Cradle Of Power
A major task for a feminist therapist is to bring hidden power relationships into conscious awareness, however small or insignificant they might seem, to critically analyze them, and to help create a safe space for his or her client to do the same. Nothing is taken for granted, and every interaction is viewed through this lens on some level.
Feminist theory differs from other psychologies in that minute details of the therapeutic relationship are openly questioned to see whether a power imbalance might exist that the therapist does not see. In other psychological disciplines we usually view the practitioner as the main source of knowledge. Since it’s a helping profession, and the ostensible goal of the therapist is to help, it seems that an unfair power structure could not exist. But he or she decides upon which symptoms are causing the most distress, how these symptoms came about, what the diagnosis of these symptoms should be, and usually on the best route for effecting change. As the owner of this privileged information a therapist is endowed with a tremendous amount of power in the relationship. Client input will of course be valued and accepted, but the final decision lies with the professional.
Let’s consider some of the forms of power that a practitioner has over a client without necessarily even being aware of them. If he believes you have become an imminent danger to yourself or someone else he can have you involuntarily committed. On an unconscious level you know from the get go that what you say or think could have profound ramifications on your physical freedom and sense of Self. He has the power to place a diagnostic label upon you that will define you narrowly and be on record with insurance companies after only having met with you for one hour. He access to psychological knowledge that you probably do not have, so even when he remains silent the possibility exists that he knows something about the inner workings of your situation that you do not know.
When you come for a session you are on his turf. The environment is comfortable for him because he created it, but he doesn’t necessarily question how the decor, spacing of seating, geographical location, and other details of the setting influence the way you feel about yourself.
He might hide behind a veneer of objectivity during sessions and is not expected to share intimate details about his life, yet you are expected to reveal your deepest secrets and most painful vulnerabilities from the start, before establishing a relationship defined by trust. You have no real way of knowing whether he is secretly judging you, or if he will keep the information you provide completely confidential. He might have a set rate that he charges without considering how many hours you had to work to pay for your session, or if you truly feel that you are getting your money’s worth.
The true power of working within a feminist framework is that we openly discuss and question all of this right from the beginning. The power is handed back to you, and you realize you have an active stake in the process of therapy. Questioning everything, including our relationship, is not only okay but encouraged. Feminist theory pulls the idea from psychoanalytic thought that the therapeutic relationship is similar to other relationships in your life. This is called transference. A person often perceives and relates to the therapist in a way that is similar to parents, romantic partners, bosses, teachers, siblings, or authority figures from childhood.
Together we raise our consciousness about this fact and treat the therapeutic relationship as a cradle of power, where the emotions and thoughts that are evoked during a session are openly acknowledged and applied to other important relationships both past and present. No two people have the same experience with unequal power structures so the truly empowering component is that a person feels free to openly discuss his or her subjective experience in the room and outside of it.
Frederick Nietzsche has a quote I love, which is that “We should not give the individual, in so far as he desires his own happiness, any precepts or recommendations as to the road leading to happiness; for individual happiness arises from particular laws that are unknown to anybody, and such a man will only be hindered or obstructed by recommendations which come to him from outside sources.” (Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day, Pos 1131 Kindle version)
This is a key to individual growth in feminist therapy. I support your right to be happy, I bring all my psychological knowledge to the table and share it with you to help you get there, but ultimately it is your right and responsibility to choose your own path and to decide upon the conditions that make you feel personally fulfilled. You are the expert in your own life.