Feminism, Therapy and Social Change

As a therapist, I’ve always believed that we play a key role in being agents of social change. There’s quite a paradox in the way we function honestly. On one hand, we have been trained to remain neutral and unbiased regardless of the belief, ideology and background of the client, but at the same time, it is our responsibility to be culturally sensitive, while also educating ourselves on social issues. Empowering clients is our job, and that means standing up for justice and human dignity. Basically, what I mean to say is that the stance of a therapist is both apolitical and political in nature. One more belief I have in relation to this is that, in order to be an agent of social change, as a therapist, there needs to be a healthy sprinkling of feminism in the mix.

Feminism and Therapy

Since this article is written on a psychology blog by a therapist, I’d like to discuss a lesser known type of therapeutic approach called Feminist Therapy. Feminist therapy believes that it is essential to consider the social, cultural and political context that contributes to a person’s problems in order to understand that person. Earlier, when feminism started gaining momentum, the focus was on the issues that women face due to patriarchal systems. Now, feminism is an ideology that assumes a more multicultural, gender sensitive and inclusive approach. This evolution is reflected in the concept of feminist therapy as well. From solely dealing with the experiences and injustice that women face due to patriarchy, it now encompasses and provides a more systemic perspective based on understanding the social context of clients’ lives and are aimed at not only empowering the client, but as a result, the society eventually too. Feminism is for everyone.

Principles of Feminist Therapy

Feminist therapy has always stressed on empowerment, valuing and affirming diversity. It strives to create a world of equality that is reflected in all aspects of our lives, whether its at a personal, community or global level. Many feminist writers over time have pinpointed a few principles that are considered the foundation or the very essence of feminist therapy.

  • The personal is political. Feminist therapists believe that political decisions that are taken in one’s community/country, have a direct impact on the individual’s way of life and social environment, and vice versa. For example, women continue to be marginalized and stereotyped, even oppressed in society, which leads to a number of social issues, such as sexism, abuse, harassment, etc. Her mental health issues arise from the inequality and injustice that she deals with in her house, in her community, all stemming from her social and political context. This context doesn’t grant her the freedom and respect that she deserves. She is not seen as an equal.
  • Commitment to social change. Personal development and social change go hand in hand in feminist therapy. The very first step in individual change is to realize how our social context influences our personal functioning. For example, if a man comes to the realization that the gender role that has been assigned to him by patriarchy prevents him from freely expressing his feelings, he will pass this knowledge on to maybe his son. He not only will free himself from the constraints that were put on him, but he will also facilitate a change in society by letting others know that it’s perfectly alright for a man to be open about his emotions.
  • Replace patriarchy’s “objective truth” with feminist consciousness. Unfortunately, the history of mental health and therapy is also plagued with patriarchy. The perspective of women was not considered central and conclusions in traditional therapies or tools of assessment were made based on andocentric (using male-oriented constructs to draw conclusions about humans) norms. This completely disregarded the possibilities of diverse and unique experiences, and considered the experiences of women, “deviant”. Feminist therapists encourages those that have been forcefully silent, to strengthen their voice and use their personal experience to determine what is reality and what is not.
  • The counseling relationship is egalitarian. Traditionally, the therapeutic relationship is imbalanced in terms of power. The therapist is the individual that is somewhat in a place of authority and power as compared to the client. The feminist therapist recognizes this and strives to be more egalitarian in nature. The client may be approaching the therapist for help, but at the end of the day the client is the expert on their own life, and not the therapist. The power is shared between them, rather than one person holding it. The power and the privilege that the therapist holds initially is transferred to the client’s voice and experiences, strengthening them, and empowering the client.
  • Focus on strengths and a reformulated definition of psychological distress. Mental health issues are traditionally organized according to a certain list of symptoms or criteria, and the individual is labelled accordingly. Feminist therapy has always had a conflicted relationship with the idea of diagnostic labeling and calling psychological distress as an illness. The belief here is that psychological distress arises is not a disease like our physical ailments, but a result of a number of social factors that may cause injustice. The reaction to this injustice surfaces in the form of the symptoms such as anxiety, or trauma. These symptoms are dealt through understanding the social context and coping skills, rather than pathology.
  • All types of oppression are recognized. Diversity is given utmost importance in feminist therapy. The therapist recognizes that there isn’t just one group of people that is oppressed, or only one type of oppression. Political and societal inequalities have the ability to affect all types of people in a negative way. One individual could be oppressed in more than one type of way. The goal of the therapist is to identify the different sources of oppression, thus liberating all members of society.

Feminism As The Future of Therapy?

Especially in India, the concept of feminism is still quite new, and emerging. People still aren’t very sure about what exactly feminism is and what it stands for. Not to mention, there are many misconceptions surrounding it. But when it comes to mental health professionals, I feel like, in my personal opinion that somewhere we are employing the base of feminist therapy in our practice unknowingly, because our main goal is eventually to empower our clients, and remain as inclusive and empathetic as possible. For us, a human is a human, and the human in front of us is one that we are privileged to help. We still have a long way to go of course, but I’m sure with time we will get to a time where we can say with confidence that every therapist is a feminist.

Until next time,

Sneha Deolankar

(M.A. Clinical Psychology, PGD Counselling)

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