In a recent Therapy For Guys episode, I have a conversation with feminist psychologist Dr. Laura Brown. Dr. Brown is a true leader in the field of psychotherapy. She has worked in the mental health field for over half a century. She is the author of the authoritative textbook on feminist therapy. She has specialized in working with complex trauma and helping people navigate their childhoods "from hell". If you listen to the conversation, I think you will be amazed at her deep knowledge and experience working with people in a clinical setting.
I invited Dr. Brown to the podcast to shed light on how feminist therapy can be a resource for men. At first glance, you may be suspicious about this. Isn't feminism anti-man? How the hell could feminist therapy benefit men? In what follows, I hope to explore this question. Using my conversation with Dr. Brown as a guide, I'd like to elucidate how feminist therapy can be a true resource for men.
What Is Feminist Therapy?
Feminist therapy sprouted in the 1960s. It developed alongside the emergence of second wave feminism. The original practitioners were female therapists pushing against the sexism in the mental health profession. Feminist therapy derives its inspiration from the reality of people that stand outside the mainstream, patriarchal system.
Feminist therapy is a person-centered, politically-informed model that emphasizes the larger, systemic context of mental health issues. Feminist therapy helps clients discover the sources of disempowerment and ways to reach greater empowerment. Client struggles are never reducible to the individual. Struggles are understood within a larger social context and viewed through the lens of oppression and liberation.
A feminist therapist emphasizes the power of the therapeutic relationship. They seek to model what a safe, empowering relationship looks like. Healthy self-disclosure from the therapist is encouraged. The therapist also seeks to understand and build on client strengths.
Feminist therapy emphasizes the importance of gender in shaping a client's identity. Gender
is more than biological sex. Gender biases and stereotypes influence how a person understands themselves and others. A personal definition of gender
While feminist therapy has its roots in the plight of women, it is a model that can help men as well.
Can Feminist Therapy Benefit Men?
The short answer is yes. Remember, feminist therapy is interested in analyzing how gender stereotypes and biases negatively impact a person's identity. As a therapist who specializes in men, I've come to realize that social constructs around masculinity do some of the most damage to individual men.
What many call toxic masculinity would be an example of a cultural expectation around masculinity that is psychologically damaging to males. In the conversation with Dr. Brown, we explore the concept of male dominant alexithymia. Dr. Ronald Levant coined this concept to describe the phenomenon that men have a very difficult time expressing the emotions in their body. This is not due to some inherent limitation. Men develop this version of alexithymia because they are socialized into a construct of masculinity that is encouraged to stay silent and disconnected.
Other masculine constructs are detrimental to the psychological well-being of men. Certain gender role expectations may keep a man from pursuing a vocation that he really wants. I've worked with men over the years who would have wanted to be stay at home dads but they did not feel the permission to do so. Others who felt the tough, muscular, gym rat version of masculinity was not something they could ever envision for themselves. This often led to them feeling deficient and ashamed.
Feminist therapy can also help a man explore intimacy, empathy, vulnerability, and other aspects of a healthy relationship that are not based on a power hierarchy.
Growing Through Relationship
The version of feminist therapy that I use in my own practice is Relational-Cultural Therapy. This is a version of feminist therapy that underscores the importance of the relationship between the therapist and the client. It holds that people grow through and for relationships.
It is key that men feel safe enough to explore vulnerability. An important part of the beginning stage of therapy is establishing a relational container where the client is comfortable and at ease. I utilize humor and an exploration of interests to establish rapport.
As a man comes to feel safe and ready to trust me, he begins to take relational risks in the area of vulnerability. Feminist therapy underscores the importance of a mutual, collaborative relationship with clients. It's an experience of sharing power and co-creation.
An important part of feminist therapy is the experience of correcting relational experiences. In a previous blog post, I wrote about relational images that we all form in early childhood. These are the ways we understand ourselves and others. Men come into therapy with distorted relational images. They believe they have to be invulnerable and stoic. Many of them come in with relational images of women that paint them out to be untrustworthy, backstabbing and even malicious.
The relationship that's established between the therapist and the client serves as a model or template of what a healthy relationship can look like. This template can help correct the man's relational experiences from his past. By learning how to be vulnerable and practice empathy, the man grows in his connection to himself and others.
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You don't need to live with unhealthy constructs of masculinity any longer. Toxic masculinity is hurtful to others and ourselves. Once you address toxic masculinity, you can be free to build stronger relationships, and find greater fulfillment in work and life.
If you are ready to start building a stronger future together, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:
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