I’ve been trying to post this for awhile. I’m never going to finish going “Yeah! That point is really important!” and detailing all sorts of examples of why, so I’m just going to post it as-is:
Been a long time since I’ve found anything on this. I was going around the net and found the following articles about the problems of “feminist therapy” as applied to actual practiced feminism or lesbian-feminism. I don’t agree with a couple of the articles on the nature of consciousness-raising groups (I share the skepticism of the third article), but there’s a lot of useful information about how therapy warps things to be individual rather than political. Even if you disagree totally with the other political stances in these articles, they contain a lot of useful information about the intrusion of “therapy culture” on activism.
Therapism and the Taming of the Lesbian Community
This I feel language encourages us to judge everything by how it makes us feel. If we go to a lecture or read an article on some political topic, therapism encourages responses such as, “The author seemed very hostile to me,” or “She made me feel very frightened.” Rather than encouraging us to evaluate the substance, therapism encourages us to examine how her words made us feel. This promotes a microscopic view. It encourages us to look at most events in terms of how one person’s behavior affects another person’s emotions.
I’m sure everyone’s seen one or more of my rants on “I-statements” and “feeling” being used to separate out who expresses their opinions “properly” and who doesn’t. Rather than allowing any looking at the situation as it is, this sort of thing makes feelings synonymous with reality and goodness and all kinds of things they’re not.
Therapism teaches us quite a different way to be friends. In the first place, one must take one’s problems to a therapist so as not to overburden one’s friends.
What the article doesn’t quite get into, is the idea that relationships are not always exactly equal in terms of who is giving and taking which things. Therapism makes it so that friends don’t actually have to do things for each other, there are professionals for that. It makes it so that if one person is assisting another person more at any given particular amount of time, this can be considered “co-dependent” rather than a part of the natural ebb and flow of a relationship. Aside from encouraging selfishness, therapy seems to encourage an incredibly superficial kind of friendship wherein if any major problems arise for your friends, you aren’t expected to help any in dealing with them, you’re expected to tell them to go to a professional. It also, as the article points out, discourages anyone but professionals from giving advice about how to deal with life so that some of these problems might not be ongoing.
And let us not forget about “safe space.” A major problem with these therapistic means of communicating is that they can be so damn manipulative. “Safe space” is perhaps the biggest manipulator. At one time safe space for lesbians meant space where we could show affection for each other without fear of heckling or verbal abuse. It meant space where we could dare to look like Dykes without fear of physical assault. This kind of safe space was particularly important to working class Lesbians and Lesbians of Color who did not enjoy the relative safety that academic communities offered white Lesbians. However, today the term “safe space” indicates something entirely different. It means safety from each other. As far as I can tell, “safe space” is now an environment where a woman can express her emotions or feelings without fear of criticism. Safe space is a good example of how therapism has taken away our ability to discern the appropriate application of political ideas—sometimes popularizing these ideas past the point of significant meaning.
I remember a “support group” I went to (more on support groups later) for people who were or had been in the psychiatric system. I was first off the only psychiatric survivor/ex-patient in the room, everyone else identified as a consumer. As time wore on, it became apparent that this group could and did involuntarily commit people from that room, and did in fact support involuntary commitment for some unspecified “Those People” in which I was included at the time.
Now note, involuntary commitment is genuinely unsafe. It doesn’t just “feel unsafe” to think about, it’s the sort of thing that could literally kill me, and faster than it would kill the average person. I react to confinement in certain predictable ways. Those reactions are reacted to by institutional staff in certain predictable ways that involve the administration of drugs that can easily kill me. The local institution in that area disregards drug allergies on a regular basis. Further, it, like most places of its kind, engages in torture, degradation, and all the other fun stuff that is not “safety” in any way shape or form. It separates inmates from the rest of society but sure does not help anyone in any way at all.
Nearly all of the women in the room at that point were people who stood no chance of being involuntarily committed, themselves, I should add. They were seemingly unaware of the genuine dangers their viewpoints posed to people. By dangers, I don’t mean dangers to feelings, but dangers to life, health, liberty, and safety. I was aware of every last one of those dangers.
And I reacted by screaming and running into a corner, knocking over something on my way to doing so. As I did so, I could tell the floor was dropping out from under me and I was now being regarded and dehumanized into the category of definitely low-functioning. As I hid behind a television rack, in actual genuine danger from those kinds of pronouncements, everyone else went around in a circle and discussed calmly how my “illness” made me behave this way (WTF?) and how “unsafe” I made each one of them feel. Only one woman said, “You know what, when I get pissed off, I do the same thing she does.” She was definitely in the minority. To everyone else, talking about something genuinely dangerous was “safe,” but my reaction to that was “making them feel unsafe,” and their feelings, calmly expressed of course, ruled.
This is also why I’m reluctant to sit around and pathologize human responses to dangerous situations. Nearly every person in that room reacted to me not as a person reacting understandably to a genuine potential threat, but rather a person whose reactions were part of a sickness called post-traumatic stress disorder that is somehow separate from who I am as a person.
As if, rather than being a human being who’d experienced a whole lot of nasty situations and reacted to them in the only ways available to me at the time, the experiences, and my reactions to them, were separate. Easy to categorize away. Boxed. Forgotten.
The actual meaning of sitting there in a room listening to people discuss something dangerous, while sensations flew through my head at lightning speed about the real-life consequences of the topic of the discussion, becomes lost in medical terminology. Flashbacks. Startle response. Paranoia. Anxiety. Hypervigilance. Mental disease. These experiences become, not part of me, but separate, not part of my opinions about the world, but embarrassing bodily functions like farts that are better off ignored.
Emotions, too, become pathologized and at the same time elevated in importance as if they create reality itself. Everything becomes about “how people feel” rather than about how things are.
When a lesbian judges everything in terms of how it makes her feel, she becomes very emotionally vulnerable. She cannot take a bold stand on anything for fear of being criticized. Or she cannot criticize for fear that the community will disown her. Although support and safety have always been important to us, our community used to be based on movement. Now, we are so “safe” we cannot move.
This is as good a description as any of the fact that criticizing people’s viewpoints or actions is now seen as a horrible act of “emotional violence” against that person.
Therapy and How it Undermines the Practice of Radical Feminism
In fact, the whole of life can be seen as one great psychological exercise. Back in 1998, Judi Chamberlain pointed out that mental hospitals tend to use the term “therapy” to describe absolutely everything that goes on inside them:
…making the beds and sweeping the floor can be called “industrial therapy,” going to a dance or movie “recreational therapy,” stupefying patients with drugs “chemotherapy,” and so forth. Custodial mental hospitals, which offer very little treatment, frequently make reference to “milieu therapy,” as if the very hospital air were somehow curative (1977, p. 131).
A decade or so later, with psychology’s major clientele not in mental hospitals but in the community, everything in our lives is translated into “therapy.” Reading books becomes “bibliotherapy;” writing (Wenz: 198), journal keeping (Hagan: 1988), and art are all ascribed therapeutic functions. Even taking photographs is now a psychological technique. Feminist “phototherapist” Jo Spence drew on the psychoanalytic theories of Alice Miller (1987) and advocates healing (among other “wounds”) “the wound of class shame” through photography. And although reading, writing, and taking photographs are ordinary activities, in their therapeutic manifestation they require expert guidance: “I don’t think people can do this with friends or by themselves…they’ll never have the safety working alone that they’ll get working with a therapist because they will encounter their own blockages and be unable to get past them” (Spence: 1990, p. 39). While not wishing to deny that reading, writing, art, photography, and so on might make some people feel better about themselves, it is disturbing to find such activities assessed in purely psychological terms.
For anyone who’s ever seen me rant about the use of “therapeutic” to refer to emotional or political situations, the above is a good description of why. Basically, this “therapism” has taken over mainstream American culture to the point where everyday situations are becoming more and more medicalized over time, and solutions of course, are more and more individual and less and less political.
I have often seen an honest conversation turn into a therapeutic interaction before my eyes. For instance, I mention something that has bothered, hurt, or been difficult for me in some way. Something shifts. I see the woman I am with take on The Role of the Supportive Friend. It is as if a tape clicks into her brain, her voice changes, I can see her begin to see me differently, as a victim. She begins to recite the lines, “That must have been very difficult for you,” or “That must have felt so invalidating,” or “What do you think you need to feel better about that?” I know very well the corresponding tape that is supposed to click into my own brain: “I think I just needed to let you know what was going on for me,” or “It helps to hear you say that, it feels very validating,” or “I guess I just need to go off alone and nurture myself a little” (1987, p. 47).
That’s a quote within the article from something by Bonnie Mann. It’s meant to illustrate how even our interpersonal relationships are viewed as “therapy” right now.
Another real-life story:
I went to a meeting that was going to determine some pretty significant things in my life, including where I lived, who controlled my services, and whether or not I would be forced to accept services from people who had repeatedly endangered me in a physical life-and-death sense. Again, something where nearly the entire agenda was either life-and-death or otherwise major, not minor or trivial, certainly not about my feelings.
Anyway, one of the things that kept happening, was the woman running the meeting (and the company that the meeting was about) kept trying to “validate” my emotions. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but they were comments like Bonnie Mann describes above. Ones that focused entirely on my emotions and not at all on the situation I was trying to fix. She seemed to think if she could just calm me down everything would be fine. And, of course, “I hope you feel heard by us.”
Needless to say this did not work, and I stated over and over that my problem was not my feelings, but the actual situation. And the situation did, to a point, get resolved, although I note that it only got resolved for me, not for any other clients who might be affected. And it is not fully resolved for me, I still have ongoing, preventable health problems as a consequence of that organization’s policies. But it sounded to begin with as if it mattered more to her that I reacted emotionally in the correct way than whether I survived or not, got to retain my apartment or not, quit being threatened or not. An exact quote from me during that meeting was, “If I wanted someone to take care of my emotions, I’d stay home and pet my dog.”
Psychology suggests that only after healing yourself can you begin to heal the world. I disagree. People do not have to be perfectly functioning, self-actualised human beings in order to create social change. Think of the feminists you know who have been influential in the world, and who have worked hard and effectively for social justice: Have they all loved and accepted themselves? The vast majority of those admired for their political work go on struggling for change not because they have achieved self-fulfilment (nor in order to attain it), but because of their ethical and political commitments, and often in spite of their own fears, self-doubts, personal angst, and self-hatreds. Those who work for “revolution without” are often no more “in touch with their real selves” than those fixated on inner change: this observation should not be used (as it sometimes is) to discredit their activism, but rather to demonstrate that political action is an option for all of us, whatever our state of psychological well-being.
Indeed. If I had waited until I liked myself to write about the ideas I write about, I would have had to wait until this past year or two. If I had waited until I was some pure description of emotional stability (whatever that might be considered), I’d have to wait even longer, maybe forever. I’ve written things about the value of all people’s lives while wanting to kill myself, and seriously contemplating doing so. I’ve seen that Sue Rubin has spoken out about torture at the Judge Rotenberg Center while utterly loathing large parts of her brain and body. This does not make self-hatred and despair good things, it just means that even in those circumstances people can do important things, and that waiting around to not experience those things might mean leaving important things left undone.
The Lesbian Revolution and the 50-Minute Hour: A Working-Class Look at Therapy and the Movement
But since the middle class rules, working-class lesbians are continually reprimanded for our “excitability” in meetings, while also being reproached for our failure to “open up” personally. This we generally prefer to do privately, or with good friends, or in meetings designed to handle personal reactions.
In that article, the author’s describing ways of shutting people out that can be on the basis of things other than class (she mentions race, she doesn’t mention disability), but she points out that she’s describing it in terms of class for the article since that’s what she’s most experienced with. So, a lot of the problems she’s describing are things I’ve encountered for reasons other than class, although class sometimes comes into it for me in different ways.
This discrepancy she’s describing is something I’ve been encountering for a long time: I act in emotional ways, but I do not sit around discussing emotions in the way people consider “opening up”. I don’t know if this is because of my cultural background, because of the fact that I’m autistic, or what, but it’s a definite difference between me and a lot of the sorts of people that get bothered about things like that.
I’ve never seen anyone pull those two things apart in quite that way before. I’d always wondered why it was that I could react in visibly passionate ways (and, yes, get chastised for it), yet always get told I was not opening up enough emotionally. Get told “We know what you’re about, but we don’t know you.”
Whenever I found out they were looking for very specific kinds of expressions of my feelings, my reaction was something like, “Why are you demanding something so personal out of me? That’s for my friends, not strangers.” But I could never articulate the difference between the emotions they got to see (integrated into the way I express things about certain ideas) and the emotions they wanted to see (neatly cordoned off into “I feel…” statements, I guess, and connected to things they could view as relevant to personhood).
So that explains being chastised simultaneously for being “too emotional” and being “not emotionally open enough”.
I can recall attending a meeting of a newly formed group at which volunteers were asked to facilitate. There was a short silence; then, a lesbian I knew slightly said (I am paraphrasing), “Well, although I don’t consider myself any more qualified than anyone else, if no one has any objection, I will volunteer to facilitate. If I offend anyone by my choice of methods, please let me know. I could be wrong about how I think this should be done. When the meeting is over, I will offer my criticism of myself as a facilitator, and I will welcome criticism from the rest of you.” She went on in this vein for some time, wielding the power which therapy bestows: for several minutes she kept all attention focused on herself, yet she used words which sounded a note of humility, self-disparagement. She was, in fact, rather authoritarian in her manner of facilitation. I later found out she was a therapist.
This lesbian also inadvertently made evident to me what makes this distinctly courteous-sounding mode of behavior so desirable to some womyn. She was the first in my experience to forbid direct confrontation between any two lesbians at a meeting. At first, I thought it was only more of the fear often evinced by middle-class womyn at any sign of anger. (They sometimes act as though we’re all about to pull knives.) When I saw that she also stopped all humor, I realized that it was simply emotion of all kinds that made her uncomfortable, out of control of the meeting.
Both of those paragraphs, again, sound a lot like things I’ve seen happening within assorted groups as well. And this really describes well how under all kinds of “I am nice” signals, people can be controlling, manipulative, authoritarian, and self-centered, while of course directing most of that to people who aren’t sending the same signals.
Also, a lot of this falls under the same category I’ve been noticing, whereby people who manage to pull off a certain variety of “courteous” get treated better than people who don’t. I’m usually in the “don’t” category. I recently ended up in the category of being considered “courteous” (which people didn’t realize was simply because I was too indifferent to a lot of their nastiness to get worked up about it) while someone else with an almost identical viewpoint to mine was not, and that was just as much a problem. It’s just one more way to split us into Good Auties and Bad Auties.
The “acting like we’re all about to pull knives” comment is familiar as well. People often react as if I’m dangerous or “out of control” (I suppose in therapy-speak, the phrase I loathe, “danger to self or others”) because of my opinions, emotions, or even perceived emotions that aren’t really there.
Hence, we now have thousands of lesbians who will sit down, in all earnestness, and say, “I am very angry,” in a perfectly serene tone of voice. (As the years go by, they grow more and more distant in their phrasing, as, “I feel some anger around this,” or even, “I have some anger here.”) The same womyn, while righteously defending the necessity of putting out their feelings, will level charges of aggression, divisiveness, and male-identification at lesbians who don’t need to announce that they are angry, because it is clear, from their every word and gesture.
…and where have I seen that before?
This is one reason I don’t fit in in support group atmospheres. I have zero interest in sitting around serenely saying “I have a great deal of anger issues over what I perceive to sort of be a return to previous ideas about something that looks a bit like eugenics” or something. And I can’t even begin to count the amount of times that someone has completely disregarded what I or someone else has to say, only to focus on the fact that we sound too “angry” — an accusation which can be brought on not only by being angry, but by talking about things that make them angry.
In the autistic community, this often takes the form of autistic people lecturing each other about social skills and the proper ways to do things. Because we’re already presumed deficient in “social skills” (which tend to mean, in these contexts, adhering to white middle-class therapy-culture social norms) it becomes easy to lecture us on the fact that nobody will ever listen to us until we communicate in a way that’s not only thoroughly unnatural to us (more so than language is already to many of us, while those who cannot use language at any particular moment are seen as even more vile in their/our means of communication), but based on an arbitrary set of social norms.
It’s not just non-autistic people who do this. Plenty of autistic people buy into it and have written all about a sanitized, “good”-manners-ridden, frictionless version of self-advocacy that is impossible for the vast majority of autistic people. Some have even gone so far as to say that if it’s not done like this, it’s not proper self-advocacy to begin with. Everything becomes about what is proper, rather than what will get things done, and even what is possible.
The author of the article has a great section, too long to quote, in which she points out that a friend is being classist, and the friend goes to her therapist, treats this as an “attack” on her, and decides to “take back her own power” by saying she had no right to “judge” her this way. Threw in a few genuine personal insults and one cruel but underhanded comment that deliberately hit a weak spot. She writes:
So my friends would approach our next confrontation having gained from therapy no knowledge of how to express anger (and certainly no experience). They would fall back on what skill they had acquired through their class experience and in therapy, for therapy and the middle class are the two places where expression of anger is presumed to mask some other emotion. They would do the familiar: state something cruel, actually make a deliberate attempt of meanness, thereby depleting my power in their eyes, so that I needn’t be taken seriously. They would feel less pain because now I was the one hurt. Because they feel bad when I yell, and I feel bad when they are cruel, they delude themselves that we are doing the same thing.
This seems to be a common reaction to bringing up ableism, as well. I at one point recently, trying more than I really had to in fact to be polite but firm, bowed out of a conversation in which I was being expected to do and say certain things specifically because I was disabled. I gave the reasons and put it in a broader context. I then watched as people stood around and comforted each other about what a horrible attack they were enduring from me, periodically throwing thinly-veiled insults (to the effect of “Bad Autie, not like the Good Obedient Auties, must be a mean-spirited person in general who just wants to cause trouble and isn’t particularly generous of heart”, etc) in my direction.
Since consensus requires that every person be satisfied (the American Dream), that no one be declared the loser of the vote (a horror to privileged folks), the pressure brought to bear on the dissenter is formidable. In the past, if the middle-class lesbians dominated all decision-making, winning simply by outnumbering, we could protest or leave. Now, any objection to losing a vote is childish, because everyone theoretically has the chance to stop any vote from going through. The fact that dissenters must carry the onus of having selfishly stopped the entire group’s process is not officially acknowledged.
I’m familiar with consensus mainly through Quakerism (which has its own class-related problems that can make attending Meeting nearly unbearable for me at times, but that’s a different story). In which there’s a specific shared cultural understanding around the use of consensus, that can be quite valuable in some situations. But I’m very familiar, even in that situation, with the pressure on people who block consensus, particularly if, like me, they’re fairly low-status or even assumed not to understand what’s going on.
And consensus isn’t right for every single situation. It works when you’ve got a particular relationship to each other and to a shared set of assumptions about the world, but it doesn’t work so well in the situations being described in the article
Hand in hand with the disapproval of direct interactions between lesbians at meetings, crit/self-crit serves to allow abusive or manipulative lesbians to say anything they wish in the course of meetings, knowing that it will not be tolerated for them to be directly confronted. The same womyn reign during the crit sessions. Another working-class dyke friend has recounted to me her abuse during these sessions, as her audacity in offering real criticism of middle-class lesbians’ exercise of privilege was consistently punished by a responding criticism of her offensive style. She was castigated in vague therapy terminology about how attacking or unconstructive she had been. This was supposed to silence her protests against oppression. If she couldn’t learn to do it right, she simply had no credibility. Yet, what middle-class dykes said about her never had to do with realities like privilege and oppression (or even with the content of her criticism); only that some delicate spirit experienced her honesty as being hurtful.
Again. Run. Into. This. All. The. Time. I don’t know how to say any of this better than she’s saying it right there. Raising particular important points becomes “attacking,” and the entire focus of everything becomes protecting the feelings of the person who “feels attacked”.
And… there’s way too much in that article that I could quote and go “Yeah she’s saying something really important here!” in a zillion different way. Overall the points had me going “Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. I’ve seen this (or even, been brainwashed to engage in the wrong end of this) and I’ve never known how to say it.” (Also some stuff that had me going “Yeah but I wish she’d also discussed the difference between what she’s talking about and [insert-thing-here].” Like, the difference between “I’m okay as I am and I don’t need to grow and change and have a total right to be selfish,” and the sort of “I’m okay as I am” that auties tend to mean that is quite different in meaning.) So I’m ending here and hoping people will go read and think about it themselves.