As the #metoo movement grows and women start to share their stories of abuse, manipulation and oppression, we have begun to see backlash again. Those who are unwilling to witness and feel the pain being shared will try to dismiss, disregard, or write these women off as being angry, crazy, or manipulators themselves (see #HimToo and #ToxicFemininity). This is why it is so important that women, and the men who love them, come together in solidarity, to hold each other compassionately through this truth excavating and exposing process.
Remember the bad old days of Freud, the father of western psychology? One of his contributions was pathologizing women’s emotions into diagnoses like hysteria. A century later we are finally understanding that most of those women weren’t sick at all. Mark Micale (1990) published an article in the History of Psychiatry Journal researching the etiology of hysteria and concluded that hysteria was really just “a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable” in women (p. 320). He discusses the historical context of a time where restrictions on women's lives, such as the right to own property, hold a bank account, divorce their husbands, vote, go to school, and work in most civil institutions alongside men, was the real cause of emotional distress. Women were not free agents in a world run by their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Their struggles were manifesting as psychosomatic disorders. Yes, there was a problem, but Freud got it wrong. Women were not pathological; society was pathological.
The 1960’s was known for bra burning feminists, where many women went wild with their new found freedoms, drinking, smoking, and sexing their way to burn out. It was easy for some critics to dismiss the movement and pathologize these women in the same way as Freud. After many women experienced new freedoms, often for the first time in their lives, it’s no surprise that some would take the road of excess and risky behavior. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book Women Who Run with Wolves, uses myth and story to describe the wild woman archetype, which she says has been caged like an animal for too long. She explains that when a caged and starved animal is released back into the wild, it often becomes ravenous and reckless, killing everything in site, regardless of its needs for survival. Yet, a healthy animal, one living in a balanced and thriving ecosystem, will only kill what it needs to survive. This ravenous killing spree is what happened to many women of the 1960’s who were victims of an imbalanced socioeconomic system, and many women suffered from its consequences.
When we hear the word feminist what do we think? Many negative stereotypes come to my mind-- “angry”, “bra-burning”, “man-haters”. However, in some places in the world, the word feminist isn’t a dirty word. The word feminist is understood to mean anyone who is fighting for equal rights. At the January 2017, Oakland, California Women’s March, a t-shirt was seen saying “This is the Face of the New Feminist.” The words by themselves are not shocking. It was the fact that the person wearing it was a man.
Early in 2018, I made my first public post on Facebook about the #metoo movement, primarily highlighting the abuses that have been going on by men in the yoga world. Looking back, the post seems like no big deal, but at the time, it took a lot for me to publicly voice my opinion in this way. While I received a lot of support for my post, I also experienced backlash. I received messages that sounded threatening, telling me I was in “dangerous territory,” that I was having a “mental breakdown,” and that perhaps a “conversation with my father” would sort me out. A man requested that I give him the phone number of my father, so that he could have a chat with him and let him know how worried he was for my mental health, as if I was a child who needed a good spanking for my behavior instead of my adult 37-year-old self.
But, so goes the patriarchy.
Over the past year, as I am recognizing the misogyny that is embedded in personal relationships and the culture at large, I am learning how to use my voice to create boundaries. When a man speaks to me or behaves in a certain way that feels uncomfortable, I am noticing how I have always operated-- smile, comply, or excuse myself from the situation. I thought I was a strong woman, so I was horrified to realize I didn’t know how to stick up for myself in a moment of distress. Yet, to do so takes a high level of awareness, strength, and a whole lot of practice. So I have started to practice, build strength, awareness, and speak up, but my boundaries are not always well received.
There is also a real concern for safety. By speaking up, setting boundaries, and saying NO, I am also putting myself at risk for potential retaliation from men who are bigger, stronger, and possibly prone to violence when their ego, image, or reputation is at stake. I can see why it was safer for women to simply play the game. I know this sounds implausible to most and perhaps borderline paranoid, but let’s ask the women who have spoken up in the past and see what they have to say. What we often remember about the feminist leaders of the past is their incredible courage. We don’t always think about the fear they probably endured everyday as they faced the world wondering if it would be their last. While those were very different times, I know that I have felt fear. I have worried about my safety, have wondered if these men have my address, have made sure to lock my doors, have been afraid of standing in front of dark open windows, have scanned a building before exiting and entering, and in general felt fear that what I have done would cause a violent backlash.
Fear of personal safety is a real concern. I can see that now. While some of us are speaking out regardless of the consequences, many more of us are not willing to take the risk. So what do we do? This is uncharted territory, we haven’t done this before, so there are lots of us trying, stumbling, falling, picking ourselves back up, and trying something new to get better results. This is wonderful, but perhaps we can learn from each other and help provide a little support.
HOW TO CONFRONT OUR OPPRESSORS
1. Request a Witness or Mediator
I learned this the hard way. I thought I was strong and capable of speaking my mind, but when I step into the presence of those who are adept at manipulation and control, I have a hard time standing clear in my power, no matter how much meditation and yoga I am doing. Having a witness present is the single best decision a woman can make.
2. Get an Objective Evaluation
Perhaps this should be the first step before confrontation. We need to be able to look at things objectively and see how our actions may be contributing to the power dynamic we find ourselves in. Have a good friend, family member, or support group review the entire situation to help you see your shadows more clearly. It is important that we are always willing to find where we might be blind to our own behaviors. We can’t always see our shadows.
3. Rally Your Tribe
When someone has been oppressed, they feel isolated, alone, and defeated. We need to start building relationships that are supportive, and surrounding ourselves by people that really hear us, see us, and love us. When we share with our friends and family about trauma, abuse, or disempowerment, do they listen? Or do they dismiss us? Is it time for a new “family” or group of friends? Find and rally your tribe. You are not alone.
4. Do Your Inner Work
Psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, self-help books, journaling, women’s circles, medicine work, etc. Find any consistent practice that helps dig up the dark unconscious traumas and bring them into the light. We need to be careful thinking that without action, things will just suddenly change. A desire for something different is not the same as the work that it takes to make that shift. Keep doing your inner work. Consistent commitment pays off.
5. Don’t be Afraid of Your Anger
Do not apologize for your emotions. The saying recently goes, “(Ladies) If you're not angry, you’re not paying attention.” This is so true. Emotions are there, especially dark emotions like anger and fear, to alert the body that something needs to change. We need to listen to these signals and honor our experience. We don’t dismiss our anger; we learn how to channel that anger into something creative. Anger can be a powerful fuel to activate change.
6. Learn About Your History
We need to understand where we have come from to understand where we are going. Learning about our parents’ lives, their parents’ lives, our culture, gender, race, and even the history of the entire human race is imperative to understanding who we are in the world and how to handle our current conflicts. Women’s history is not adequately taught in school, so we need to go digging to understand the stories of the past. Learning about our past helps us see our present lives more clearly.
7. Don’t Blame the Person, Blame the System
Taking a systems approach is a good way to depersonalize your experience and see it from a larger metaperspective. We have to remember that we are all a product of the patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power, manipulation, and control. The powerless, weak, and marginalized are the easiest targets (ie, women, children, minorities, the poor, animals, and the Earth’s resources). Believe it or not, the oppressor also suffers under these conditions. Under patriarchy, we are all victims.
8. Take Personal Responsibility
If we take a systems approach and see how the structures work within ourselves, we can also see how everyone has suffered and is involved in the problem. This doesn’t mean we ignore the transgression, but we need to have an awareness of how we contribute to the unhealthy relationship. This simple awareness, even if it is, “I was powerless, from a long history of not having agency to stand up to this abuse” goes a long way. How can we continue to see ourselves in the problem, and consequently, the solution? Take radical responsibility and learn what it will take to get your power back.
9. Don’t Get Stuck in Story
It’s one thing to acknowledge story, but it’s another to get stuck in story. Yes, it happened to us, and it happened for a reason. By honoring the story, we can better understand and grow from the experience. But to remain in the story keeps us chained to our victim mentality and perpetuates the trauma. We may have lived that story, but we are not defined by that story, and we always have the opportunity to write a new one.
10. Learn How to Communicate
Often times our language is unintentionally polarizing and critical, which is counterproductive to getting our needs met. We need to learn new ways of communicating, which doesn’t blame, shame, judge, or try to control the other person. Communication techniques like Nonviolent Communication teach us to tune into and express our feelings, listen with and mirror empathically, identify and convey our unmet needs, and make requests rather than demands, which will help create clear boundaries (Rosenberg, 2015). If we are going to win this battle we need to learn to communicate compassionately. Men have historically fought with wars, but women will do it differently, we will fight with words.
As more and more women begin to take a look at their own lives and speak about their personal disempowerment and trauma, they may be surprised to find resistance from some of the people they know and thought they trusted. This has been my experience and I was left feeling quite alone. Yet, had I taken the time to learn more about my past, do more of my inner work, rally my tribe around me for objective reflection and loving support, and learn to communicate more compassionately, perhaps the path toward truth telling would have been less traumatic.
These are unprecedented times, and the learning and growing is bound to be a bit painful. Yet, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t persevere. The biggest lesson of all is to find our strength in numbers and trust that together, we can learn to be the change we want to see. Find your tribe, ask for support, learn to listen and communication with compassion, and know that you are never alone.
Article by Amaya James
Michale, M. (1990). Hysteria and its Historiography: the future perspective. Online Journal of the History of Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957154X9000100103
Pinkola Estes, C. (1992). Women Who Run With the Wolves. Ballantine Books: New York.
Rosenberg, M. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: a language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle