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The Contributions of Feminist Therapy

By Tammie Byram Fowles, MSW, Ph.D.

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My work has been influenced greatly by feminist therapists such as Toni Ann Laidlaw, Cheryl Malmo, Joan Turner, Jan Ellis, Diane Lepine, Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Joan Hamerman, Jean Baker Miller, and Miriam Greenspan -- to name only a few. I've   found that what seems to be the universal core of such therapy is that clients and therapist must operate as equals in the therapy endeavor. This perspective fits well within my own personal values and belief system.

In her book, A New Approach to Women and Therapy" (1983), Miriam Greenspan explores the impact of "traditional" and "growth" therapies on women as well as describes "feminist" therapy in action. In doing so she offers a great deal of insight regarding the role of the therapist in feminist work including:

1) That the therapist's most essential tool is herself as a person.

There have been so many occasions in my years as a therapist that I've sat speechless with a client, knowing all too well that there are no words that will comfort, justify, or explain the pain away. There have been all too many times when all my years of studying the human psyche and condition still render me helpless to alter a particular circumstance, belief, or feeling. On these occasions I can only offer my support, my caring, and my understanding. I'm humbled at these moments but not disempowered. I've learned that in joining another human being in his or her pain; in being a steady and present witness; in respecting the magnitude and depth of their feelings, I can't lead them out of the darkness, but I can stand beside them. Anyone who has ever been deeply afraid or saddened recognizes that an outstretched hand can be a true gift.

2) That it is essential therapy be demystified from the beginning in order for clients to achieve a sense of their own power (and responsibility, I would add) in therapy. Greenspan observes that, "Therapy must be geared to helping the client see that she must be her own rescuer - that the power she longs for is not in someone else but in herself."

I was visiting with a very special friend and fellow therapist one day discussing movies we'd seen over the years. She reminded me of a scene in a movie whose title I have long since forgotten. In this particular scene, the main character is at a party where she meets up with her therapist. They chat for a few moments and then part company. A friend approaches the main character and asks who the woman was that she had been talking to. The heroine responds, "that's no woman. That's my therapist!"

This scene illustrates the mystique that therapists often have with their clients. While intellectually our client's realize that we, too, are imperfect and possess our own difficulties and short-comings, they very often manage somehow to perceive us as somewhat "larger than life." They often look to us to provide the "right" answers, point the way, or tell them how to "fix it". Our responsibility is not to oblige them (even if we could), but to assist them in recognizing and learning to trust their own power and wisdom.

3) That rules of the therapeutic relationship should be overtly stated and mutually agreed upon. This doesn't mean that the therapist explains the rules by which the client is expected to operate, but rather that the client and therapist explore their expectations of one another together and jointly come to an agreement of what each person's role and responsibilities will be.

4) That within every symptom, no matter how painful or problematic, there exists a strength.

Helen Gahagan Douglas in The Eleanor Roosevelt We Remember" ("The Quotable Woman", Vol. Two, edited by Elaine Partnow, 1963,) wrote:

"Would Eleanor Roosevelt have had to struggle to overcome this tortuous shyness if she had grown up secure in the knowledge that she was a beautiful girl? If she hadn't struggled so earnestly, would she have been so sensitive to the struggles of others? Would a beautiful Eleanor Roosevelt have escaped from the confinements of the mid-Victorian drawing room society in which she was reared? Would a beautiful Eleanor Roosevelt have wanted to escape? Would a beautiful Eleanor Roosevelt have had the same need to be, to do?"

Perhaps Eleanor would have still accomplished all that she was to achieve in her lifetime, beautiful or not; however, it's been reported that Eleanor herself confided that her insecurity about her looks often motivated her.

Wayne Muller, in Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood (1992) observed while working with individuals who had experienced painful childhood's that,"...even as they struggled to be free, the reverberations of family sorrow continued to infect their adult lives, their loves, even their dreams. Yet, at the same time I've also noted that adults who were hurt as children inevitably exhibit a peculiar strength, a profound inner wisdom, and a remarkable creativity and insight."

In the introduction of "Healing Voices: Feminist Approaches To Therapy With Women" (1990), Laidlaw and Malmo state that feminist therapists welcome their clients' inquiries about the therapist's values, methods and orientations. They also:

(1) at appropriate times share  their own experiences in order to assist their clients;

(2) encourage their clients to take an active part in making decisions about the course of therapy;

(3) and allow the client final say over the content of a session, the choice of method, and the pacing of therapeutic work.

SELF DISCLOSURE

The degree of therapist self-disclosure is an area in which a wide range of opinions exists. For some, the therapist should not provide personal information to the client in almost any circumstance. Others firmly maintain that some personal information is not only acceptable at times, but advisable. I find myself agreeing with the latter. In order for a true therapeutic relationship to develop, in my opinion, therapist and client generally must achieve some level of intimacy. I don’t believe that such intimacy can exist without the therapist sharing some limited aspects of his or her own life from time to time. Carl Rogers urged therapists to be genuine. How can one be genuine when conscientiously hiding all personal aspects of oneself? When a client asks if I am angry with them and I say that I'm not (after all, therapists should never experience anger toward a client) when in fact I am angry, I am not only being disrespectful, I'm inflicting damage. When a client observes that I look like I've had a hard day, and I deny that I have, when the truth is that the day has been extremely difficult, I've become a liar to someone whose trust is extremely important. This doesn't mean that I should proceed to describe my day to the client, but that I merely acknowledge that the client's observation is a perceptive and accurate one.

Lenore E. A. Walker, in her piece, "A feminist Therapist Views The Case" from "Women as Therapists" ( Cantor, 1990), provides an overview of the guiding principles of feminist therapy, including:

1) Egalitarian relationships between clients and therapists serve as a model for women to take personal responsibility to develop egalitarian relationships with others instead of the more traditional passive, dependent female role. While it is excepted that the therapist knows more in terms of psychology, the client knows herself better. That knowledge is as critical as the therapist's skills in developing a successful therapeutic relationship.

2) The feminist therapist focuses on the enhancement of women's strengths rather than remediation of their weaknesses.

3) The feminist model is nonpathology-oriented and non-victim blaming.

4) Feminist therapists accept and validate their clients’ feelings. They are also more self-disclosing than other therapists thus removing the we-they barrier between  therapists and their clients. This limited reciprocity is a feminist goal that is believed to enhance the relationship.

Milton Erikson spoke often of the importance of joining with our clients. It's difficult from my perspective to accomplish this if we're placed somewhere above our clients and often out of their reach. To truly understand another, we must be willing to get close enough to really see; we can miss so much when keeping back too great a distance. Perhaps, in part, the distance is recommended, because it's not possible to observe imperfections and vulnerabilities close up without risking our own being exposed from time to time. Therapists need not be perfect in order to be effective; in fact, they don't even need to be smarter.

Janet O'Hare and Katy Taylor in the book, Women Changing Therapy (1985), edited by Joan Hammerman Robbins and Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, provide a number of insights and recommendations for working with victims of sexual abuse including:

(1) A controlling therapist is too much like the abuser to be helpful;

When we encounter an individual who has been abused, our assuming control of the therapeutic process is bound to be threatening to most. Such individuals have been told what to do very often for much of their lives, and voluntarily surrendering now to the mandates of yet another feels uncomfortably familiar. Victims and survivors need to be empowered to act in their own best interests, to make their own decisions, and communicate their needs effectively. Attempting to acquire these abilities in the presence of a controlling "expert" is hardly conducive to producing these results.

(2) The client must be encouraged to recognize her own strengths.

Often victims and survivors of abuse are acutely aware of their inadequacies and have little faith in their strengths. It is important that when working with these individuals that the therapist focus on and strive to develop strengths vs. honing in on and seeking to remediate inadequacies. In fact, many of the tendencies that survivors (and some therapists) perceive as weaknesses are, in fact, just the opposite -- assets to be recognized and appreciated.

(3) The therapist must honor the client's own healing process and allow the healing to proceed at the client's own pace.

Not being controlling need not mean being non-directive. In operating from a brief treatment perspective, it's absolutely necessary that the therapist remain active and quite often provide direction. This from my perspective, indicates that we must serve as guides and facilitators. It may be important to remember that when one engages the services of a guide when embarking on a journey, it's ultimately the role of the one to be guided to determine the destination, the limits of the distance to be traveled, the stops along the way, and the overall pace. It's the guide’s responsibility to meet the objectives of the guided.

Tammie Byram Fowles, MSW, Ph.D.
Dr. Fowles is a psychotherapist, author, consultant, and trainer currently residing in Columbia, South Carolina. She received her Masters Degree in Social Work from the University of Connecticut and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Southwest University. She is the author of "BirthQuake: A New Vision of Hope and Healing," and "Finding the Forest: The Incorporation of Holistic Treatment into a Brief Treatment Model with Survivors of Trauma."  She is currently working on her new  book, "Healing into Wholeness" Before moving to Columbia in 1995, she lived in Augusta, Maine and practiced in the nearby community of Lewiston.


Dr. Fowles is available for consultation, training, and to conduct "Healing into Wholeness" retreats as well as "Myth and Meaning" workshops. She is willing to offer these programs at no charge to non-profit service organizations.  She can be reached by e-mail , website,  or by calling 803-419-8256.

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