Feminist therapy was developed in response to the many challenges women have faced throughout history. The understanding that women may experience mental health issues as a result of psychological oppression is a core concept of feminist therapy.
In therapy, women and other groups that have been marginalized might address the limitations experienced due to the sociopolitical status often imposed upon them and, with the help of a mental health professional, explore solutions to treat mental health needs and work toward social change.
Feminist therapy attempts to make the marginalized viewpoint central, and modern-day feminist therapy and theory often addresses the concerns of people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender-variant individuals; people with special needs; immigrants; refugees; and more. Those who have experienced oppression may be able to find a treatment that can inspire social transformation in addition to addressing mental health concerns.
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Feminist therapists typically operate from the assumption that women and other oppressed groups are at risk for mental health issues due to the psychological distress caused by these obstacles. Therapy focuses on supporting those in treatment as they work to overcome limitations and restrictions. Gender roles, socialization, identity development, and self-concept are all explored during therapy in order to promote empowerment.
Feminist therapy is a person-centered, politically informed model that positions treatment within a cultural context. Its goals are to empower the person in treatment, enabling that person to potentially address aspects of social transformation, nurture the self and establish a strong self-concept, and restructure and enhance personal beliefs about identity. A therapist will generally work to prevent bias, demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of oppression, and offer a genuine, non-hierarchical relationship that emphasizes mutuality and equality. Those in treatment may share their own stories and also hear about the therapist's experiences. This form of therapy often has the effect of inspiring those in treatment to incite social change, and individuals may also, through therapy, become better able to accept themselves.
The principles of feminist therapy include:
- Personal and political context: A person's issues are contemplated within the framework of the person's cultural, political, or social context.
- Commitment to social change: The aim of therapy is not only to help the individual but also to make a positive impact on society.
- Value of diverse perspectives: The therapeutic process honors and welcomes diverse perspectives.
- An egalitarian relationship: The therapeutic relationship is set up to demystify therapy and to prevent a power imbalance between the therapist and the person in treatment.
- A strength-focused approach: A therapist may avoid diagnostic labels, redefine mental health issues, and highlight the strengths of the person in therapy.
- Recognition of all types of oppression: Therapists typically express recognition of the fact that oppression is harmful to all people.
Techniques used in feminist therapy include:
- Self-disclosure: Therapists may share their own experiences, when appropriate, in an attempt to normalize, equalize, and liberate the experiences and emotions of the person in therapy.
- Gender-role analysis and intervention: An exploration of the impact of gender roles on mental health may be conducted in order to develop the person in treatment's insight.
- Power analysis: Therapists and those in treatment often examine the various ways unequal power has impacted the ability to grow and achieve.
- Reframing: Therapists can help shift the perspectives of those in treatment by identifying social factors that may affect mental health issues, reframing them in strength-based ways.
- Social action: Therapists may encourage those in therapy to engage in social activism as a method of achieving greater empowerment.
Gender is an important concept in feminist therapy. People often lump gender in with biological sex, and although many people do identify their gender in this way, many more do not. A personal definition of gender can be influenced by things such as psychological attitudes and experiences, societal norms and expectations, cultural beliefs and traditions, biological assumptions and differences, and stereotypes and biases.
Feminist therapists may pay close attention to gender stereotypes and biases in order to help those they are treating understand how they were socialized in terms of gender. Gender stereotypes frequently lead to problematic attitudes toward a certain gender, and these attitudes can contribute to discrimination, oppression, trauma, and other problematic experiences. Feminist therapy can help people better define their gender identity in order to both better understand themselves and society.
Feminist therapy's comprehensive understanding of gender makes it a solid choice for people who are transgender or gender variant. When a person's gender identity or expression differs from the gender assigned at birth, or when a person's gender is not easily identifiable, stigmatization and discrimination often result. Many individuals have been traumatized by harassment, violence, and human rights violations. These experiences may lead some to seek therapeutic support in order to address these issues, as well as any mental distress they may experience as a result, and explore their gender identity in a safe environment.
Although feminist therapy has historically consisted of women helping women, present-day feminist therapy is open to couples, families, children, and people of any gender. Because the therapeutic relationship is a partnership, men, just as any other group, will typically find it essential to first determine what they require from treatment. For example, a therapist might help a man identify how his gender role has limited him in some way or support him in exploring the ways society has impacted his ability to express emotion. Some other issues addressed might include intimacy, emotionality, vulnerability, and the nurture of relationships that are not based on a power hierarchy.
Feminist therapy has its roots in the feminist movement of the 1960s. During this time, several organizations began programs specifically designed to help women, such as domestic violence shelters and women's health centers. These organizations raised awareness and social consciousness about women's rights, which impacted many women of the time, therapists among them. These therapists formed the first feminist therapy groups, which were founded on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and empowerment.
In the 1970s, research on gender bias and the establishment of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) fueled the feminist therapy movement further, and by the 1980s, several feminist theories emerged to test traditional theoretical frameworks. Feminist therapy diversified to include issues such as eating disorders, trauma and abuse, and body image.
Feminist therapy has since expanded to include work with individuals from a wide range of marginalized groups who experience a variety of mental health issues. As a therapeutic model, feminist therapy is influenced by a number of philosophies; Rogerian, Adlerian, and Gestalt therapies; as well as several kinds of feminism.
Feminist therapy has been praised for its similarity to multicultural therapy in that it provides a systemic and gender-fair approach to treatment. Although feminist therapy has made significant contributions to the field of psychology, there are a few limitations to consider:
- Evidence-based research on the efficacy of feminist therapy is lacking.
- Therapist self-disclosure and the sharing of personal and professional beliefs may overly influence the beliefs of a person in treatment. An individual who has not experienced something firsthand may form an opinion of it based on the therapist's personal conviction or bias.
- A focus on unexamined choices of the person in treatment may put the therapist at risk for imposing choices or decisions that the individual is not ready for. For example, a therapist might push a person in treatment to leave an abusive partner too soon, putting that person at risk.
- A strong focus on environmental factors may detract from the ability of a person in treatment to take personal responsibility for problems. For example, those who believe society is to blame for their depression may be less likely to seek appropriate treatment.
- Brown, L. S. (n.d.). Feminist Therapy. In Laura S. Brown, PhD. Retrieved from http://www.drlaurabrown.com/feminist-therapy
- Corey, G. (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (8th ed., pp. 339-369). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
- Feminist Therapy - Approach. (n.d.). In American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/videos/4310828.aspx?tab=2
- Nutt, R. L., Rice, J. K., & Enns, C. Z. (2007, December). Guidelines for psychological practice with girls and women. American Psychologist, 62(9), 949-979. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.9.949.
- Transgender Identity Issues in Psychology. (n.d.). In American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/programs/transgender/index.aspx?tab=3