Trigger warning for violence, sexual abuse, emotionally-charged language and suicidality.
In graduate school, the first thing that was drilled over and over into our heads was to take one’s cultural experience into account. We were taught to recognize our own privileges and understand that others from different backgrounds will not have the same views as we may. We learned that one’s cultural experience largely shapes that person’s identity, experiences, and way they see the world. We were made to address several unpleasant stereotypes that had been engrained into our thinking, as well as acknowledge how these stereotypes could impact the clients we work with. The term microaggression became rooted into our daily vocabulary. We were taught to accept everyone for who they were and put our own stuff aside when working with them.
Yet contradictorily, we also learned that it is not our job to change or judge our client’s views. Explore them, sure, and hope that they can change some of them on their own. But part of being a therapist, at least in graduate school, is to have that unconditional positive regard and not allow potential contradicting views to interfere with the way we conduct therapy and view our clients. We were told to be an agent of change yet are taught to accept people for who they are.
A few weeks ago, I was working with a man who began to go on an anti-Semitic rant. And I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I did my best not to take it personally (and I wonder if he would have said these things had he known my religious background) and instead attempted to redirect his focus. I did not say anything to challenge his view out of fear that I may be put in danger and escalate a situation already fueled by hatred. Another day, I informed one of my clients that my supervisor and a supervisor from another location were switching sites. When I informed the client of my new supervisor’s name, he responds, “oh great, a man! No offense to you women, but it’ll be good to have a man around here.” I’ve been called “pretty” and “beautiful” by male clients and a male staff member (luckily, my former supervisor stepped in on that one), and have had comments ranging from seemingly innocuous to completely offensive made about my body. I’ve heard some white clients use the N word in casual conversation and others make homophobic comments about “the gays.” And as a therapist, we’re taught that we should be empathetic and try to understand how their experiences may have impacted their world view. That while boundaries can be enforced and that these comments can be explored, we cannot impose our own views on our clients.
A couple days ago, I wrote a post detailing personal experiences with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, mass shootings, and the need to reframe the discussion surrounding mental health. And we do. But there’s another, arguably more important issue that needs to be addressed – the way we are taught to look at gender, race, culture, sexuality, age, and ability. In light of recent events, this post will primarily on the culture of misogyny that women encounter on a daily basis. I understand that there are several other issues that need to be taken into account, but those may be posts for another time.
On Saturday, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree after having detailed his deeply engrained hatred towards women (and several other groups) in his 140-page manifesto and on YouTube. Fueled by rejection and the belief that women are meant to be men’s to have, he plotted revenge on women, particularly those who rejected him (there may be arguments that he targeted men too – I’m not denying that, but his primary intentions were to cause harm to women for rejecting him). Over the weekend, thousands of women took to social media and highlighted their experiences living in fear and danger in a misogynic world. Using the hashtag #yesallwomen, women discussed how sexism continues to persevere in this world. Rejecting a man by saying “I have a boyfriend” because men respect a man’s “property” more than a woman’s decision to say “no.” Being asked “what were you wearing?” after reporting sexual assault to the police. Being taught to not walk on the street alone at night because a man might rape and murder you. These are just a few of the examples brought about by the #yesallwomen hashtag (for more, click here).
And yet, despite all these examples being brought to the forefront, nothing has seemed to change. As a woman, I am still taught to carry keys between my knuckles when walking home, be aware of my surroundings, and watch the bartender pour my drink to make sure nothing goes in it that isn’t supposed to. I was taught to ignore unwanted comments about my appearance or gender out of instilled fear that I could suffer serious harm. My brother was never taught that. Neither was my significant other. Most men have not had to deal with unwanted comments about their bodies and cat calls by strangers while walking to work. Nor have they had clients stare at their chest when speaking to them. They haven’t had the experience of someone taking pleasure in the discomfort they caused you to feel (at least not in the same way). And while my folks know that I can hold my own thanks to years of martial arts, three years of rugby, and general athletic ability, I was still given pepper spray when I started graduate school and moved to the city. Just in case.
The saddest part of all of this? We’ve been forced to accept this as a reality.
WHY should we have to accept that? Why, as a therapist, am I “supposed” to accept the status quo and deal with sexist, racist, homophobic, and anti-Semetic comments from clients? Because I have to show someone unconditional support? Because I have to maintain a professional image?
I understand that it’s not my job to change people, and that people can only make changes on their own volition. But if we are supposed to help facilitate positive changes in people, then it needs to come from both an individual and global level. Whether we care to admit it or not, life circumstances and pre-conceived notions about gender, race, and other classifications shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. They help determine how we see ourselves, other people, and the world. And many times, they contribute to mental illness. Body image issues. Eating disorders. Low self-esteem. Hate towards others and internally-focused hate. And even suicidal and homicidal ideation and intent.
Yes, not all people who make comments such as the ones illustrated above turn out to be mass murderers. People may argue that I’m using a tragedy to promote a political agenda. There may be comments stating that not all men act in this manner, and that it’s unfair to generalize. For thoughts on that issue worded more thoughtfully than I could hope to express, click here (though I should note that this article was written by a cisgendered, white man, and it’s sad that even in articles about feminism and equality, the ones that are getting the most shares and attention are written by men, likely because their opinions are taken more seriously). And it’s not only misogyny that fuels these attacks. But right now, we continue to live in a rape-forgiving, women-blaming, stereotype-filled, hate-based culture. Hate breeds violence, and ignorance often breeds hate.
I can’t accept these comments because every woman (and other marginalized populations) I know has faced some form discrimination, sexual harassment and/or abuse because of this culture. Because many of my female clients (and some males too) have endured horrific sexual trauma that caused them significant pain and led to the development of severe mental health symptoms. #yesallwomen is so powerful because for once, voices are actually being heard. Even if one person can learn from it, then it fulfilled its purpose. Education is not a quick fix, but if we can teach people to address the widespread hate across the world and actually treat everyone like a human, well, maybe we can get somewhere.
While I can make attempts to provide support and help for anyone that walks into my office (and into my life, for that matter), I cannot automatically accept people for who they are if they are expressing hate and perpetuating these world views. Maybe it isn’t our job to let our own feelings get in the way, but we were taught to be facilitators and agents of change on both a micro and macro level. And if speaking out against this hate makes me a bad therapist, then so be it.