FEMININE PRINCIPLE REVISITED
In Barbara Sullivan’s book Psychotherapy Grounded in the Feminine Principle she proposes that psychology has for the most part been governed by the masculine principle and that for society and individuals to become whole we need to redress this imbalance by working within the feminine principle. In this article I will discuss what it means to work from this perspective, how neuroscientific research supports the feminine, and identify some trends within the field that represent the masculine.
Very simply the masculine principle is about doing versus the feminine principle of being. From a Jungian perspective these archetypal energies create balance in an individual and in society. Neither is more important than the other, however, western mainstream culture places more emphasis on the masculine principle by rewarding decisive action, self-control and speed. Psychotherapy practiced from a masculine principle tends towards a focus on: doable concrete solutions to problems, objective rationality, a task orientation, procedures and homework exercises that create a sense of doing and providing direction from the therapist. There is a focus on diagnosis, seeing people as problems to be cured, and a reliance on the therapist as expert. This orientation is often over-reliant on the left brain and left brain functioning.
Psychotherapy practiced from a feminine principle is fundamentally relational. The therapist seeks to align themselves with the client’s natural life forces and give attention and reflection to an opening to the self. A transformative experience results from the interaction between therapist and client. The goal is not to ‘cure’, rather it is to utilize the integration of therapeutic experience that increases the client’s capacity to continue to encounter life on her own terms and become whole. The therapist provides a container within which the client learns how to work with their inner pain and find the strength to face increasing quantities of legitimate suffering.
We can notice within ourselves and our clients when these archetypal energies become out of sync and out of balance. The masculine becomes rigid, rule bound, controlling, and obsessive and sometimes can lead to violence. The feminine becomes weak and powerless, accommodating, sacrificial, emotionally overwhelmed and hysterical.
Psychotherapy as Art
The feminine principle highlights the practice of psychotherapy as an art not a science. Scientific research that has attempted to align treatments to problems has told us little about what actually works with each new client. One size does not fit all; despite encountering an experience or symptom we have seen before, each individual’s transformative experience is unique. When a person enters our office they bring a complex set of characteristics, circumstances and motivation creating unique relational exchanges between the therapist and client. These exchanges include cognitive, emotional, behavioural and somatic communication where the therapist and client enter into an enactment of the client’s experience. Through their own embodied awareness the therapist can experience the places their client is stuck, defended, disconnected, immobilized, frightened and shamed. This sophisticated attunement requires an ability to stay centered and regulated while we sense into the places our clients suffer; this informs our response. Each response provides the client with the opportunity to integrate the unrecognized and disembodied parts of the self into a coherent, flexible whole that has meaning to the client. Art recognizes and values each unique perspective. Therapy as an art form is a journey to the self, one of discovery and experience.
Science supports the Feminine Principle
Over the past decade neuroscience has pinpointed and refined our understanding of human behaviour and neurological processes that confirm the importance of the body and right brain healing strategies. From this perspective neuroscience supports the feminine principle in clinical practice.
Firstly, neuroscience parallels Jung’s descriptions of the archetypal masculine and feminine psychic energies in its characterizations of the functions of the right and left hemisphere’s. It supports the interconnectedness of culture and archetypes to biological processes. Very simply put, the body is the gateway to the intuitive, sensory, symbolic language of the feminine/right brain and the intellect holds the logical and rational language of the masculine/left brain.
Second, the denigration of the feminine ( body and emotions) within society is longstanding and can be explained when we consider how humans deal with trauma. Our understanding of experiences that fall under traumatization, and the resulting dysregulation within the autonomic nervous system and brain, is not limited to surviving life threatening experiences. For example, relational disturbances such as premature separation, hospital admissions, lack of availability due to a mother’s depression can create undue stress for a child resulting in fixed patterns of response to stress. These patterns have varying degrees of emotional disturbance, disconnection in relationship, and dissociation. This leads to a focus on doing and an over reliance on cognitive left brain functions rather than being because experiencing the body and emotions is overwhelming. From this perspective humans inability to integrate and release traumatic and stressful situations easily has led to individuals and culture dissociated from the feminine/right brain.
Third, working with and through the body is essentially one of being with the client. Of course, anything can become a procedure and a number of approaches that have developed from neuroscientific research use set protocol which ignores relationship. However, Allan Schore, a pioneer in the integration of clinical experience with neuroscientific research, has emphasized the centrality of empathic attunement in affect regulation as well as the role of the right brain in affective nonconscious communication. Lisa Mortimore and Monica Kingsbury (2010 winter edition) in their article on Somatic Transformation state ‘By using their own attuned, regulated body, the ST therapist is able to track and intervene to help the client stay within the optimal level of arousal thereby allowing the innate self-regulatory function of the body to aid in the digestion of traumatic material and restoration of the natural rhythm which is disrupted by trauma.‘ Both speak to the importance of the therapist’s ability to align themselves with the client’s life force within a relational framework as central to healing.
Wholeness from a neuroscience perspective would indicate an integration of the right brain’s emotional, sensory, and motor input with an ongoing shifting left brain self narrative. A balance between the masculine and feminine. Therapy grounded in the feminine principle indicates the use of right brain healing strategies to release traumatic material held in the body so that communication between the two hemisphere’s reflects a flexible, adaptive present experience.
Shame, therapy and techniques
Clients are often desperate when they first come to therapy having struggled on their own for some time. Ambivalent feelings are common; on one hand they may feel shame and inadequacy that their own resources have failed and fear experiencing their inner pain and vulnerability. On the other hand, they can feel relief from deciding to do something and hopeful that therapy will produce change; their hope and feelings of inadequacy are typically projected onto the therapist as expert and the expectation that they will be told what to do. Influenced by the masculine principle, the language of linear, logical, thinking our way through things, attending to tasks and self control is easier for us to understand than the language of being with. Clients want a to do list that helps them to feel in charge over something they feel at a loss with or overwhelmed by. In addition, due to the tendency to dissociate into left brain strategies, slowing down, sensing into and reflecting on one’s experience, often feels foreign and scary.
One way that the masculine can become distorted is through the rescuer. Right from the start our clients will implicitly pull us to rescue and if we are to practice from a feminine/right brain principle we must stand firm and resist this. The therapist’s own feelings of inadequacy, desire to help, and personal tendencies around such issues as control can trigger feelings that they need to do something and will move away from holding the space for the client to find their way. One of the dangers of techniques and procedural approaches is that they provide the therapist with the means to feel secure through doing. If the therapist introduces a technique or procedure because they need to gain control this will shift the focus of therapy to being about the therapist and not the client. At this point the client experiences abandonment by the therapist and they will attempt to reconnect through compliance.
Practicing from the masculine aligns oneself with the client’s desire to fix something about themselves which can collude with a part of the self that is ashamed.
We live in a traumatic world and one that fails to recognize our being in entirety. To varying degrees we are all searching to become whole and heal the disconnected and disembodied parts of self. In order to do this we must face the fear and shame that gets in the way of being authentic. Sullivan illustrates this, ‘One finds the patient’s most authentic individuality by following the patient’s crazy ideas, not by trying to modify or amputate his craziness’ (1990, p. 82).
Therapy from the Masculine Principle
The practice of short term therapy that adopts approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Solution Focused Therapy, represent a masculine/left brain approach. What is reflected in these approaches is the message that our lives will proceed in a positive way if we have better control over them in the form of changing some objectified problematic behaviour, thought or emotional expression. CBT is seen by the medical profession as the preferred way to work with conditions such as depression and anxiety. Central to this approach is identifying and changing distorted negative thinking into realistic, inclusive and positive thoughts. A masculine/left brain approach seeks to correct this thinking by using techniques that direct and challenge the client to replace their thoughts with positive ones. There is an implicit right way to think that comes across as the goal. Bruce Levine articulates short term therapy’s pitfall in a few succinct words, ‘If one feels the pressure of time, one can not heal.’
Working from a feminine/right brain perspective with someone experiencing depression focuses on the person not the problem. The therapist seeks to understand the client’s perspective even if it is dark, immobilized or empty. Even though one could analyze the client’s thinking as distorted to them it makes perfect sense, and on closer exploration we find that these conclusions and beliefs are rooted in past experiences that need to be processed. The therapist aligns themselves with the client’s naturally emerging energy and together they work within right brain processes (affect, sensation, images, movement) to find movement and inspiration. This gradual birthing process transforms distorted thinking from the bottom up and goes with the client rather than acting on the client. Focusing on tasks and goals when you have little energy and strong feelings of shame can set up the possibility of failure and increase feelings of shame when tasks are unable to be completed.
It seems that we are inundated with new techniques or procedures that promises to lead one’s life in a positive, successful direction. There is a focus on attaining a perfect state that reflects a notion of being cured. Despite these promises, states of depression and anxiety are seen to be on the rise. This perfectionist approach to healing inherently shames people for their depression and despair and adds to their emotional pain as they struggle to rid themselves of legitimate suffering.
Employee Assistant Programs (EAP) are a trend within the field that is inherently masculine/left brain, perhaps as a consequence of their relationship to the workforce and business. EAP arose out of employers awareness that productivity could be increased by their employees being happy and well. Certainly not a bad viewpoint, however, this leads to the goal of counselling being tied to increase in productivity and EAP companies (particularly those that provide service from outside) competing to prove tangible results from a few sessions of counselling, in order to maintain their contracts. This puts pressure on EAP counsellors to show improvements in their clients that can be measured and providing tools that the client has acquired as a result of counselling.
Alternatively, if we compare employees ability to access therapy through extended insurance benefits it becomes clear that these constraints on the therapy process are removed. The client is free to chose their own therapist who does not have any relationship to the employer, nor is the therapist required to report back the success of the therapy in any way. In addition, once the client’s benefits are used up there is no restriction on continuing with that therapist if the client wishes, unlike many EAP companies. This supports an ongoing therapeutic relationship that is free to follow the client’s needs.
Practice from a feminine principle does not see a distinction between long term and short term therapy. Whether you have a few sessions or unlimited, each session becomes an opportunity for a transformative experience that rests on the encounter between the therapist and client.
The message of being versus doing is not a new one. Humanity has been grappling with this conflict and imbalance throughout history. The field of psychology continues to be split between orientations that are inherently masculine/left brain and those that are inherently feminine/right brain. Neuroscientific research has added it’s voice to the necessity of integration through right brain processes that reclaim the body and it’s importance to healing and supports psychotherapy grounded in the feminine principle.
If we were to surmise that the integration of the masculine and feminine is necessary for humanity’s health and an individual’s healing then it behooves us to work towards an integrated approach that is grounded in being not doing. When therapy is grounded in the masculine principle therapists are in danger of colluding with psychological processes that disempower and shame client’s. At the present time right brain/feminine healing strategies are underrepresented in many core training programs. In addition, we need to educate the public on the meaning of a therapeutic process grounded in the feminine principle that supports a collaborative process towards wholeness rather than attempting to rid oneself of unwanted experiences.
Practice from the feminine principle is challenged as clients: look for certainty, want control over an uncomfortable and vulnerable emotional life, prefer to think their way through things rather than experience. It is further challenged when therapists compensate for their feelings of incompetency with: a reliance on techniques, procedures and diagnosis that maintain a distance between themselves and their clients.
Finally, practice grounded in the feminine perhaps has more to do with the therapist themselves than a particular orientation. Two teachers who have taught me the most about being with my clients and letting go of the need to do, practice from very different approaches. Andrew Feldmar who practices within the tradition of R.D. Laing, and Sharon Stanley, the founder of Somatic Transformation, a developmental, phenomenological, and neurobiological approach to the healing of trauma.
We are all challenged within a climate of economic pressures and a perfectionist, goal oriented, results driven culture to maintain a perspective that sees healing in the hands of our clients, where we provide a contained space for integration in the search for wholeness. It requires us to become our own embodied self in order to develop an attuned self regulated stance to hold a space in the face of our clients suffering as they encounter the uncertainty of life.