We sometimes think of therapy and feminism as complete opposites. Therapy can be thought of as an individual solution that tries to get the woman to feel more comfortable in her situation, and feminism is a movement to liberate women as a class. If we oversimplify this comparison we can make therapy look like forced compliance with patriarchy and therefore anti-feminism. But therapy does not have to be anti-feminist, in fact it can be very pro-feminist. It can return to us the strength and resilience that has been taken away from us and it can give us the ability to keep fighting for our cause.
The most common form of psychotherapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which is where the patient talks about her life and the therapist suggests ways of changing her behavior and thought patterns in order to improve her life. I know that when feminists hear this we immediately jump to accusations of victim-blaming. It’s not her fault, it’s the patriarchy! we want to shout. But I have done lots and lots of CBT and it did not turn me into a self-blaming patriarchy enthusiast. Let’s take a closer look at the idea of “changing your negative thoughts.”
Some thoughts are negative because the situation is truly negative. If you are being abused by your husband, for example, and you think this is a negative situation, then you are absolutely correct. This thought does not need to be changed at all, it is an accurate assessment of the situation. Other thoughts are negative even though the situation is not actually negative. If you believe that you are ugly and stupid, those are truly negative thoughts. They are making a negative and untrue interpretation of your situation. Those are thoughts that do need to be changed and you can, and should, change them, because they are harmful to you and you deserve to be safe from harm.
Those of us with feminist consciousness will realize that women are more likely to have thoughts that are truly negative, because we are trained right from childhood to think we are not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough, and generally stupid and incompetent. The negative messaging is overwhelming and we do internalize it. When we take a good honest look at our thoughts and assess whether or not they are actually true, we can keep those thoughts that are true and teach ourselves to discard the others. It is certainly a feminist act to discard the harmful lessons patriarchy has taught us.
Have you noticed that a man can get through a whole day doing all sorts of things wrong and not even caring that he’s doing things wrong, and still sleep peacefully at night, but a woman could do everything perfectly and still doubt herself, and stay up late worrying about whether she should have done things differently? Women can fight back against this training. This is patriarchy inside our minds. We are much more competent than we think. Women usually have to do more work in a day than men do and be better at tasks than men are just to be seen as having done the same amount of work with the same level of competence.
The effects of holding on to negative thinking are anxiety and depression. A woman who is overcome with anxiety and depression has no energy left for fighting the patriarchy. How can anyone, say, organize a rally for abortion rights, when she is overcome with feelings of gloom and hopelessness?
I say that therapy can be feminist, when it’s done right. Therapy is not the whole picture, is all. Self-care is something you do until you can feel like yourself again enough to get on with your life. Then it’s off to fight the patriarchy once more. We need both of these things—we need periods of activism and consciousness-raising but we also need periods of self-care and rejuvenation. If you are lucky enough to have access to therapy, you should take advantage of that opportunity.
Western society is in love with pop psychology, ineffective forms of self-help, and a shallow version of “positive thinking.” These can get really, really annoying because they don’t come anywhere near acknowledging systemic oppression and real-world social problems. They are based in fantasy, not reality. The self-help books that major retailers sell are the kind that claim that you can change absolutely anything in life by changing your thoughts and that you are literally controlling reality with your thinking. That is absolute horseshit. Material reality continues to exist regardless of your thoughts on it. And when people get into the theory that we create our reality with our thoughts they also get into the theory that when bad things happen to us it’s either a blessing because we’ll grow and learn from it, or it’s because our thoughts were negative and therefore we attracted negative things to us. Now, THAT is victim-blaming. Imagine if someone preached that we attract bad situations to ourselves because of our negative thinking to Syrian refugees, or victims of human trafficking, or child brides, or kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls? It’s not our thoughts that create war, slavery, and patriarchy, it’s the evil intentions of men and the power they hold that creates these things. They alone are accountable.
The key is remaining in reality. If you are correctly assessing a negative situation, then absolutely do not give up your correct assessment. But if you are going around believing that you are incompetent and stupid when actually you are talented and intelligent, then YES! Do some CBT. What attracts me to feminism is that it’s reality-based. Feminism takes a good honest look at the world we live in and names the problem. Human thoughts are often not based in reality, though. Humans do things like worry, panic, dissociate, deny, exaggerate, and catastrophize. We are allowed to seek help with these things just as we would seek help with a physical condition, so that we can be healthy again.
I highly recommend reality-based therapy that helps us be our healthiest selves, but I do not endorse the cult of shallow, meaningless “positive thinking.” I’m not a particularly happy person—I think that humans are basically horrible and that this whole planet is headed for certain destruction as capitalist patriarchy kills itself off. I think life is full of pain and struggle and I know that the living conditions of many people and animals on this planet are torture. However, I also believe in my own strength and abilities and I believe that I am worthy of being here, on this planet, and I love that I have the capacity to help people around me. I believe that peace and justice are worth fighting for, whether we ever achieve them or not. And I will fight for them, since I’m here and I have the ability to do so.
Therapy and activism are like sleep and activity. You can’t do just one, all the time—you need both. One rejuvenates and rebuilds you, and the other allows you to use your abilities and affect the world around you. If you do only therapy, it feels like pointless navel-gazing. If you do only activism, you will burn out eventually and be unable to continue.
I will share a small anecdote from my own days of CBT. Once upon a time, I had some trouble accepting my romantic feelings for women. As soon as a saw a pretty woman or thought about a woman I liked, I would launch into a full-on attack against myself, calling myself “A FUCKING DYKE” (not in a nice way) and telling myself to stop, stop, STOP! And then all the other insecurities would pile on top of those—I was also stupid and wrong and awful and would never make it in the world. I had to work hard at identifying these thoughts as incorrect and harmful and then slowly reverse them by teaching myself new thoughts that reflect love and acceptance. One day I was walking by myself out in the snow, and I thought of a pretty woman I knew, and I realized that I could enjoy this thought. I could allow this attraction to make me feel good and I could enjoy the warm fuzzies, instead of beating myself up over it. And at that moment, the snow didn’t feel cold or gloomy anymore, it looked sparkly and beautiful. And that’s when I realized that when I stop beating myself up with negativity, I can finally let in what joys there are to find here in this life. This of course didn’t make homophobia go away, but it did make me way better able to handle it. Today I am a proud lesbian who is out to everyone I know, even my boss and casual acquaintances. I go around wearing short hair and no makeup and baggy clothes with hiking shoes and with my legs unshaven. I’m not embarrassed anymore. That’s the result of therapy done right, and it’s helped me to be the strong lesbian feminist that I am. I wouldn’t be able go around in public wearing a rainbow flag or shout and wave banners in front of news cameras at political rallies or talk to politicians about gay rights and women’s rights if I was still frightened and ashamed. Therapy and feminism can combine together and balance each other beautifully.