Tag Archives: feminist therapy

Can Male Therapists Do Feminist Therapy with Male Clients? You Decide — A Feminist Case Example

Fishing Big Davis

The 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice will be available very soon. Just in case you’re longing to see the cover as much as I am, there’s a link to the new edition on Amazon. Although I’m betting your longing is much smaller than my longing, here’s the link anyway: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1119279127/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

To celebrate this forthcoming epic publication (it’s not really epic, but some days it felt like a long poem), I’m posting a case presentation from the feminist chapter. Honestly, I don’t know who gets to decide what’s epic or what’s feminist therapy. That being the case, you can decide on both points. Or you can decide you’ve had enough of JSF for today.

Here we go.

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In an interesting twist, we’re featuring a case with a male therapist and male client in the feminist chapter to illustrate how working within a feminist model can work for boys and men. This case focuses on a 16-year-old male’s struggle with emotional expression. John SF is the therapist.

Josh was a White, 16-year-old heterosexual sophomore in high school. He had never met his biological father and lived in a middle-class neighborhood with his mother and three younger sisters. His mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Josh’s main loves were consistent with his gender identity. They included basketball, cars, girls, and sarcasm. He very much disliked school.

Josh and I met for therapy for several years. At the beginning of one of our sessions Josh handed me a packet of photos.

“Hey, what’s this about?” I asked.

He responded with a half-mumble about a recent awards ceremony. I thought I discerned pride in that mumble. I looked through the pictures while he told me about each one. There was one in particular that he gently lifted from my hands. It was a picture of him in a line-up with five other people. He carefully pointed out that he was standing next to the Lieutenant Governor of Oregon. I teased him because there were no pictures of him and the actual governor.

“What’s the deal?” I asked. “Wouldn’t the Guv pose with you?” Josh rolled his eyes and signaled for me to move on to the next photo.

The Problem List and Problem Formulation

Unlike CBT, feminist therapy doesn’t involve collaboratively generating a concrete problem list and formulating problems as if the problems resided in the client. Instead, because problems and problem-formulation are inseparable, we can’t talk about the problems without also talking about cultural factors creating and contributing to the problems.

If client issues are discussed as problems, they’re likely discussed as situational challenges. In Josh’s case, his mother initially had brought him to therapy for anger management. Anger was consistently a regular focus in Josh’s therapy. Like many 16-year-old boys immersed in the dominant U.S. culture, Josh’s emotional life was highly constricted. He was living by Pollack’s boy code (2000) and unable or unwilling to risk feeling anything other than anger and irritation. From the feminist worldview, this wasn’t Josh’s problem; his issues around anger stemmed from him living in a culture that kept him in an emotional straitjacket.

Josh’s issues (and case formulation from a feminist perspective) looked like this:

  1. Learning to deal more effectively with sadness, grief, and anger within the context of a repressive emotional environment.
  2. Coming to an understanding that his beliefs and views of emotional expression were not in his best interest, but instead, foisted upon him by toxic cultural attitudes about how boys and men should experience and express emotion.
  3. Developing trust and confidence in himself—despite not having a father figure or a mother who could provide him and his sisters with a consistently safe and stable home environment.
  4. Learning to talk about what he really feels inside and pursue his life passions whatever they might be instead of reflexively pursuing culturally “manly” activities.
  5. Expanding Josh’s limited emotional vocabulary through consciousness-raising.

Interventions

Feminist therapists are technically eclectic; they use a wide range of interventions imbedded in an egalitarian and mutually empathic relationship:

  1. Encouraging Josh to speak freely and openly about his life experiences.
  2. Empathic listening with intermittent focusing on more tender emotions, depending on how much of this Josh was willing or able to tolerate.
  3. Therapist self-disclosure and modeling.

As Josh and I looked at photos together, I responded with interest and enthusiasm. Because interpersonal connection is a core part of therapy, I didn’t rush him to move on to our therapy agenda. Instead, I shifted back and forth between saying, “Cool” or “What’s going on there?” to making sarcastic wisecracks like “Why exactly did the government let you into the capital building?” Sarcasm was used to express interest and affection indirectly, mirroring Josh’s humor and style. After seeing most of the photos I asked, “Who’s the person standing next to you?” I could tell from his response that I had asked a good question.

“Oh, yeah, her. Her name is Sharice; her mentor was getting the same award as my mentor. I danced with her. She’s a good dancer.”

We talked about dancing and what it was like for him to feel attracted to her. We were ten minutes into therapy and both of us had completely ignored the fact that we hadn’t been able to see each other for five weeks. Finally, I decided to break the avoidance pattern. I asked “So…how are you doing with all that’s been going on?”

He looked toward me, glancing downward.

“I’m doing okay, I guess.”

Because this was a young man who had been socialized to keep his emotions tightly wrapped, I probed, but gently.

“I understand it’s been pretty wild times?”

He looked up, eyes fixed on some invisible spot on the ceiling. I recognized this strategy—a surefire way avoid crying in public. An upward gaze constricts the tear ducts; tears cannot flow.

He looked back down and said, “I’ve been busy. My mom’s been in the hospital for about a month.”

“I heard she had a pretty hard time.”

He grunted and then, in a quiet growly voice, the words, “Let-me-tell-you-about-it” seeped out from behind his teeth. Silence followed. I cautiously probed a bit more by sharing more of what I knew.

“I talked with your mom yesterday. She told me that she got pretty caught up in some housing project.” This statement lit a fire in Josh and he plunged into the story.

“You won’t believe what she did. It was so f*ing stupid. Some punk developer is gonna build three houses. Three houses at the end of our street. This is no big deal. She just f*ing freaked out. She chained herself up to a tractor to stop them from building a house. Then she called the f*ing senator and road department and I don’t know who in hell else she called. She was totally nuts. So I told her she had a choice. I told her that she could go back home or I’d call the police and have her committed. She wasn’t taking care of my sisters. She was being a shit for a mom. So I just gave her a choice.”

I nodded and said, “You must be practicing to be a parent. That’s the kind of choice parents give their kids.”

His voice grew louder: “I gave her the choice five times. Five f*ing times! She tried to buy a Mercedes and a Volvo over the phone. So I called the cops. And the woman asked ME what to do. I’m f***ing 16 years old and they f *ing ask me what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I told ‘em to come get her. They finally sent some really big cops over to take her away.”

“Then what happened?”

“My mom was still acting nuts and my sisters were crying. So I just picked them up and held them and they took her away. We sat and they cried and we snuggled a while. And then I drove us home. I don’t have my license, but I can drive. My mom is still pissed at me about that, but I don’t give a shit!”

While listening to Josh, I formed an image of him in my mind. I saw an awkward 16-year-old boy “snuggling” his sobbing sisters, as the cops take their mother away. The girls were 9 and 6 and 4 years old—the same sisters he had complained about in previous therapy sessions.

Talking with teenage boys about emotional issues is tricky. Too much empathy and they retreat. No empathy and you’re teaching the wrong lesson. Throughout Josh’s storytelling, I used sarcasm, empathy, and emotional exploration, like, “What was that like for you to gather up your sisters and take care of them?” I suspected that if I asked too much about feelings or forced him to go too deep too fast, I would lose my “coolness rating” and there would be a relationship rupture.

Much of the session focused on empathy for Josh’s anger. Josh ranted and I listened. He was immensely angry and disappointed and hurt about his mother’s behavior. But I wanted to find a way to let Josh know that it’s okay, even a positive thing, for boys and men to feel and express more tender feelings.

About halfway through our session, I asked:

“So Josh,” I said, “When was the last time you cried?”

After a short pause he spoke with extreme deliberation, “I… don’t… cry… I… just… get… pissed.”

Josh expressed this masculine emotional principle very efficiently and then offered more about his socially coerced, but internalized emotional philosophy.

“Crying doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t change anything. It’s just stupid.”

“I know, I know” I said. “The whole idea of crying sounds pretty stupid to you. It’s not like crying will change your mom and make her better.”

“Nothing will ever change her.”

I renewed my pursuit of when he last cried. He insisted that was so long ago that he couldn’t recall, but we both knew that several years ago, after an especially hard week with his mother, he had sat on my couch and sobbed himself to sleep. Instead of bringing that up, I asked him what might make him cry now. Would he cry if his girlfriend broke up with him… if he lost his cell phone… if one of his sisters got cancer… if he didn’t graduate high school? Josh fended off my questions about tears by repeating his resolve to get “pissed” about everything that might make him feel sad. But the question about one of his sister’s getting cancer stumped him. He admitted, “Yeah, I might cry about that…” while quickly adding, “…but I’d do it alone!”

I responded, “Right. Absolutely. Some things might be worth crying about… even though it wouldn’t change things… but you’d want to do the crying alone.”

We talked indirectly and intellectually about sadness and tears, trying to model that we can talk about it—once removed—and if he cried someday, it would be perfectly okay, there would be no need to feel ashamed.

Toward the end of the session, I decided to lighten things up by teasing Josh about his social insensitivity. I said, “I can’t believe that we’ve talked this whole hour and you never asked a single thing about me.”

Josh grinned. He knew therapy was all about him and not about me. He probably thought I was playing some sort of therapy game with him. He was a good sport and played along.

“Okay. So what am I supposed to ask?”

I acted offended, saying, “After all those questions I asked you, at least you should ask me when I last cried.”

“God you don’t know when to drop things. Okay. So when did you cry?”

I said, “I think it was yesterday.”

Our eyes met. He looked surprised. I continued, “Yeah. I feel sad sometimes. It can be about really hard stories I hear in here or it can be about my own life. Even though it doesn’t change anything, it can feel better to let my sadness out.”

It was time for the session to end. We both stood and I said, “We have to stop for today, but we can talk more about this or whatever you want to talk about next time.”

 

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Feminist Theory and Interpersonal Neurobiology: A Natural Connection

 

Woman Statue

This is a draft “Brain Box” for the feminist theory and therapy chapter from our forthcoming Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy textbook.

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Feminist therapy is about connection.

So is neuroscience.

Neuroscience involves the study of synaptic interconnections, neural networks, brain structures and their electrochemical communications.

Feminist therapy involves egalitarian interconnection, empathy, mutual empathy, and empowerment of the oppressed, neglected, and marginalized.

As a highly sophisticated, interconnected entity, the human brain is metaphorical support for feminist theory and therapy. In the brain, cells don’t operate in isolation. In feminist therapy in general, and relational cultural therapy (RCT) in particular, isolation is unhealthy. Connection is healthy.

Healthy brains are connection-heavy. Whether humans are awake or asleep, brain cells are in constant communication; they problem-solve; they operate sensory and motor systems; they feedback information to and from the body, inhibiting, exciting, and forming a connected, communicating, community.

Using modern brain research as a foundation, Jordan (the developer of RCT) described how empathic relationships can change clients:

“Empathy is not just a means to better understand the client; in mutually empathic exchanges, the isolation of the client is altered. The client feels less alone, more joined with the therapist. It is likely that in these moments of empathy and resonance, there is active brain resonance between therapist and client (Schore, 1994), which can alter the landscape and functioning of the brain. Thus, those areas of the brain that register isolation and exclusion fire less and those areas that indicate empathic responsiveness begin to activate.”

Jordan is talking about how therapist-client interactions change the brain. Many others have made the same point: “It is the power of being with others that shapes our brain” (Cozolino, 2006, p. 9). In her review of RCT theory and outcomes, Frey (2013) emphasized that “research on mirror neurons, the facial recognition system, lifelong neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and the social functions of brain structures” (p. 181) supports feminist theory and feminist therapy process.

Neuroscience research is supportive of feminist therapy in ways that are both real and metaphorical. There is unarguably great potential here. However, before we wax too positive, it’s important to heed a warning. Beginning with Plato (at least) and throughout the history of time, the main way in which physical (or brain) differences between the sexes have been used is to marginalize females and undercut their viability as equal partners in the human race (see Brain Box 10.2). With that caveat in mind, let’s respect feminism with some multitasking: Let’s celebrate the positive parallels between human neurology and feminist theory, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on how neuroscience is being used to limit or oppress girls and women.

A Guest Essay on the Girl Code and Feminism

The past several years I’ve offered a few extra credit points for students in my theories class who write me a short essay on the Girl Code. The Girl Code is defined–using William Pollack’s Boy Code as a guide–as the unhealthy societal and media-based rules by which girls and women are supposed to live. These rules are typically limiting (e.g., women who get angry are considered bitches) and are often damaging to girls and women.

This year students had to watch three feminist-related video clips as a part of this extra credit assignments and then write a short essay. The clips are listed below so you can click on the links and watch them if you like:

Eve Ensler doing a TED talk: Embrace Your Inner Girl — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhG1Bgbsj2w

Emma Watson speaking to the U.N.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9SUAcNlVQ4

Cameron Russell’s TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model?language=en

The following essay was written by Tristen Valentino. He gave me permission to post it here.

I’m featuring Tristen’s essay not only because I found it to be well-written and insightful, but also because his ideas stretch my thinking. Frequently I find myself puzzled as to why so many people in our society have such negative reactions to the word “feminist.” Why would anyone be against equal rights and opportunities for males and females? What’s the problem with that? In fact, this past year Time Magazine went so far as to suggest it be eliminated from the dictionary (inserted stunned silence here). For me, Tristen’s essay is important because, although he strongly criticizes what he sees as the overly generalized messages within the assigned video clips (which I happen to like), he also explicitly condemns the mistreatment of women based on gender.

Here’s Tristen’s essay. I hope you enjoy it . . . or at least find it thought-provoking.

Extra Credit Commentary on Feminism Clips
Tristen Valentino
COUN 485
November 24, 2014

Advocating equal rights is a noble and admirable pursuit. The video clips featuring Eve Ensler, Emma Watson, and Cameron Russell each speak about sexual discrimination, and their own personal roles in feminism. While I fully support equality in opportunity, and applaud their intention, I believe their execution was flawed. The three of them generalized men across the globe, lumping all men from all cultures and nations together in the oppression of women. The three of them claimed that male chauvinism is not only prevalent but pervasive in all societies.

Eve Ensler speaks briefly of her violent and abusive father and alludes that her experiences at the hands of her father set her in motion to help end the victimization of women. In this case I feel that Eve Ensler is looking at everything through the same tinted lens. In her world, the lens with which she views the world is completely blue (victimization of women), so when she looks upon the world she sees everything as blue. While not incorrect, since there are many things blue in the world, this view is incomplete as there are many things not blue. So too with her view on victimization and the causes of it.

Emma Watson’s speech appealed to emotion, but wilted under even slight pressure from a factual basis. She claimed that in her country (United Kingdom) women were oppressed and drew comparisons between the UK and African nations. She failed to mention that in her country the longest serving Prime Minister was a female (Margaret Thatcher) and that the longest living monarch, and second longest reigning monarch, is a female (Queen Elizabeth II).

Cameron Russell speaks about how damaging the media can be to female self-esteem and the female identity. She attributes insecurity, eating disorders, and other self-image issues with fantastical, and often fictional, portrayals of the female form. I find this to be incredibly hypocritical and disingenuous coming from someone who is an active participant in the very mechanism that she claims is doing harm to the female psyche.

However, those issues aside, the issue of gender equality is a serious one, and one that deserves our attention. There is little doubt that acts of female oppression and victimization are completely evil. There is no arguing that in some areas, horrible atrocities happen to women simply because they are women. This culture of male predatory behavior resulting in the victimization of women needs to be addressed and halted immediately. The damage that is caused is not always as easily seen and overt as physical injury. The mental and psychological injuries inflicted by the gender expectations of such things as the “Girl Code” apply pressure to already stressed women to perform up to a standard, and in such a way, as to be unrealistic. Expectations—such as women must always look pretty, must always be as thin as they can be, or must be sexy, but not too sexy—place the value of women on their physical appearance. It prevents their self-expression and their validation of life by stripping away the value of all their other qualities. Women are not objects to be used or abused at the whims of men. Women are not toys to be played with and then discarded. They are equal partners in the venture of life. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, and politicians. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, confidants, and mentors. They are strong, intelligent, indomitable, competent, and capable. They are all that and more. They are women. They are human.

From Boring Theory to Exciting Practice: WACES PowerPoints II

Mondays are my theories evening this semester. Last night was feminist theory and therapy. We rocked our way through Women & Madness; Kinder, Kuche, and Kurche; and the Broverman et al. study to provide us with a foundation of justified anger which helped raise our collective consciousness and stimulate our instinct to tend and befriend and eventually develop an ethic of caring.

Below is the link to powerpoints from my second presentation at the WACES conference in Portland.

WACES Theories

Opening Thoughts on Feminism

This is the opening section from our feminist chapter in Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice — written with help from Maryl Baldridge, M.A.

For years, psychiatric journals have touted the salutary effects of antidepressants by printing “before” and “after” pictures showing a woman leaning on a mop looking despondently at her kitchen floor, and then happily mopping it after taking her medication.

—E. Kaschak, Engendered Lives (1992, p. 22)

At the American School Counselor Association National Conference in 2011, Georgie Bright Kunkel, a 90-year-old woman, delivered a keynote address. She bounded onto the stage—not looking a day over 80. She introduced herself as the oldest stand-up comic in Washington state (Was there an older stand-up comic somewhere else on the planet?). She proceeded to crack jokes about everything from sex to . . . well . . . sex, and then sex again. In the middle of her routine, she slipped in a serious story that went something like this:

I was working as a school counselor at an elementary school. To kick off our career day, I contacted a woman friend of mine who was an airplane pilot. She agreed to land her one-person plane in the middle of our schoolyard. We were all very excited. We gathered the students outside and watched as she guided the plane down and smoothly landed on the playground. The students crowded around as she emerged from the tiny plane, helmet in hand. When it became apparent she was a woman, one of our male students turned to me and asked, “Where’s the pilot?” It was clearly a one-person plane, but in this boy’s mind, men were pilots and women were stewardesses. This was a sad truth for many of our students. But what interested me more was the impact of this event on our students’ career ambitions. We had decided to take a student survey before and after career day. Before my friend landed on our playground, exactly 0% of our female students listed “airplane pilot” as one of their potential career choices. After career day, about 40% of the girls listed airline pilot as a career to consider in the future.

This is an example of a feminist working therapeutically to bring about development, change, options, and liberation. Feminist therapy can be transformative. It was designed, in part, to break down unhelpful stereotypes and free all humans to fulfill their potentials.