Making the political personal: how psychology undermines feminist activism

Feminists should be more concerned about the way the therapy model individualizes women’s oppression and professionalizes empathy.


We are told that mental health problems are on the rise in the Western world, particularly among young women. Supposedly, these issues will only be exacerbated if “left untreated.”

In an article at The Guardian, clinical psychologist Nihara Krause states that during 2014-2015 only 20 per cent of those who “needed help” in the UK received it. By “help,” Krause means “therapy.” Experts like Krause say this increase in “mental health issues” is related to issues such as financial difficulties, homelessness, pressure to perform (in school and on social media), and (in the case of women) severe insecurities about our bodies. Despite knowing this, psychology does not exist or function to address these issues and the systemic reasons behind them — the oppression of the poor, racialized, and female, for example. Rather, therapy aims only to address each individual’s emotional reaction to their circumstances. It can make you wonder what good psychology actually does for society at large, and for women, in particular.

During a workshop at a women’s gathering I attended this summer in France, Sheila Jeffreys argued that psychology individualizes the effects of patriarchy and separates women from each other. This once common feminist analysis was completely new to me, and I realized, as I discussed it with other young women (most of us in our 20s), that I had been living in a bubble wherein psychology was never questioned.

I’m not the only one. In response to our friends’ struggles, women are quick to suggest therapy to deal with issues like lack of self-esteem, distress in social situations, habits of self-harming, relationship problems, or difficulty accepting their female body — all issues that are impacted by living under patriarchy, as can be inferred from the sex discrepancy in, for example, self-mutilation and anxiety. “Seek therapy” has become a standard piece of advice. The words, “You need help” are accepted as well-meaning and sound, when directed at friend and foe alike. What “help” refers to is understood by all, since alternatives are generally not offered.

We don’t question whether or not therapy is useful, but even psychologists acknowledge that it is impossible to prove which (if any) kind of therapy is the most effective. An author at Psychology Today writes:

“We cannot even agree what a ‘successful’ result should be. Symptom relief? Personality change? Improved relationships? Better ability to love and work? Personal growth and fulfillment? All of the above?”

What do these things even mean, outside of a psychology framework? And how would you determine and measure the results? Personal growth, improvement, realization, actualization, and empowerment sound like noble aims, so we are understanding and encouraging when women name them as “personal goals.” We are all exhausted, stressed out, depleted, depressed, and distressed, and so can relate to and empathize with women experiencing the same. But, as feminists, we know patriarchy exists and that we face various forms of oppression in this world, so why don’t we question the oft-repeated advice, “Take care of yourself first,” when a sister expresses her troubles, and instead say, “Let’s help one another.”

Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the oppressor’s book, and it is working against us. In her 1975 book, Psychotherapy: The Hazardous Cure, Dorothy Tennov detailed what therapy truly is, in terms of a profession and study, demonstrating how difficult it is to prove that it’s helpful at all, at a time when psychology was gaining traction. Many of her concerns for the continued normalization of psychotherapy have come true, as it has become more and more socially accepted for women to see therapists, and become therapists themselves. But the destigmatization of therapy is not a positive for the feminist movement. As Tennov concluded:

“There is no question that the person who goes to a psychotherapist and learns to adapt to a situation, to adjust herself, is less likely to apply pressure outward in an attempt to bring about change in society. Psychotherapy is a distraction from other pressures.”

We have been taught, through the normalization of therapy, to individualize our struggles and look inward, rather than outward. Therapy works to prevent us from connecting with one another. It isolates us — each of us is appointed our own therapist, who teaches us how to cope with our “issues” privately. We learn we must take care of ourselves, and work on our personalities in order to better cope with the world around us, before we can act. What therapy doesn’t teach us is that women’s anger is justified, that our suffering is real, and that what we often describe as “mental health issues” are mostly caused — or greatly exacerbated — by structural oppression. Psychology pretends that the solution to — or “treatment” for — our problems is in improving our attitudes and ability to cope, instead of tackling the problems together.

Writing for The Conversation, Zoë Krupka explains that therapists are taught to look to blame at least part of the problem their clients are facing on the clients themselves. Because they cannot dismantle systematic oppression or empower their clients in a genuine sense (that is to say, by giving them actual power in society) in private sessions, therapists have to find issues to resolve within their client. In cases of male violence, for example, the terms “trauma-bonding,” “co-dependency,” and “Stockholm syndrome” all exist to place some blame on the victim (the woman), while the existence of “anger management” exists as apologist propaganda for the perpetrator (the man). “This contributes to women’s disempowerment and to our overall inability to see the violent forest for the trees,” Krupka writes.

There are many examples of how psychology has infiltrated our vocabularies and shaped discourse, for example the idea that women may suffer from “internalized” misogyny or homophobia, rather than speaking about these issues as being a result of external, systemic prejudice and hatred. It has also influenced how we approach friendships and relationships with other women. Venting to a friend is sometimes described as “therapeutic,” and women will often say they played “armchair therapist” when consoling, advising, and listening to their friends. Good therapists are described as being empathetic, attentive, and, most of all, people we trust and can speak openly to without being judged. These are all qualities one would hope describes a good friend, but we have been taught that we are not enough, and that there are “professionals” who are simply better at empathy than us. When our friends and loved ones are deeply upset, we support them in seeking “professional help,” as if a one-sided arrangement, wherein a stranger — detached from their everyday lives, in a position of power over them, and paid for — will be better able to care for them than we would be. We don’t trust ourselves to care for our own because there is an alternative “professional” option.

This professionalization of empathy and care has deeply affected the feminist movement, as rape crisis centres and battered women’s shelters become increasingly staffed by those with the ability to get degrees, rather than by regular women — including those who have been victims of male violence and may have sought help at these shelters themselves. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (VRRWS), Canada’s longest standing rape crisis center, still operates through a peer counselling model and as a collective. The trend of professionalization of anti-violence work has impaired our ability to help and act as feminists, as Pauline Funston, for VRRWS, explains:

“Now we see ‘clients’ and provide a ‘service,’ a clear indication of the dilution of feminist principles and practice. The battered women who come to the transition houses now sees us as other rather than the same as they are…

… The erosion of feminist standards towards professionalism is costing battered women their dignity, autonomy, and their right to participate in the feminist movement.

… We are reduced to becoming another social service which then individualizes the battered woman’s experience and works against political change for her and all women.”

Therapy opposes collective feminist action both by determining some of us are unfit to support other women if we don’t have degrees, and also by claiming we are unfit mentally — in need of therapy ourselves. It places the burden of overcoming the effects of patriarchy, along with the blame for it, onto us as individuals. I myself was often told by therapists, when I expressed how powerless I felt in terms of my ability to improve the situation of women in our society, that I could not focus on trying to save the world until I first saved myself. I was in too fragile a mental state to make any difference, they said. I couldn’t be an activist without damaging myself in the process. Just as our foremothers were labelled hysterical, we are taught that we are too mentally unwell or unstable to be effective activists. We learn that we suffer from things like social anxiety, depression, various phobias, bipolarity, and trauma that we need to personally overcome and heal from, through professional “help,” before we can focus on organizing and changing anything beyond ourselves.

In the past, women learned through consciousness raising that they were not alone, and this was a source of strength. Their anger was not debilitating, their sadness was not a character flaw, and their fear was not a diagnosis. Their “problems” were not only personal, but broad, and affected all of womankind. It was through meeting and sharing with other women, in person, that women were able to shed light on and name things like patriarchy, male supremacy, misogyny, racism, anti-lesbianism, abuse, poverty, and oppression, instead of “depression,” “mental illness,” “internalized self-hatred,” and “stress.”

Even young women who scoff at the idea that “self-empowerment” can be found in makeup and clothing still fall for the idea that we can empower ourselves through therapy and self-care. Instead of using our pain and our anger, we have to assimilate with the mentally stable status quo. As if there were a state within patriarchy for women that is more natural and logical than upset and rebellion.

The idea that we must first heal ourselves before we can act to our full extent is as fallacious as the idea that we must first “love ourselves” in order to be loved by others. As they watched the lesbian and feminist community get swallowed by psychobabble, Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins, in their 1993 book, Changing Our Minds, wrote:

“Psychology claims that ‘loving ourselves’ is an essential prerequisite to loving others, and to effective political work. We cannot believe this claim…

Loving others, and being effective politically, is not something you magically become able to do once you ‘truly love yourself.’ Rather, you learn how to love in the process of loving, how to engage politically through political engagement.” [emphasis theirs]

This message remains just as important today, as the notion of psychology has gone largely unchallenged by modern feminists.

In order to move forward, we have to rid ourselves of the idea that we need mental health “professionals” to be our friends and allies, and that a different attitude and mindset is what will enable us to bring patriarchy to its knees. Systemic oppression is not addressed by learning to cope with it, by processing it with a paid professional, or by becoming that professional. It needs to be dismantled as an institution, through unrelenting organized feminist action open for all women, as does the institution of psychology which traps us in our own minds, isolated from each other, and structural analysis.

Ironically, it is often a mental block that hinders so many young women from being effective feminists. But that block is not anxiety, depression, or stress — rather, it is the idea that our emotions and problems are personal, and to be overcome on our own. We have to let go of the idea that the wrong is with us, and not with the world. We have to reach out and organize in real life, help each other, be supportive and understanding, listening and empathetic, tolerant and kind, but also firm and truthful. We must understand that we are all hurt, frustrated, and angry — and that this is not something we have to deal with alone.

I urge young feminists who feel powerless and frustrated to meet each other in real life. Look for established feminist groups in your city or area to join, women’s shelters to volunteer in, reading circles, book clubs, self-defence classes — and if you can’t find any, start your own group. Be each other’s support network and strength, show up to rallies and demonstrations in groups; make signs, slogans, stickers, and pamphlets to distribute together; organize activities and protests. I strongly encourage having ties to older women, in order to learn from their experience and knowledge, though it is equally important to act independently as a new generation of feminists and form our own networks. I was able to find friends and eventually form a feminist organization, aimed at facilitating women-separatist spaces, through radical feminist forums on Facebook and blogs on Tumblr. Dare to take the next step and meet up in real life. Join the organizations and groups you’ve been eyeing forever. Push yourself to go out and meet new women.

Our goals should not be self-empowerment or self-improvement, but the liberation of womankind.

To those who may feel defensive, let me say that, as someone who was diagnosed with “clinical depression” for a decade, and saw eight different therapists during this period (a new one each time it returned): since quitting therapy and becoming an activist, using my emotions for this cause, and finding friends within this movement — true sisters — I have never felt better, mentally.

Tove Happonen is a Swedish activist, a member in the feminist organization Kvinnofronten and a co-founder of the radical feminist organization Kvinnorum, which strives to facilitate women-separatist spaces and gatherings. The opinions expressed here are only representative of her own.

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