Several years ago I had the privilege of working at the Women’s Therapy Center in Philadelphia as a psychotherapist. This center provides high-quality psychotherapy to adult women in a feminist-relational environment. Being a part of this center was a defining experience in my professional life.
I think I always held a feminist view, even as a young child and before knowing what feminism meant. I used to pay close attention to how gender roles were portrayed in my family and in the media, and was determined to question why people around me were given specific tasks based on their gender. I found myself advocating for equality. It felt natural to integrate these ideologies with my passion to help people find their inner voices and live fuller lives. Feminism had become a key influence in my work with people- particularly with women.
So what is feminist therapy? How does feminist perspective influence the focus and style of therapeutic relationship?
Feminist therapy is not a method but a perspective that can be integrated in any form of therapy. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore the diverse schools of thought of feminism, but generally, feminist therapy emerged from the women’s movement of the 60’s, when women started to voice their dissatisfaction with the constricting nature of traditional female roles. The notion, that people should not be constrained by social expectations and stereotypical gender roles, is central to feminist therapy. Feminist therapists believe that personal experiences are embedded in the social-cultural-political contexts. And so, they will encourage exploration of gender-role socialization, power issues in relationship, and other factors in the environment that play an important role in shaping people’s identities, self-perceptions, choices, and behaviors.
Feminist therapy developed in response to criticism of traditional mental health practices that were experienced as non-validating to women. Many of these therapies focused on helping women adjust to the social system. Feminist therapy suggested the idea of social change, and the idea that people should find a way to express themselves authentically, even if it does not fit conventional “norms”.
Feminist therapy intended originally for women and focused mainly on women’s issues, however men can certainly benefit from feminist perspective as they too can feel limited by the social expectations and gender stereotypes.
Other core values of feminist therapy are the ideas of empowerment and de-pathologizing. This means that the emphasis is on the individual’s strengths and capabilities, rather than on the weaknesses or remediation of symptoms. For instance, feminists made enormous contribution to trauma theory and practices, especially trauma of sexual abuse. Trauma was “normalized”; “symptoms” were reframed as “coping skills”, and “victims” were reframed as “survivors” (Burstow, 1992)
And one of the greatest gifts of the feminist approach, in my view, is that it paved the way to a different style of therapeutic relationship. Being sensitive to how power differences may impact people, feminist therapists strive to create egalitarian relationships with clients, demystify the therapy process and encourage clients to be equal participants in the assessment and treatment process (Corey, 2009; Matlin, 2008). A journey toward empowerment begins by handing back power and control to clients within the therapeutic setting. Surely, the therapist brings the psychological knowledge, but clients are the real experts of themselves. And the role of the therapist is not to stay aloof behind the “expert” role, but to be a real and authentic human being, to be present in such a way that people are truly empowered to find their unique voices and expand the range of possibilities in their lives.
I owe a big debt of gratitude to my mentors and supervisors, the feminist writers and therapists that keep influencing my thoughts, and to the many women I had the honor to work with throughout the years. All have inspired me deeply and had a big part in shaping my identity as a feminist-relational therapist.
Burstow, B. (1992).Radical feminist therapy: Working in the context of violence. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Corey, G (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole
Matlin, M. W. (2008). The psychology of women (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Suggested reading about women’s psychology and feminist therapy:
Brown, L.S. (2009). Feminist therapy. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Brown, L., & Root, M. (Eds.). (1990).Diversity and complexity in feminist therapy. New York: Hawthorne.
Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Herman, J. (1992).Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.