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Feminism and the Treatment of Trauma

Feminist theory can be traced back hundreds of years, evolving uniquely across societies over time but still marked by parallel themes. My own study of feminist theory begins with the women’s movements and the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the later 1800s, the women’s suffrage movement leading into the 1920s and the reignited women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Originally, women were working toward recognition of their status as humans, as landowners and as voters. Later, they sought rights as decision makers about their own bodies — and their reproductive rights, in particular — and pursued workers’ rights, and equality with regard to gender identity, income, marriage, parenting and caregiver roles. Women, through all of these efforts over time, created and nurtured a community that validated their experiences and renewed an internal sense of being enough, being whole.

In my last blog post, I shared a bit about the synthesis of treatment protocols and the value of the practitioner who is willing to mindfully deviate, blend and collaborate in the treatment of trauma. Collaborative efforts can be understood through the lens of feminist theory and its application of rich, deep knowledge of the female experience. As Laura Brown, a feminist trauma therapist in the Seattle area, puts it, “What is inherent in feminist therapy theory is the radical notion that silenced voices of marginalized people are considered to be the sources of the greatest wisdom.” Dr. Brown’s website includes both a definition of feminist therapy and an “epistemology of difference” that frames creative and nuanced interventions to address the experiences of those unlike ourselves by assessing our own bias and privilege. Collaborating with our clients and letting their wisdom be our guide can lead down a path of healing specific to the unique experience of the client.

When we deconstruct this conceptualization, we see that feminism is not just the active process of creating a society in which women are equal to men, but rather the process by which the most marginalized people become our experts. Their experiences become our guiding principles, and our societies become places we all are valued uniquely and equally in our experience and in our personhood.

The sort of notion, of a utopian society in which we treat each other as equals, with love and harmony, may rightfully be dismissed as too naïve or at least oversimplified. But a therapeutic lens of equality, of equalizing the experience of the traumatized, is not. This knowing, that there is wisdom within the oppressed and victimized, is one with which therapists of trauma treatment are intimately aware. We are aware that the body holds our memories, that epigenetics suggests that our bodies hold also the memories of our ancestors. The children and grandchildren of those who lived through the Holocaust often demonstrate the same stress responses of their ancestors, and they are potentially engaging with fear or anxiety that comes from a deeper place of knowing.

In a March 2015 article in Scientific American magazine, author Tori Rodriguez states, “Rachel Yehuda, a researcher in the growing field of epigenetics and the intergenerational effects of trauma, and her colleagues have long studied mass trauma survivors and their offspring. Their latest results reveal that descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.” Our role as feminist therapists, therefore, is to hold the space for the body to experience what it knows so that it can express, organize, grieve and heal from the pain.

Treating trauma and building resilience from a feminist framework can capitalize on the brain science and what we now know about neuroplasticity. (Thank you, Daniel Siegel, Janina Fisher, Pat Ogden, etc.) Starting with the truth of each person’s experience avoids the cognitive dissonance that is often present when the therapist sets the frame. This dissonance can cause clients to get caught up in self-judgment about how society expects them to handle emotions and traumatic material. Feminism strives for equal opportunity, and I would suggest a similar goal within feminist therapy. Both that the frame is set collaboratively and that the truth of an individual’s trauma is given every opportunity to be considered, to emerge, to guide, evolve, soften, integrate and ultimately heal. Holding space for and validating each client’s truth is like creating a springboard for resilience in the healing process.

The therapeutic lens of feminism is not as much about gender, the gender binary or even about equality as it is about giving voice to those who have experienced the invisibility and invalidation of their experience. I recall an article titled “Barriers to Equality: The Power of Subtle Discrimination,” from the June 1990 Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, in which the concept of “micro-inequities” was introduced as an explanation for the “crazy” feelings (and labeling) of women in the workplace as they were subtly and regularly degraded, devalued and disregarded. The same concepts can be applied to race, religion or even less obvious forms of marginalization including body size, financial status or marital status. The term “micro-aggression” was coined by Chester Pierce, Ph.D., to explain the active oppression that occurs in the subtle exchanges between the perpetrator and victim — oppressive exchanges that historically have been minimized or explained away with sexist, ageist or racist justifications that reinforce the protection of the majority group.

Therapeutic implications include keeping an awareness of, and educating and exposing oneself to, the situations in which marginalization and oppression occur. Further, when looking through this lens, we understand that we cannot apply a single treatment approach to our clients with the expectation that the protocol will heal. Feminist therapists can appreciate the unique experience of the client, elevating the client’s voice, witnessing her or his experience, and compassionately holding space for the unfolding of the experience that the client needs to discover for the healing journey to continue.

The practitioner also must consider the role of the group or relationship. Margaret Mead comes to my mind as a change agent in terms of how we understand our ability to heal. As a cultural anthropologist, she embodied a knowing spirit of minority societies and cultures, allowing their voices to be heard in a way that would otherwise not have been considered. She is known for her thoughts on the powerful nature of a small group’s voice. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has,” she states in her 1964 book “Continuities in Cultural Evolution.”

While our work as trauma therapists is distinct from work in sociology or anthropology, we must take into consideration the system in which our clients have experienced their trauma. Those who have experienced trauma often have a need for a shared understanding, an experience of being known. It is valuable that in our work, we recognize both our partnership with the client in understanding the implications of traumatic experiences, as well as our limitations in this partnership. We must then help our clients connect to communities that will give them a voice in a way that we, as therapists, cannot always do.

How might a therapist intervene from a feminist framework? The therapist could begin by buoying the identity formation that was truncated when trauma first started to occur — developing that sense of self that is based on the essence of self, the strength and knowing from within. A next step would be to take on the complicated process of interweaving or integrating internal representations of those people who have a shared experience, pulling in the imagery of like-minded or like-experienced people in order to create a sense of internal resources that reduce the anxiety of being all alone in one’s experience. Finally, the therapist could work to develop interpersonal effectiveness skills so that the client has a sense of connection and remember self as it is revealed in relationship. These steps lead to the creation of a framework for self-expression that challenges objectification, the building of an internal knowing of self and others, and the creation of a community of tightly connected relationships that support and reinforce all the parts of self, however healed they have yet to become.

The trauma therapist, as we know, can experience a secondary trauma as a result of being mindfully present and holding the experiences of trauma for others. So, what to say to the feminist therapist? Find your people, let them hold you, let them hear the stories that haunt you and the micro-inequities that you now feel and see as you engage in your own personal life. Work with others so that you don’t find yourself marginalized, so that you always have multiple ways of looking at a client’s traumatic experience and the potential for healing. Above all else, remember that your role is to give voice and space to the unprocessed experience of the client, not to align with the client within the narrative of the tragedy and pain.

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