on for her and you won’t unless you both talk about it.

It could be really valuable to talk about your relationship at some point. For example, you could say:

“I love you and  miss you. I know I’ve changed a lot the last few years — we both have. I’ve become really enthusiastic about this new way of seeing myself and the world, and I’ve wanted to share that with you, but I wonder if at times my enthusiasm has been too much for you and makes it feel hard to connect. I really care about you and value you in my life, and I want to make sure that we can both share the things that we are going through together — the good stuff and the hard stuff.”

When we are trying to repair a relationship, it can help to approach the person with vulnerability and speak about something that feels raw for us, instead of coming at them with anger, defensiveness, and judgment. Try to be curious. Ask her what it’s been like for her watching you change and see things differently. And remember that connection and safety are always the best ways for us to risk venturing into something different and new — including new perspectives and ideas. Sometimes we don’t do the work because it feels too scary to change, or because it would mean giving up the certainty of affirmation or affection we have secured. Even though it’s your friend’s choice to change if and when she is ready, it’s going to be easier if she has your soft, kind, open arms to fall into.

That being said, I think you can be kind and still be you. Just check in with her about how she feels when you send her things and tell her what’s going on with you when you send them (i.e. “I share things with you because reflects the learning that’s going on in my life and I feel like if I show you these articles it might help you understand me and how I see the world”). You can’t create connection on your own, and if you make an effort (sincerely and genuinely) and that feels too much for her, then I think it’s OK to walk away or give the friendship some time.

Good luck.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

How do I reconcile my feminist beliefs with my love of hip hop and R&B? (The sexist, degrading kind…)

-S

Dear S,

What a big question. Thank you so much for asking it because I think it’s really two questions in one. It is the question you asked, and a much bigger question that many of us feminists ask at some point: when I decide to align myself with a set of political beliefs that makes me think critically about how patriarchy has shaped society, what do I do with all of the things that I enjoy (or have enjoyed) having in my life? I think this bigger question is related to many of the questions I’ve been asked by women: “How do I still stay a feminist when”…

– I like having violent sex with my partner

– It’s hard for me to get aroused if I don’t watchporn

– I think having my anus bleached looks better

– I like the attention I get when I dress to get the attention of men

–  [fill in the blank]

I’m wondering if implicit in this question is your sense of frustration that you can’t reconcile them, or haven’t found a way yet. Because it also seems like implicit in your question is the knowledge that these two things (feminism and certain kinds of music) are fundamentally incompatible and represent movement towards different ends. It would be really nice to say to you that they can be reconciled, and tell you how to do that [insert witty and wise suggestion here], but the more I think about it, the more I think that they do not work together at all. There is empirical research that suggests that the media we consume actually changes the way we think about our bodies, the bodies of others, and people’s lived experience. So I have to believe that listening to degrading music and being a feminist work against each other neuro-cognitively, competing for cognitive space, as the music shapes our implicit biases and unconscious judgments without us even knowing it.

Think about it this way: it gets really hard to find things entertaining when we know how much they hurt us or others. For example, as a therapist, helping people work through the catastrophically devastating effects of their sexual assaults makes it literally impossible for me to laugh at a rape joke. I feel immediately transported to my office where I sit with people for hours — for months — as they process what happened to them and talk about the ways it has robbed them of safety, relationships, joy, normal sleep, and so on. Really understanding the impact of sexual assault makes those jokes not funny and actually makes me feel protective and angry.

Next time this music is on, try not just hearing the beat and words, but actually think about the story you are being told through the music. Think about if that happened to you or someone you love. Make the subjects of the song not just as objects used to make a catchy song, but as real people. Then see if that changes your love of the music.

I know that this isn’t the fun answer. But I think that having feminist values — and really trying to ensure those values shape the way we live our lives — needs to influence all our choices. We may not be able to change everything all at once, but I would like to think that, slowly and steadily, we can make our lives into a story that moves towards ending the oppression of women and joins with others who long for that as well. This involves active resistance to the little things that seep into our daily lives that subtly and existentially join us with values that are complicit in our own oppression.

I hope for you that you are sensitized. I hope for you that, as you make choices to change some of your behaviors and daily practices (like what music you listen to), you will feel the struggle as you rip yourself from old habits. I hope that being in that struggle will help you feel powerful and like you are winning against the pull of patriarchy, even just for those moments, and that you are doing something good for yourself and for others.

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

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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