Happy New Year fellow colleagues! I don’t know about you, but I tend to be reflective during the time of one year ending and another beginning. I consider areas of my life and ways I can continue to move forward and stay true to who I am, why I am here, and what I do. What were you doing about 20 years ago? I had just finished undergraduate and was headed into graduate school for counseling. I knew then I had a passion for working with women. Of course, what I didn’t know was that all the spaces in between then and now would be intricately woven together by choices, relationships, and continuous learning – all to bring me full circle.
Recently I asked some female residents I work with why they chose an all-female recovery program. They shared several reasons:
- The single gender community provides the ability to focus better without men around;
- The ability to feel safer to share certain issues (e.g., molestation, rape, sexual addiction) in a group because male residents are not present;
- And lastly, the hope that the program would be more sensitive in understanding relationship issues.
I also polled a few local therapists asking what issues are unique to women as they enter therapy. Like my private practice clients, the therapists said women often come in with a presenting complaint of a relationship not working, for instance. Then with further exploration depression and/or anxiety is identified. I would add that I have also noticed many of the female clients I have worked with struggle with numerous health issues such as heart problems, seizure disorder, diabetes, migraines, and digestive difficulties.
So we have women who desire safety-in-connection with other women in order to share about their relational-experiences that are related to other relationships while concurrently experiencing emotional problems and health challenges.
Layered issues or all inter-related?
In 1991 I wrote my graduate paper on Anger & Self-Esteem in Chemically Dependent Women. I was curious about how these pieces fit together. The paper began with a broad literature review that showed the difference in socialization patterns between men and women particularly in the expression of anger. Moreover, it revealed a strong relationship between women who struggled with anxiety and depression and the various manifestations of health problems that often accompany these diagnoses. Alcohol and drugs were used (and still are) to numb/self-medicate both their emotional and physical pain. My point in sharing this is that I discovered a “collection of papers” at the time, now a book titled Women’s Growth in Connection, regarding women’s development. This gave me a framework for understanding why and how “relationship” is vital to women in how we grow and move in the world.
A Relational Perspective
How might a women’s developmental theory be described? Self-in-relation. Per Surrey (1991) the relational line of development for women is that relationship and identity develop in synchrony. According to Miller (1991), in traditional developmental psychology (Mahler, Erickson, & Levinson) the emphasis is on separation with the goal being the formation of a separate identity. I envision a staircase, distinct steps, with a platform at the top. Whereas, the “…hyphenated expression ‘self-in-relation’ implies an evolutionary process of development through relationship” (Surrey, 1991). In this model other aspects of self like creativity, autonomy, and assertion would develop within this primary context of relationship. Here, I envision a Ferris wheel, a multi-faceted structure made up of many connecting points. It holds, moves, and is continuous.
As a clinician, being mindful of the “in-relation to” piece has been helpful. I explore meanings of connections, identify the unspoken rule between two individuals, and review the relationship between the holding on to and the having physical ailments; or, the contrary of the letting go of and the receiving of. The age of women entering treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, and eating disorders, seems to be older now which brings up gender specific issues that can be explored in a larger context of progressive self development: PMS, hormonal changes and menopause, and empty nest syndrome to name of few. I believe all of us – the Doctor, Psychiatrist, Interventionist, MHT, Sponsor, Therapist, even the Marketer (lol, I was one) are the spaces-in-between for that woman on her journey to self-discovery.
The integration is evident to me. All relational experiences, all that makes up the self: mind, emotion, spirit – are all anchored in the body. The body is a great tool and a valuable resource. In my work with women (Experiential, Psychodrama) and from doing my own work (EMDR, Somatic experiencing, and Dance Movement Therapy) I have come to value the wisdom of the body. My body led me out of my head and into self-expression by means of movement. There is a synchrony, a rhythm that is present. It is part of each woman’s story, or should I say song, that can’t necessarily be shared with words. Focusing on the body and coaching women as they move away from alcohol and drugs is powerful. The coaching relationship provides a reciprocal context for the client to be empowered. It is a place where she can be creative, practice, and explore the possible. Some tools I use: Stay curious. Notice. Stay connected to my intuition. Talk less but ask more questions. As I apply these actions to myself, I teach her these skills. It is how I remain authentic and a gentle way to invite her into a new relationship with her body.
Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, Surrey (1991). Women’s Growth in Connection: Writings from the Stone Center. New York London: The Guildford Press.