Power & the (Developing) Feminist Therapist
Feminism, as an intellectual movement, has transformed the postmodern ideals of deconstruction and subjectivity in ways that transmute the traditional sense of the individual viewing it as a static body bound by objectifying polemics, to an amalgam of a being composed of subjective experiences. As the various disciplines of the humanities and human sciences have adopted and adapted feminist thought, psychotherapy practices have grown in ways that are able to escape the sterility and objectification of the medical model; able to hold the multiplicity of individuals while still being able to hold onto the object reasoning that is necessary to achieve a sense of psychosocial functionality. For developing therapists like myself who come from a feminist, intersectional background and are driven by social justice, there is a fear of losing social progress by upholding the status quo our clients bring into therapy.
As I have developed intellectually over the years, feminist theory has given me a lens to see the world that has proven to be invaluable in not only determining my place within society, but within the reified and caste-like nature of the world. The antagonistic nature of arbitrary differences, the -isms of racism, sexism, colonialism, etc., are based upon not only a systemic form of hatred, but also a primal form of hatred that is rooted in an existential death anxiety. To dismantle the aforementioned systems of oppression, those that are propagated by the subjugation of the female and minority bodies and minds through patriarchal institutions, we must focus on the concept of power.
The core values of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) and feminist ethics
The field of MFT has changed in accordance with the contemporary ideologies of both scholars and laypeople alike, encompassing feminist concepts that push the boundaries of what it means to be a competent therapist. As Prouty, Lyness and Lyness (2007) have highlighted, feminist ideology creates a framework for which therapists can aspire to while they engage their clients, mental health focused institutions, and the overall population. As a result, the principle understanding of competency mandates the expansion of a therapist’s skill codified through Principle 3.6 of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) Code of Ethics (2015), while also taking into consideration the difficulty in comprehending or upholding multiplicity through the process of introspection and boundary setting by therapists through Principle 3.10. The point of contention that arises for many therapists, myself included, is the inner conflict around how multiplicity manifests itself within the therapist and within their practice.
The possibility of multiplicity. Within philosophical literature, Michel Foucault’s conception of power and knowledge have greatly influenced debates around gender, identity, and language, propelling the paradoxical nature of multiplicity beyond traditional political notions while heavily influencing the works of feminist scholars (Butler, 1990). I believe the Foucauldian conception of power greatly lends itself to a holistic, albeit dualistic, understanding of the culpability of the effects of multiplicity on a therapist. To highlight the difficulties of multiplicity, I focus on a major piece of contention among feminist and, subsequently, queer theorists through the use of the words ‘gender queer.’
For many, to be ‘gender queer’ and/or to identify as ‘gender queer’ is an intrinsically political act that reclaims the power that is stymied by the words, ‘gender binary,’ it’s antithesis. By logic, intentionally and/or unintentionally claiming the antithesis of gender binary further codifies the very power structure feminist thought is looking to dismantle (hooks, 1981). As a result, two common responses arise: reject or accept (Foucault, 1981; Butler, 1990). What one finds in rejecting the aforementioned feminist logic is the discrediting of people of color, of women’s bodies, and of culture, all while creating an air of ambivalent and object sterility (Deveaux, 1994). However, if one accepts, they will find that there is the possibility to de-legitimize the power of the privileged binary identities by placing sole power and responsibility in the conceptions of each individual.
To make abstract the concept of gender through multiple identifiers paradoxically lessens the power of each of these words while exponentially increasing the profundity of their main purpose of signifying gender. By the very nature of identity, subjectivity must always supersede objectivity to achieve a multiplicitous identity. As a feminist therapist, achieving competency and comfortability appears to stem from being able to hold conflicting and even contradicting identity points within all aspects of existence.
Competency. To know one’s self: the good and the bad, to find strength in discomfort, and knowing how to use those moments as growing, boundary pushing opportunities, is tantamount to competency. To have various capacities for introspection or, what I call “introspectivity”, is critical in being able to foster one’s skills in understanding and upholding multiplicity. Within practice, introspectivity informs the therapist of not only their limitations, but their possibilities as well. Knowing that there may be points of contention between the therapist and client, a good therapist is able to use their subjective experiences in objective ways that are not necessarily concerned with the moralization of a client. Developing a truly sophomoric attitude is critical in sustaining growth in a field that is marred with both holes of the illogical and monoliths of logic. This non-confrontational approach is rooted in an attempt to see that not all things are purposefully oppositional, but have occurred and continue to occur because of terms of survival.
In the case of the terminology ‘gender queer,’ it is not necessary to enforce the opposition to the gender binary, rather encourage multiplicity that should be the key. I believe it is absolutely necessary, especially in the case of the European language family (i.e. German, Spanish, Russian), to have polarizing discourse so that one can convey the perceived nature of things within said paradigm. These national and official languages came into use because of political means and exercises of power throughout the millennia of human existence (Chomsky, 1968). In this respect, one cannot simply stop the use of political or gendered words as they are embedded permanently into the construction of the various linguistic components including syntax and grammar. As Chomsky et al. (2002) suggest, I too believe that just as the common understanding of the politic of language has been lost to time, so too will the semantic meaning of discursive language if there is enough time.
To be feminist is to be political and to be a feminist therapist is to be a political therapist, one centered on depoliticizing the individual. One strategy is to uphold and fortify identity politics, as Phelan points out:
“Identity politics must be based, not only on identity, but on an appreciation for politics as the art of living together. Politics that ignores our identities, that makes them “private,” is useless; but non-negotiable identities will enslave us whether they are imposed from within or without (1989).”
It is my belief that a feminist therapist should be concerned with putting the lifeblood of meaning back into the words of our clients through transforming the politic of their language into a language of art and true expressionism. True feminist therapy is being able to harness the non-acknowledged power of our clients to transform and empower them to be their true, unobscured self. Often, this goes in terms of asking the unasked questions, those that seem ‘taboo’ or more about the therapist than the client. Ultimately, by asking those taboo questions and engaging equitably through conveying the humanity of the therapist, a true feminist therapist can emerge.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. (2015, January 1). AAMFT code of ethics. Retrieved from http://www.aamft.org/iMIS15/AAMFT/Content/Legal_Ethics/Code_of_Ethics.aspx
Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble : Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge.
Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Chomsky, N., Belletti, A., & Rizzi, L. (2002). On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Deveaux, M. (1994). Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault. Feminist Studies, (2). 223.
Foucault, M., & Gordon, C. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books.
hooks, b. (1981). Ain’t I a woman: Black women and feminism. Boston, MA: South End Press.
Prouty Lyness, A. M., & Lyness, K. P. (2007). Feminist Issues in Couple Therapy. Journal Of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 6(1/2), 181-195.
Phelan, S. (1989). Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and Limits of Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Casey is a Marriage and Family Therapy Master’s Candidate at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and a practicum intern at Anicca: Adolescent Day Treatment.
Casey specializes in Gender and Sexuality, Dysfunctions of Identity, as well as the application of Existential and Narrative Psychotherapies. With a background in Sociolinguistics and Asian Studies, Casey is inspired by the abilities of story telling and language as a means to construct and empower.
Opinions expressed in the MAMFT NEWS do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Editors or of MAMFT.