Tag Archives: Judith Jordan

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.

**************

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.

Advertisements

What Kind of a Man Attends the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?

Several years ago a former student caught up with me in the hall outside my office in the College of Education at the University of Montana. He had taken an Intro to Psychology course from me way back in 1982. He re-introduced himself, complimented me on my teaching from three decades previously, and then, glancing at my name on the door, asked, “What kind of a man hyphenates his last name?”

I was speechless (which doesn’t happen all that often). He had just told me of his divorce; he had marveled at me being married for 25 years; and yet there it was, a small-dose of straight on masculine-shaming.

I said what most of us probably say when questioned about our masculinity.

I said nothing.

In retrospect, I wish I’d said: “I hyphenated my name because I’m the kind of man who wants to stay married and have a real partnership with his wife.” Hmm. That might have been over-the-top.
I didn’t have a balanced answer then and I’m not sure I have a good one now. But, how about cutting to the chase and meeting his question with one of my own?

“What kind of a man questions another man about his masculinity?”

That might have been fun, but obviously not perfect. And that’s the point; it can be difficult to find the right words in response to comments on our masculinity.

This past Saturday I had the privilege of embracing all dimensions of my humanity, without needing to worry about sideways—or straight on—masculinity comments. That’s because I had the good fortune of attending the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference. Of course, my comfort might have been because the chief conference organizer, Matt Englar-Carlson, a faculty member in the Department of Counseling at Cal State Fullerton, is also a hyphenator. But more likely it was because this particular conference was all about acceptance, inclusion, listening, understanding, learning . . . and most of all CONNECTION. Masculine shaming was nowhere in the room.

The conference organizers, Englar-Carlson, David Shepard, and Rebekah Smart, set the tone for understanding and inclusiveness in their opening comments. The opening keynote followed and it was BY A WOMAN . . . which this leads me to back to my masculine-shaming theme for today:

“What kind of a MEN AND MASCULINITY organization sponsors a conference on psychotherapy with men and then has an opening keynote speech BY A WOMAN?”

Answer: “The kind of organization populated by people who have the good judgment to be very interested in listening to and understanding women’s perspectives.”

And so we all got to listen to—not just any woman (although that would have been fine too, because the conference wasn’t about status)—but the renowned Judith Jordan, author of many books and co-director of the Jean Baker Miller Institute. How cool is that?

After Jordan explored how we can raise boys to be competent and connected men, we scattered to different break-out sessions. As my adolescent clients would say, this sucked because it’s hard to make hard choices. My principle regret of the whole conference was that even though I have two last names, there’s still only one of me and so I couldn’t attend EVERY SESSION, but instead had make choices. And although I was perfectly happy to start my break-out experiences listening to Christopher Kilmartin, professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, as Irvin Yalom would say, it meant the death of the rest of my choices.

But seriously . . . here’s the important question: “What kind of a man accepts a faculty position at an institution named THE UNIVERSITY OF MARY WASHINGTON?”

Answer: “The same kind of man who gets asked to spend a year teaching sexual assault prevention at the Air Force Academy.” Now that’s a pretty good answer.

Kilmartin was awesome (just ask my wife, because I’ve been quoting him all week). But being at his break-out session made me miss the amazing Jon Carlson who might be the kindest, gentlest, and most humble person I know with hundreds of professional publications, video productions, and spare time to raise five children (two adopted) including the hyphenated conference organizer, who happens to have full professor status despite looking like he just shaved for the first time last week.

Naturally, the psychotherapy with men conference lunch had a vegetarian option (at this point I should also mention the Starbucks coffee and whole wheat bagels in the morning and the Panera coffee and cookies in the afternoon). Right after lunch, we gathered to listen to Fredric Rabinowitz, the afternoon keynote. Rabinowitz, who also happens to play tournament poker, talked about Deepening Psychotherapy with Men. He emphasized that, for men, there’s a substantial vocabulary about defenses, but not Department of Connection. For the past 20+ years he has helped men go deep and express their pain and loss in ways that are (surprise!) contrary to how society expects men to express their pain and loss. Unfortunately, Rabinowitz had to miss an annual fancy poker tournament to attend the conference . . . which leads to the obvious question:

“What kind of a man misses a poker tournament to talk with a bunch of sensitive psychotherapy-types?”

Answer: “A pretty cool dude who knows his priorities.”

After Rabinowitz’s keynote, there were more decisions. In my program I had circled presentations by David Shepard and Michele Harway as well as Chris Liang. But I should confess here-and-now that I got slightly intoxicated with Panera coffee and cookies and ended up wandering into the wrong room with three Canadian presenters who were talking about how to help men transition from military to civilian life. It might have partially been the coffee, but the Three Canadians ROCKED MY WORLD . . . which begs the question:

“What kind of a man gets his world rocked by Three Canadians?”

Answer: “The kind of man who recognizes they have such fabulous clinical skills and compassion and cleverness that it makes him wish he was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. instead of Vancouver, Washington (not that there’s anything wrong with Vancouver, WA).”

After my Canadian experience I staggered into Mark Stevens’s presentation on Engaging Men in the Process of Psychotherapy. Stevens showed photos of little boys and asked us to remember that ALL OF OUR MALE CLIENTS were once sensitive boys (not little men). He urged us to engage men slowly, but to not judge or underestimate them in ways that minimize or shrink their humanity. This was awesome, but I have to ask:

“What kind of a man shows photos of little boys during a professional presentation?”

Answer: “The kind of man who understands how to work effectively with men.”

At this conference you didn’t need a hyphenated name and you didn’t need an un-hyphenated name, because there was no shaming either way. There was just acceptance; acceptance of being scared boys and scared girls who are doing the best we can to openly affirm and connect with each other. And these connections reached across races, to the transgendered, to the women, and even to graduate students. If you’re interested in this sort of thing (and I think you should be), you should check out Division 51 of the American Psychological Association at: http://www.division51.org/

BTW, at the post-conference social I got to meet lore m. dickey, who presented earlier in the day on Affirmative Practice with Transgender Clients. He immediately shared with me that he is a female to male transsexual. That’s the sort of openness and connection you get at the Psychotherapy with Men conference. But I’m sure you know this leads me to another purposely masculinity-shaming question.

“What kind of a man chooses to go through a female to male transgender process?”

“The kind of a man who has achieved clarity about his male identity.”

The day ended with me hanging out with the Three Canadians—whom I should name here (Marvin Westwood, David Kuhl, and Duncan Shields). They welcomed me to their table at the social time where we engaged in an extended international mutual appreciation festival. You should really look them up.

All this brings me to my final question:

“What kind of a man writes an fluffy, complimentary, and sycophantic blog about the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?”

Answer: “The kind of man who wants to offer the conference organizers and participants the thanks and praise they deserve.”