Feminist Therapy

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Right now, you might be wondering: “Okay, I get it, but it still sounds like feminist therapy is for women only. What’s the deal?” While this therapy is called “feminist”, really “feminist” has become an umbrella term that represents the Other. Since one of feminist therapy’s important tenets is a striving for equality and social change, feminist therapy views every kind of Other as a prospective client: Blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender individuals, as well as men who are having difficulties keeping up with the system that should theoretically favor them, but doesn’t. My own hesitations in talking about men being good candidates for feminist therapy should be examined, since it seems that I still seem to operate under the same flawed bias that feminist therapy is essential in striving to override:

If gender is phenomenological, then any human could experience gender in a myriad of ways … there is no way to know what any individual’s experience with gender is without knowing them. When men are viewed as all sharing the same experience or being incapable of having certain psychosocial human experiences (particularly those that are essentialized as female or       feminine), we run the risk of reinforcing the masculinist paradigm, rather than challenging it. (Kahn, 2010, p. 63)

Feminist therapists will continue to develop the notion that gender exists not on a binary but on a continuum, fighting the dominant masculinist paradigm, which means that the rest of us need to actively change our perspectives to alter our views of thinking of ourselves and others.

Since feminist therapy is an umbrella term for a wide variety of theories that bring about empowerment and social change, there are many that fall under this category; one of these theories is known as Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT). RCT, previously known as self-in-relation theory, “is rooted in an evolving awareness of the impact of societal minimization and derogation of women’s experience” (Walker, 2010, p. 40). Furthermore, RCT “seeks to understand the interlocking systems of dominance and subjugation that form the definitional core of patriarchal cultures. Like other feminist therapies, Relational-Cultural practice focuses on resistance and empowerment” (Walker, 2010, p. 41). In practice, RCT therapists – like all feminist therapists – place great importance on developing a safe, healing environment and an intimate, empathic relationship with the client. The therapist is not an expert; she is a fellow traveler, to borrow from Yalom’s phrase describing existential psychotherapy. Since the foundations of oppression and privilege are universal in people’s lives, everyone has these experiences at some level; the client has things to learn from the therapist, just as the therapist has things to learn from the client. Specifically, RCT possesses three central tenets directed toward the therapeutic process:

  1. People grow through connection for the purpose of connection. That is, the goal of therapy is not separation or autonomous power. Rather, the goal is increased initiative and response capability within relationship.

  2. Chronic disconnection, whether it occurs in intimate-familial relationships or as a function of a violating culture, is the primary source of human suffering. Such suffering gives rise to the relational paradox, a deep-seated yearning for connection along with a near-primal terror of the vulnerabilities inherent in connection. In the treatment process (and in life), the relational paradox may manifest as strategies of disconnection that must be honored as a potent energy   that may impel movement toward new possibilities. Together the client and therapist must develop practices for engaging the dialectic of power and vulnerability.

  3. The treatment process requires direct engagement with operative power dynamics. This engagement involves uncovering the schemata for meaning making, particularly those rooted in the complexity of social identity. The schemata held by the therapist and the client are     interrogated throughout the treatment process. Movement toward healing represents a transformation of the power dynamics that shape the client-therapist relationship. (Walker, 2010, p. 42)

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