Date: Sunday September 17th 2:00-3:30pm
When clients come into my office for psychotherapy, they are usually focused inward, potentially seeking a diagnosis, and often asking “what’s wrong with me?” Yes, the majority of my clients are working through gender dysphoria or pursuing recovery from an eating disorder, and while these are indeed conditions I can diagnose, much of the work I do with folks is about exploring the ways in which structural oppression related to their sexual orientation, gender expression or race is causing distress, both directly and in its internalized forms. In other words, we shift from asking “what’s wrong with me?” to “why do I think something’s wrong with me?”
From a social justice perspective, one of the most insidious ways oppression in the form of patriarchy, misogyny, class bias and racism (among others) does its work is through internalization. When people internalize these structures of power and disempowerment, the self hatred and self doubt that ensue wreak all kinds of havoc in terms of beliefs that impact behavior and emotional experience, which then often leads to the development of some form of psychopathology. I vividly recall a professor at the Smith College School for Social Work stating: “The greater the oppression, the greater the depression” and I have seen this to be true over and over again in the lives of the people who walk through my office doors.
There was a time (and in some cases, that time is now) when people in my chosen profession, social work, were largely tools of oppressive structures. In the words of Michel Foucault: “The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge.” For example, as the majority of my clients are transgender or gender non-conforming people, many require authorization from me for their insurance companies that they are “trans enough” to receive gender affirming hormone therapies or surgeries. Many of these folks also experience profound depression and/or anxiety: how would you feel if your fate, your ability to live a life as yourself, was in the hands of an ostensible expert, deemed more expert than you about your own self-hood by virtue of their social position and capital?
My work, as a social justice oriented feminist relational psychotherapist, is kaleidoscopic. I work to support my clients in identifying the ways in which they’ve internalized oppressive structures. We work together to identify the ways they’re policing themselves and warping their sense of self through these lenses, and then we work to dismantle the problematic internalized beliefs that are setting them up for emotional distress and behavioral dysregulation. In other words, I sincerely look forward to a day when I become obsolete.
I am a serious fan of perspectives. I had a high school history teacher who was fond of saying that “truth is increasing complexity”, and in both my personal and professional lives, I have found this to be, well, true.
When a client presents me with a truth, about themselves, about an experience, we work to increase complexity. Are you sure that’s true? Has it always been true? What else might be true? What do others in your life believe to be true? Often, in this way, we are able to triangulate, and to move in the direction of deeper knowing, of more true, but also to open space for subjectivity, and breathe some light or humor or next questions into that space.
It is in the spirit of that kind of inquiry that I offer the following blog post by Holly Glenn Whitaker: http://www.hipsobriety.com/home/2015/2/18/why-aa-didnt-work-for-me-my-story-part-1
This is not a prescription. This is not an indictment of AA. It is also not an endorsement of Holly’s sobriety coaching program. It is, however, a perspective. There’s this Buddhist expression, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” It speaks to the dangers of making something or someone your god, which is easy to do when you feel as though you have been saved, but the reification of any one concept or any one guru or organization can be fraught with peril.
I work with a lot of clients who struggle with substance abuse because when the world offers you its misogyny, its transphobia, its racisim and its fat phobia (amongst others) to internalize, numbness and escape often sound like the loveliest of sirens. I have folks who come to my office who have found a sober life working an AA program, and it’s glorious. I also work with clients who have found that the language of powerlessness and surrender was inaccessible to them in the context of a history of sexual trauma or internalized hatred and disempowerment, and who echo Holly’s statement that in fact, making the choice to let go of alcohol because you can’t use it and be well is profoundly powerful, and profoundly empowering.
You can’t get sober by yourself, but you’re also the only one who can get you sober. The rooms of AA are one available community within which to do that work, but they are not the only one: could this be a truth?
So, I highly recommend you go read this http://www.danikabrysha.com/blog/dear-danika-food-addiction-stress-management-and-how-im-finally-finding-peace-and-freedom, knowing that the author is someone I choose to follow on social media and in her blog even though I have specifically chosen not to follow the path she has used to address her eating disorder, and our very definitions of eating disorder and recovery diverge. Here’s why:
1. What if her path is right for you or one of my clients? I have found that I don’t stay on the healthy side of the blurry line between OA and restriction very long, and so it’s not my scene, but recovery is individual.
2. If it’s not your scene either, can you engage with her words as an act of empathic connection with someone whose struggles you share? We’re so quick to judge, and it keeps us separate in our own food and body prisons, rather than forging the community and connections we need to feel seen, heard and not totally nuts.
3. It’s worth it purely for her insight into the absolute brain drain (and effort of futility) that is dieting.
4. Because I’m choosing to put my energy into pumping breast milk these days, rather than blogging much, but I still want you to have good things to read.
“What’s in a Number? Hint: Nothing! BMI and/or the number on your scale mean nothing about your health! How can it? Health is so much more than just your height and weight. We are just too complex for such simplicity! Do your body and mind a favor and stop weighing yourself (or letting others weigh you). That scale number is only a measure of your self-worth. Please stop checking your self-worth on the bathroom scale! A better measure would be to ask a good friend why they value you. That is way more meaningful than any information a scale will tell you!”
I recently received the following feedback from another eating disorder treatment professional regarding my approach as she perceived it from reading this blog:
“It appears [we have] a differing philosophy in treating eating disorders. We don’t help clients to lose weight or make that part of our treatment plan. We help them regulate eating and discovering the underlying issues driving the ED behavior. Sometimes that results in weight loss. In addition, we have found that keeping the focus on weight and a restrictive diet maintains the ED. We do not recommend elimination diets such as the Whole30 as this is another way the ED stays active.”
I had rather a lot of feelings upon reading her response.
The first of these was the hot flush of shame, and thoughts that I’d been caught doing something wrong by an authority. Incidentally, shame and a fundamental belief in my own “badness” is one of the “underlying issues driving the ED behavior” that I unearthed in my own early treatment experiences. This was followed by a roller coaster of anger and defensiveness. So, first I dealt with the feelings: 73 deep breaths, a draught of lavender essential oil, a big glass of cold water and a long walk with my partner to talk it out. Thus soothed, I returned to my critic’s words for some reflection.
Going back over the feedback line by line, from a less emotionally reactive place, I made an interesting discovery: what she wrote has absolutely nothing to do with me or my treatment philosophy. In the words of Byron Katie, her response is not my business. The feedback I received was the author’s reaction to my blog, which reflects her thoughts, her beliefs and her agenda, none of which are my business.
What is my business are my reactions in thought and feeling to the feedback I received and what I choose do with those. I could rant and rant here about how my post about the Whole30 virtually insisted eating disordered clients not do a Whole30. I could be all righteous and s@#t, but the only person ingesting that vitriol and raising her cortisol levels would be me.
Historically, I would have reacted to these kinds of difficult thoughts and feelings with a cascade of eating disordered behavior, but I’ve learned that the core of recovery is to employ mindfulness in order to be on guard for my triggers and access alternative coping strategies accordingly. In terms of treatment philosophy, this is also what I teach my clients, and what I have intended for this blog to reflect.
Here’s an another potential twist on things: my initial response to the feedback was an angry and defensive “That’s not true! I know what I’m ‘supposed’ to do in this field and I do it!” But what if, for the sake of argument, everything she wrote is accurate? Would that be bad? While the author of the comment reflects the conventional wisdom of our field, I am not entirely conventional in my approach.
While I certainly don’t make weight loss a part of every treatment plan, depending on the context and goals of my client, it’s sometimes included. For example, if I’m working with an obese binge eater who is trying to avoid knee surgery by losing weight, and that goal is the only thing that’s motivating her to work for recovery, then I’m going to honor that goal. We’re still going to need to explore the underlying issues supporting the eating disorder, and regulate eating, but in my experience not every person who wants to lose weight wants that from a disordered or distorted place. To my way of thinking, this is not dissimilar from noting that weight restoration is a goal for an anorexic client.
This is me. This is my blog. These are my words. These are my beliefs. Some people won’t like them, and that’s ok. Some people will like them, and that’s ok, too. Ultimately, neither of those things are my business; my business is to make sure that I am ok with what I put out onto the interwebs, and for today, I am.
Today’s Food for Thought, from Anne Cuthbert, M.A. of http://www.foodisnottheenemy.com
“What does disordered eating and body image protect you from? Do the constant thoughts distract you from thinking about or feeling about other parts of your life? Does it keep you in a safe world that you can control? Does it give you a good excuse to not go somewhere or be with someone in which you feel uncomfortable? There is always a reason for it. What is it for you?”