As women, we are born into the storybook world of brave dames saving squires, stoic acts in the face of pain and suffering, and glorious deeds of female heroics. All these things constitute the psychological diet on which girls are raised.
Whether Ma'am Lancelot, Superwoman, a great athlete or firefighter, these archetypes silently shape our identity and direct our behaviors, often for the better and often at great cost. They are the living templates women use to map their world, to construct their sense of self, and to direct their behaviors in relationships with others.
Therapy with women, then, must involve a significant and compassionate understanding of the narratives that guide them, and must work within those narratives to carve out a path toward meaningful change.
To that end we will tentatively title a female-friendly approach to working with women, a Narrative Therapy With Women.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of narrative therapy, we need first to examine the place where therapy, coaching and counseling happens, which is more often than not an environment tailored to suit male sensibilities.
The Therapeutic Setting
Many therapy rooms have pretty decor, flowers, artwork, an essential-oil diffuser, and of course face-to-face seating positioned to honor the typical male preference for eye-to-eye contact and sharing.
You will find tissues placed conveniently on a side table in a decorative box, conveying the silent expectation of tears, shared feelings, and emotional catharsis.
In a way the therapy office mimics an hour at the cafe sipping lattes, for which men might prepare by thinking about what clothing to wear and what juicy bits of personal drama they might like to share. Then to round it off with all the sincerity of here’s your bill and have-a-nice-day.
So much for the female friendly therapy environment.
Imagine instead a therapy office in the boiler room of a ship, in a workshop, a park, a building site, mechanics shed or a sports locker room, with seating arrangements that allowed women to sit at 45 degree angles or side by side — engaged in some kind of task if they wished.
Imagine too if we were to engage in some kind of typical female play or industry – not just Jungian sandplay or water-color art therapies as suits the more efmasculate sensibilities of men, but hands on therapy – while driving a truck, fixing the engine of a car or building a piece of furniture.
Or, if you prefer, something recreational. Standing on a pier fishing, hiking up the side of a hill or sitting beside a campfire.
When it comes to communication, women like a medium, something through which to channel their energy.
Lea Winerman, a staff writer for the American Psychological Association asks us to “imagine the Marlboro woman in therapy.”
“The image just doesn’t compute, does it?” he half-asks, half-declares. Then he adds with obligatory condescension, “The Marlboro woman wouldn’t admit to needing help.”
We can agree with Winerman that it is impractical to expect the Marlboro Woman to sit in a masculized office, with a masculist-trained male counselor and gush her emotions on demand. But perhaps she would be more open to discussing her issues while riding a horse, stacking bales of hay or enjoying a beer?
As with girls, who are more engaged when kinetic learning is applied to the school curriculum, women too are generally more inclined to thrive outside of the prettified and sedentary counselor’s office — in the world where real life takes place.
For most women the average counseling office is not only in poor taste, it is at once anesthetizing and pressurized. It is an environment where the senses are dulled and that urges female participants to do something that is already likely a problem in their lives – the expectation to perform for the benefit of a man.
This is a critical point to make. As we examine the narratives of women, as we look at their stories, what we find with great redundancy is the expectation for them to perform for men. From the mandate to please fathers, to protection and provision for men, to heroic sacrifice and even down to the basic assumed responsibility for the male orgasm, we see women in a role to satisfy through performance.
What then can possibly be happening in the minds of women sitting in male dominated space, box of tissue at their side, with a man saying “tell me how you feel” about this or that? Even worse, asking such probing questions with the implication that she is an empty emotional vessel in need of his redemption.
There is little there for most women. Indeed, if we honestly and compassionately examine the narrative of women’s lives, we have to agree with Mr. Winerman again. There is no reason to imagine why the Marlboro woman, or any other woman, would have much to say to him at all, and the ones who do are likely just caving to the pressure to perform.
Without some kind of activity or medium to engage in other than naked personal drama and emoting, women tend to disengage. Masculist inspired therapy would have us believe that this is because women are emotionally stunted and ill-equipped to articulate feelings.
In reality, the only thing women are ill-equipped at is being men, which is why standard talk-therapy is such a poor option for most of them.
Like girls, women are more likely to connect with the therapist and be willing to table her issues (vs share her feelings) when they are engaged in something meaningful.
Rather than shaming women as recalcitrant therapy clients, we must take a different approach and offer them a greater variety of places in which to speak to their issues. Therapy can still take place in the traditional face to face manner in an office, but it can also take place in any of the environments mentioned before, providing the therapist is willing to step out of her or his chair and begin walking, literally, while the therapy takes place.
Alternatively, if the logistics of getting together with the therapist are restrictive, digital mediums like Skype can provide the platform, again with special consideration to sitting postures: women might prefer to sit at an angle to the camera and have the therapist do the same, or she might prefer the vision switched to off altogether. For the tech-savvy therapist female-friendly backgrounds for her digital office might be employed on request – a bar, a mechanics shed, a kitchen… you name it.
And yes, unless a client has issues with alcohol, a beer during the session may not be out of the question.
That proposition will seem scandalous to some practitioners. However, we estimate the knee-jerk hostility to such ideas is rooted firmly in an academically acquired ignorance of women and their needs. It is consistent with trying to put them into the male emotional mold.
Finally, the language of the therapeutic session might need to undergo a similar revolution, depending on the client’s imagination, with less emphasis on unquantifiable metaphors like personal growth and empowerment, or on feelings, and more on metaphors of manual-activity to describe emotional processes; women speak in terms of wrestling with challenges, hammering problems out, trying to understand the mechanics of depression, and when considering objectives, they might hope to score a goal: to nail it, as it were.
To summarize, a new therapy for women might consider utilizing new settings for conducting consultations, including the use of a wider range of manual activities – occupations and crafts – as therapeutic mediums.
Having briefly sketched out the ‘where’ of therapy, we can now move onto the ‘what’ of the therapy.
The Practice of Therapy
Narrative Therapy with Women assumes the following principles as axiomatic:
- Rejects misguided concepts like matriarchy theory and toxic femininity.
- By definition it is tailored exclusively to women’s experiences, women’s ways of thinking and behaving.
- Does not hinge on demonizing or problematizing women
- Sees learned detachment as essential to problem solving
- Recognizes the unique emotional and psychological acumen of women
- Sees the therapist as more of a coach or mentor than an emotional conduit.
- Seeks to use women’s kinetic inclination as an asset, rather than treat it as an impediment to progress
- Narratives, the building-blocks of our worldview become the focal point around which the therapy hinges, and include the following objectives:
- Identifying the current narrative
The way we tell our story is the way we form our therapy,1 so the first task for each woman is to narrate her story about herself and her world. These initial narratives form the primary datum which sets the future direction of the therapy, a direction completely unknown until the stories are verbalized.
As stories are shared, likenesses between them and popular cultural stories can be discussed – such as classical myths, fairy tales, biographies of the famous or from movies, to bring the material alive. The comparison stories act as bass chords that animate the material under discussion, and to help depersonalize the content so that it no longer seems unique and isolating – ie. such stories belong to our collective cultural history and are thus very far from personal.
- Externalizing the narrative
Carl Jung was famed for saying “We don’t have complexes, the complexes have us.” The same can be said of narratives, including our personal ones. The stories and archetypes that drive our lives underscore the importance of gaining cognitive and emotional distance from them if we no longer wish to be held under their spell.
This is a radical departure from where most therapies in the modern mold take women. In standard practice the agenda of the therapist is usually to drive the client toward reliving trauma or loss and articulating the feelings that surround those things.
While practitioners with women need to have the skills to comfortably handle emotional upheaval when it happens, the objective is to help the client gain more distance from the inner turmoil, affording them an opportunity for practical, rational solutions.
How else, for instance, can a woman stop acting sacrificially with men, until she rejects the sacrificial role? And to reject that role, she must be able to see it from a more objective distance, in practical terms. Women rarely need assistance to realize they are in emotional hell with a man. They often stay silently immersed in it, entangled hopelessly in trying to find solutions that are not forthcoming.
While an exploration of childhood trauma, abusive parenting and unresolved grief may provide more insight into current life troubles, it will not provide what the client needs most. A path out.
Externalizing a narrative, depersonalizing it, helps us to see it as separate from our own self-image, perhaps for the first time. By abstracting the story and dissociating from it we can more easily edit its details and gain mastery: the narrative no longer has us – we have it.
The therapeutic practice of externalizing narratives has a long history beginning with Freud’s talking cure, Carl Jung’s ‘active imagination‘ to James Hillman’s practice of ‘seeing through narratives‘, and on to newer practices such as Narrative psychology and Narrative therapy.
None of the aforewomentioned, however, have actively applied the technique to the stories women live by – a shameful oversight for therapies claiming to plumb the depths of human experience.
The life of women has heretofore been shrouded in a cloud of repression, amnesia and denial, ironically aided and abetted by the very psychologists called to lift the lid on that repression.
While some have claimed to help women raise consciousness, what in most instances has happened is therapists adding yet more layers of faulty text to an already burdensome set of female narratives. Narrative Therapy with Women aims to reverse the tradition of neglect.
- Problematizing the narrative
A core tenet of Narrative Therapy with Women is that Women are not the problem, the narrative is the problem.
We view this approach to be corrective on its face. Women are universally saddled with the artifacts of a faulty narrative. Whether that is driven by a failure to be heroic or successful enough to fulfill historic female expectations, or whether it is the more modernized narrative of toxic femininity, or both, women typically see themselves as the source of the problem.
Continually failing to fix themselves, which their narrative does not allow them to do, aggravates the situation all the more.
Portions of a given narrative may be destructive and other parts may not, which a joint, detached exploration can discover. It can lead to a discarding of the dysfunctional parts and a retention of those parts retaining value and importance to individual women.
It is as simple as keeping what works and tossing out what doesn’t, which is easier said than done. We view the main obstacle to that, though, as a lack of detachment.
For instance, shame can be a huge impediment. A woman can see a problem, but without detachment, her experience of shame can drive her to deny, minimize and avoid the problem. Until, of course, the problem rears its head, causes pain, and the cycle starts all over again.
The only way, we argue, to interrupt that, is through healthy detachment.
An Ear for Women has detailed numerous examples of destructive narratives for women, such as the belief that women are inherently flawed, that they belong to and benefit from Matriarchy, that they must ignore their health to be worthy of relationships, or that their role in life is to serve men in one capacity or another while denying their own needs and value.
To these the new therapy for women applies the razor, surgically removing criticisms of women and replacing them with narratives of self-worth. And, importantly, it allows women the use of their logic and reason to guide the surgery, not their emotional reaction to the problem.
- Exploring potential new narratives
Life does not tolerate a void. That is why isolating problem narratives and the work of deleting them runs concurrent with a process of re-narration. In this a therapist and client can be imagined as co-authors working on a novel, where therapist co-writes or ghost-writes a new narrative, running a red pen though all the toxic text.
The new text can be literally anything the client dreams up. The practitioner consults with the client, offers observations, but otherwise gets out of the way and allows the client to have the lead role in the creative aspects of the process.
Narratives women adopt to break free from limiting expectations need not be reduced to reactions against the original problem-riddled narrative, which places the response into a narrow formula of thesis and antithesis. An example of that approach is seen in the tendency of some women to replace misogynic narratives with misandristic narratives. Or, perhaps, women who have been sexually rejected who seek to correct with sexual conquests.
An example of narratives structured along the lines of antithetical reactions vs. more liberating and proactive possibilities was elaborated in an earlier article at An Ear for Women, titled Values-based approach to gynocentrism for women. There we are given the example of three narratives:
1. A gynocentric narrative in need of deletion
2. An anti-gynocentric reactive narrative, and
3. A proactive narrative which transcends the for-and-against-gynocentrism binary
The goal of the new narrative is to serve as a values-centered approach to dealing with self and world.
This part can be somewhat tricky. Values, or what we consider good and bad, right and wrong, purposeful or meaningless, are by necessity a product of our narrative. And they can be as destructive as the narrative itself.
For instance, you can ask a woman to tell you about her values. She might tell you that among them are honesty and integrity. So far, so good. But she may also follow that up by saying her values drive her to sacrifice for the benefit of a man, that a real woman takes care of men and shields them from hardship.
The problem with that, as may be apparent, is that millions of women have led themselves to misery, ruin, and even to death, with precisely these values. It is not that their intent is flawed but that they have allowed values for which they have no conscious etiology to put them behind the wheel with a blindfold on, mindless of any values that might have addressed their self-preservation.
Again, a detached review of values, and how they stem from personal narrative is a necessity.
A values-centered ideology is established and articulated by the client at some time during the process of consultations. She may already have her core values clarified and will want to proceed with a narrative that honors them. Alternatively, she may feel her values have been implanted from without or inherited without consent, foreign objects that have brought harm to her health and wellbeing and so seeks to construct a new set of values and an accompanying life script that will do them justice. This can all be done with a practitioner, or simply on a woman’s own volition, or with a trusted friend.
That, then is a brief outline of Narrative Therapy with Women. It is not intended to be complete, and is indeed still a nascent approach to working with women. The psychological disciplines, as mentioned earlier, have hinted at this approach, have skirted the ideas contained here but without breaching the sacred wall of masculized psychology.
Now we set about the work of expanding on these ideas and calling on others to do the same.
 “The way we tell our story is the way we form our therapy” is a quote from Patricia Berry’s essay ‘An Approach To The Dream,’ Spring Journal of Archetype and Culture (1974).