Feminist Therapy: Keeping hope alive, dealing with abandonment issues, and building intimacy when patriarchy gets in the way

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 discovered radical feminism during an abusive relationship that ended a couple of years ago. While I’ve found it to be a wonderful source of strength for me, I often feel bogged down by feelings of anger and hopelessness about the current status of women in our society. I think some of these feelings are left over from the abuse, but I also feel like I have a heightened awareness of the injustices women face every day. I try to temper my news intake and work laughter into my life as much as possible, but I was wondering if you had any helpful tips for keeping some perspective as well as how to keep hope alive while living in an unjust world.

– R

Dear R,

I am so relieved that you are not in that abusive relationship anymore, and I am certain you are not alone, in terms of your feelings of anger and hopelessness. Becoming aware of the world in a new way, through feminism, is both a gift and a challenge. It is good to know that you are aware of your feelings (and how what you have been through may be influencing those feelings), and it sounds like you are doing a good job of trying to take care of yourself too.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a therapist (though doing lots of trauma work, in particular) that may be helpful to remember:

– It is ok to be angry in the face of injustice. In fact, I consider it to be healthy. It is also ok to be sad when things are sad. That is not pathology. Think of physical pain: if someone punched you, but you didn’t feel it and there were no bruises or leftover pain, we would have some serious questions about your health. Pain is a part of life, and feeling anger or sadness in response to our own pain or the pain of others can be a sign that we are connected to the worth and value of others, as well as to our own.

– There are different kinds of anger — some of it is empowering, and moves us towards action and agency, other kinds keep us spinning our wheels or hurting others, and might actually stem from our own fear or sadness. If we are feeling angry in a way that is not hurting people and is helping us feel a sense of urgency towards action, sitting in it can be incredibly useful. If it feels unproductive, we may want to start asking ourselves if there is anything underneath — i.e. is this anger coming from my deep desire to be heard, feel alive, feel heard, and be seen? Is it coming from a desire  to take power back? If it feels like there is something underneath the anger, you can ask yourself, “How can I meet the need underneath the anger?”

–  Intervene. Act. Be a part of something that helps you feel like you are making a difference. I have clients who regularly say that doing this helps them look at their life and know that, even if they don’t have the ability to change everything, they are doing something regularly to tackle the problem. The secondary gain of this is that you might end up finding a community of people who are as passionate about feminism as you are. Community and shared experiences with others is a significant contributor to having a rich and meaningful life.

–  Don’t forget to take time to mentally rehearse the good things. Research in neuroscience shows us that the kinds of thoughts we think the most create narrative grooves , and we are likely to fall into those thought grooves without even knowing it, making the grooves even deeper. But we can make new grooves — ones of hope, joy, passion, meaningfulness, and creativity. When we are stuck in a place of hopelessness (which is different than a healthy sadness that can come from observing the world around us), we need to catch ourselves, and choose to move our train of thought onto things that make us feel hopeful. You might even find it helpful to keep a list of things — videos, books, quotes, activities, etc. — that you can turn to in order to help get you unstuck when you need some help.

Thank you so much for writing in. And I am so glad that you are thinking about how to keep yourself well — you matter too!


Dear Feminist Therapist,

I grew up in a home with an alcoholic father and an emotionally abusive mother. They used to fight a lot. I was also sexually abused by an uncle in my childhood. Because of this, I have abandonment and trust issues. On top of all that, I was recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

I had the constant companionship of my dog until his death four months ago. Now, when my husband goes out with his friends, I feel terrible. He often comes back home to find me crying. I don’t have many friends of my own as I tend to isolate myself in order to feel emotionally safe. Having faced sexual violence in public, I don’t feel safe to venture out on my own.

I feel like a hopelessly flawed person. My partner is trying to be sensitive to my struggles, but has also expressed that he wants to spend more time with his friends. I am having difficulty coping with this. I am also unable to trust him as he has had weak boundaries with his female friends in the past. What can I do to feel more secure and grow as a person? How can I be comfortable with distance? How can I prevent past trauma from hijacking my emotions and guiding my behavior?”

–  D

Dear D,

You have been through so much in your life. I am so sorry to hear about all of the trauma, the pain, the loss, and the fear. It is so much to carry. Thank you for writing in to share this with me.

When we go through trauma during our childhood it changes our self-perception. Children’s brains don’t have the capacity to see the world the way that adults do, and everything that happens in a child’s brain is perceived egocentrically. What that means is that when children go through abuse or trauma — or even witness their parents’ conflicts — they tend to feel that, on some level, it is their fault. This is often made worse when a perpetrator of sexual assault tells a child that the sexual assault was their fault in some way, which unfortunately happens frequently. These psychological wounds from abuse during childhood are enduring and difficult to change.

What this means is that the way you feel about yourself might feel like the truth, but may not be. There is this thing that happens when we are stuck, anxious, or depressed called “emotional reasoning.” This happens when we take a feeling and tell a story about ourselves or others based on the feeling. For example: “I feel embarrassed, so I must be an embarrassment.” Or, “I feel unhappy with my appearance, so I must be ugly.” In other words, we use our feelings to decide what is “true,” but, unfortunately, the feelings are often scars from abuse, and not the actual truth about who we are, our worth and our value. This might also apply to your social interactions. I often hear from clients in therapy who say that their fears about connecting with others tell them stories about being unable to connect with others, or about being awkward or unlovable.

It could be really helpful for you to start to distinguish how you’re feeling from what is actually true. For example: “I feel really insecure right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that others don’t like me. Maybe my fears and worries are telling me stories about other people that aren’t necessarily true.” You could also do that with leftovers from the trauma you experienced: “I feel really shameful, but maybe that’s because I went through something really awful and not because I really am shameful.”

There is lots of research about how childhood trauma and chronic illness or disease can be related to depression and social anxiety or withdrawal. All of these things can work together to make life very difficult. When you’re dealing with a new diagnosis, it can be especially scary, so you may need to grieve. The grief might come in waves, or you might find that it wanes slowly over time, or even stops altogether once you come up with some ideas about how to continue to thrive with this disease.

You are not alone. There are lots of people out there who are struggling in the ways you are. Although it might seem counterintuitive, pain and fear make our world smaller. And in order to keep living satisfying lives, we need to push back at the walls of pain and fear that close in around us. You don’t have to do it all at once, but start one day with something that feels a little bit more challenging than what you normally do, but isn’t completely triggering. For example, take a quick walk in an area that is safe. Then, next time stay out a little bit longer, or read a book at a coffee shop. Doing things that challenge the isolation will be hard, but will help your brain re-learn how to do normal things. It can also help build self-efficacy and confidence, learning that you can do hard things when you set your mind to them.

Ask your doctor or any MS advocates in your area about support groups. You also might be able to find a group for trauma survivors or adult children of alcoholic parents — people who might understand you and who you will feel safe around. You might also benefit from seeing an occupational therapist who can help you figure out what activities and strategies are available to you on days that are hard, and how to keep the hard days at a minimum. I think you would also benefit from doing some trauma therapy, and maybe even some couples work with your partner to find ways to stay close and connected with this big news. That way, you could learn about healthy boundaries together.

Thank you for writing in.


Dear Feminist Therapist,

I was relieved and surprised to read the question in last month’s column about a male feminist partner who felt disgusted by his sexuality — my partner feels exactly the same way. I thought he was the only one so aware of patriarchal influences on sex. But he is reaching a point where he is refusing to have sex with me altogether. I showed him your response, particularly the bit about engaging in touching without aim of orgasm — but he feels that this won’t work for him because engaging in any form of sexual activity (sometimes even just kissing) brings out sexual urges that he considers “dominating” and “objectifying,” and that make him feel distant and detached from me. I really want to be sexual with him, but this often causes a scenario where I get sad that he can’t have sex with me lovingly and he shuts off from me altogether, feeling like he is the worst person in the world. Then we both just feel sad and lonely. We’re both seeing therapists long term for separate reasons, so I think it will be a while before he comes to any resolution within himself about this. But in the meantime, how can I deal with this? Accept that I can’t really be sexual with him and reserve my sexuality for myself? He is a beautiful, intelligent, and respectful person — I don’t think he deserves this self-hatred at all and I wish he could accept himself.

–  I

Dear I,

Thank you so much for sharing this. It can be so awful and we can feel so powerless when someone we love is hurting and we feel like we can’t get through to them.  I can imagine that you are both really struggling to feel connected right now. Although I am so glad to hear that your partner cares about not hurting you and doesn’t want to engage in sex in a way that is harmful or devaluing to you, I’m sorry that this has caused more pain for you both. Even when we try to do really good things, sometimes if our approach gets too black and white, we can just create hurt in another way.

It seems like your partner’s own struggles are colluding with his politics — weaving together a reality in his head that is a mix of important values combined with some of his own fears and cognitive traps. Unfortunately, this can be really difficult to sort out, both for the person who is struggling, and for the people in their lives. It is hard to figure out where the important political thoughts and intentions end, and where the unhealthy thoughts and actions begin.

What you are describing is actually really normal in couples work: there is an existing issue that feels painful or divisive for both people, and when they try to talk about it, it creates even more pain and distance. Because of this, couples often find themselves stuck — unable to move forward at all. While I think the underlying concerns your partner has require some work (and it’s not a bad idea for you both to seek support to resolve this together, or to ask him to work on it in his own therapy), what you can do is try to change the way you talk to each other about the concern.

You have identified this pattern: I want to have sex, he shuts off, I get sad, he gets more sad, and round and round this goes. Try to change this pattern in some way. If after a conversation like this you normally go to the bedroom and close the door, try grabbing his hand and going for a walk together. Or, try to talk about the issue, but approach it differently. Even though this is hard for him, your desire to be close to him sexually is not something you need to be ashamed of.

Like with all of our relational needs, we can present them in a way that draws a person close or in a way that pushes them away. When we are scared or feeling rejected, we can present our needs in a way that is shaming: “You never want to have sex with me — what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you love me?” Alternatively, we can try to use our needs to help the other person remember how important they are to us, and draw them close, reestablishing connection and intimacy, but in a non-sexual way: “I really miss feeling like we can be close and intimate. I know it’s been hard for you and I wish I could make it easier for you. Because I love you, I want you to see yourself as I see you. I don’t want anything to get in the way of us being connected, including trying to fight patriarchal sexual scripts. Can I give you a hug? I love you.”

When things are difficult or scary, we tend to retreat from them altogether. Although it may be uncomfortable, it might be useful for the two of you (with the help of a therapist, if needed) to create a “hierarchy of exposure.” What that means is that, realistically, you won’t go from having no sex at all to having satisfying sex right away. Look at all the steps that would need to happen in between, and break them down into stages where one step is a little bit more challenging than the one that comes before it, but not so challenging that it will feel like setting the two of you up for failure. Then you set a timeline for these steps and give yourselves rewards for succeeding at them. The first step might be hugging more regularly. You could try that every day for a week or two until it starts to feel more comfortable. Then, the next step might be kissing, but without much sensuality — just to break the pattern of him feeling like even kissing creates “’dominating’ and ‘objectifying’ sexual urges.” If that goes well, tell him how you feel and that you like it, and challenge him to consider that he might be able to trust that you are telling him the truth. Perhaps the next step could be to practice having longer and more sensual kisses that feel controlled and safe for you both. Then, at some point, you could talk about sex, and try to have a calm and collaborative conversation about the barriers to sex and ways to work around them. Doing the steps you choose over time may help him learn to trust you and your relationship more than he trusts the narratives he has constructed. However, this will likely only work if he wants to do this and believes that it’s important enough for him and for you to work on it. So, in the meantime I would encourage all other forms of intimacy, including verbal and non-sexual touch.

I believe that sexuality in a relationship is important — but only as important as it is to the people in that relationship. I don’t believe it is the most important or only way to establish intimacy. I believe that it is possible to have a deeply satisfying and complex relationship with minimal sex, or no sexual activity at all. But that is only possible if that is something that both people negotiate together. The only way to do that is to continue to work on establishing a profoundly intimate and vulnerable emotional relationship in which the two of you can continue to draw each other close in the sadness, so that even if one person wants to have sex and the other doesn’t, you can talk about that in a way that facilitates intimacy, instead of severing it.

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.