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Gender discrimination as mental baggage

By Hanne Hostrup

(published in GF-bladet (the journal of the gestalt therapeutic forum) 2008,Translation: Dorte Silver)

Gestalt therapy is a holistic relational form of therapy that theoretically describes people as both unique, distinct individuals and as relationally connected, mutually dependent on each other and each other's conditions. The individual is viewed as an individual-environment-whole, where personal experiences in combination with current and historical socio-cultural aspects form the background for the individual's life (the ground to its figure). In gestalt therapeutic practice, unfortunately, therapists far too often reduce this organism-environment-whole to individual phenomena or phenomena occurring between individuals, whose behaviour is governed by arisen needs. This practice has naturally been nourished by the general drift toward individualization in the Western world. But also within the context of gestalt therapy itself, the socio-cultural aspects have slipped to a somewhat lesser role as influential factors (as for example in the concept of the contact cycle, conceived by J. Zinker). In addition, certain “gestalt therapy stars” / trainers have had such a phobic relationship with confluence that they have confused behaviour springing from a social WE- experience with behaviour indicative of a contact disturbance.

The dual meaning of introjects

As we know, the messages that are embedded in the introjects are usually organized as background in our consciousness. In therapy their messages/meanings are discovered and unfolded, which gives the clients clarity and an understanding of the background for their automatic (and perhaps destructive) responses. Only once this clarity has been achieved can they choose whether or not to “heed” the messages.

In this process of discovery it is essential that the therapist help the client distinguish between the socio-cultural aspects and the more personal aspects of the introject. There is a big difference between addressing one's cultural heritage and addressing one's family heritage – although the two are of course closely related. If in his or her practice the therapist fails to distinguish between the reflection of culture vs. parents in the individual man's or woman's self- image and personality formation, the client misses an opportunity to acknowledge part of his or her WE-identity (the identity that has been formed in and relates to the social community), and that makes it more difficult for the client to close unfinished, fixed gestalts. For example, the outcome of resuming and finishing a dialogue with previously important individuals in the present through chair work or imagination will not be satisfactory if the therapist fails to help the client distinguish between individual requirements, taboos and myths and those that have affected everyone in the social field in their time.

One of the very powerful influential factors is the part of the introject that contains the gender- specific elements that were normative in the gender culture which the client is a part of or grew up in. These background aspects contain requirements about men's and women's behaviour. However, they not only contain instructions for action or behaviour but are also imbued with powerful statements about values and world view; this underscores the point that gender differences are no trivial matter but are involved in everything we do, and everything we are.

Gender discrimination as mental baggage

In Denmark the sexes are, in principle, equal, but in practice this equality pertains only to certain areas of our social lives, in part because the legislative aspect of gender equality has only been around for a short period of time and is still missing in some areas. Since norms and values are transferred through the upbringing of new generations, they are not always acknowledged as heritage but are instead reflected in automatic responses. Thus, many people of both sexes often find themselves in a double-bind situation, where they believe they have gender equality yet habitually act as if they do not. This complicates relations and the chances for a reality-based way of being in the world. When the psychological consequences of past and present gender inequality are viewed as an entirely personal issue, men and women are unable to rebel against injustice; instead they rebel against one another, which is of course deeply destructive for relationships.

Many men have a personal history that contains suffering and oppression, but as a counter- balance to this, all men – regardless of their personal history – have a gender-specific social role as “masters of destiny”. That often generates a disturbing discrepancy between the man's actual capacity and his expectations of himself as a man, which may lead to the same psychological problems as those typically seen in individuals with a narcissistic disorder. Women, on the other hand, regardless of their individual history, always carry a mental baggage of messages that are oppressive of women. Hence, they struggle with the discrepancy between what they are and the definition of themselves as second-rate, which of course gives them the same psychological problems as the men – only in reverse.

It is probably typical of our times and a part of the problem that we have yet to see a proper men's liberation movement that fully documents how harmful the social legacy is for men, their relationships and society. As a male executive writes in the Danish newspaper “Information” on 7 September 2007: “... I was raised and taught to believe that men are better than women, and that men should be in charge...” An almost painfully clear description.

Unfortunately, it is also typical of our times that after the demise and ridicule of the Women's Lib we no longer have a collective women's movement to remind us of the roots of the oppression of women, its expressions and its imprint in our minds.

Both sexes carry a psychologically burdensome social legacy. In the following, however, I will focus on the legacy of the oppression of women, since women still take the prize as the most oppressed group. My aim here is to remind therapists how terrifying and specious, hidden and massive this oppression has been, and how cleverly we are tricked into thinking that the oppression has ended, while its messages are still active under the surface as part of all women's self-image and thus also as a driving force behind many female clients' self-destructive behaviour, denial, anger and anxiety in relation to topics such as independence, choices, interdependence and freedom. Themes that are key focus points in gestalt therapy.

I base my claim that women are burdened by derogatory messages on personal and professional experiences and on historical data that are important to bear in mind in one's work.

In the following I will offer a few relevant examples of the cultural aspects of gender discrimination, which continue to affect women's self-perception. A phenomenon that is probably most evident in women over 50 years of age, but which is also at play under the surface in younger women's lives.

Women who fall outside time

Prior to 1968 experiences could successfully be transferred from one generation to the next, and norms and values were applicable over time – with a few adjustments. After the pervasive cultural revolution of the 1970s, women were no longer able to rely on previous messages about the female identity and norms for women. Thus, women who grew up in the 1930s, '40s and '50s were raised to fit into the old world but are required to live in the new world. Thus, the messages and instructions in their baggage do not match their current living conditions. The self-image that was formed during childhood and youth, and which was promoted by family and society and created the person's identity has become an anachronism and lacks affirmative responses from the world.

Identity shows itself as my experience or image of myself and enables me to recognize myself yesterday, today and tomorrow. Actions/contact and self-image are a function of one another, which means that it can be difficult to maintain the experience of truly being who I am if I do not receive affirmative responses to my actions. This renders my self-regulation inadequate, as it is conditioned by a process of ongoing reorganization and adjustments in the relationship between needs, self-image, actions and the world's responses. When my self-supports are undermined from within by introjects and from the outside by unmatching responses it becomes difficult for me to reorganize my self-image. In a defence against breakdowns women may find support in (oldfashioned) environments that appreciate and live by norms that match the messages of the introjects. But since this also makes the person “fall outside their time” and thus creates constant clashes with others, especially the younger generation, this may lead to the development of psychological problems. Many older women, who have based their identity mostly on being a wife and a mother have not had the opportunity to adjust their self-image on an ongoing basis. They feel the inner erosion but do not know why they feel that way. They often wind up thinking, “I am wrong” or “They are wrong”. Either may be appropriate conclusions, but they are often a function of retroflection or projection and an inadequate grasp of the bigger picture.

Women's inner story

The external denigration that has taken place over generations has generated an inner insecurity that causes many (especially older) women to suffer from an automatic fear of freedom and of defining themselves. The systematic undermining of dignity has been going on for a long time and on every level: legislation, family, school, church, science, and art. We only have to go back three generations to find a society that openly regarded women as second-rate citizens. They lacked individual legal rights: They did not have the right to determine whether they wanted to work or whom to marry, no right to birth control, no right to a divorce, and no right to vote (women's suffrage was not introduced in Denmark until 1915).

In school they were taught a history of Denmark and the world that was written by men and of men, and which confirmed men's status as the important sex. Women appear as mistresses, as mothers, as queens, as wives. Figures whose position derives from their relations with men and family. The women who are described as having an individual status are either saints or witches (cf. Joan of Arc).

In religious studies, The Old Testament was taught from grade one. Here the children learned about the man, Adam, who was created in God's image, and about the woman, Eve, who was created as part of the man (his rib). Boys and girls learned that God has decided that women should be subservient to men, and that it was her fault that humanity was cast out of Eden. No one ever mentioned the alternative Genesis story, where the first woman, Lilith, is an individual of equal status who opts of her relationship with Adam and leaves Eden because she refuses to put up with Adam's barbarian habits.

In church, texts from The New Testament inserted an ancient view of women into contemporary culture. See for example Paul's letter to Timothy, Chapter 2: “Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection (...) But I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in quietness” – etc., etc. In Chapter 5 he writes about widows, young as well as old: “But she who gives herself to pleasure is dead while she lives.” This opinion was traditionally endorsed by those in power (cf. the danish king Christian IV, who burned large numbers of “witches” at the stake).

Science “proved” that the older woman's status as a second-rate person was based on objective fact: The establishing of medicine as a science around the 1800s led to an emerging interest in fact over faith. Hence fresh bodies were in high demand for examination and comparison. Based on individual, concrete findings it was concluded that there was a link between death and bodily flaws. In particular, death caused by old age demonstrated that the body had flaws in comparison with the healthy adult body. Thus, age and normalcy became linked, and age became a “disorder” – a malfunction. Women's body past the age of menopause showed “flaws” (decay of the uterus and ovaries), and women over 50 were therefore defined as sick and abnormal.

In 1895 the famous Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud published “Studies on hysteria”, where to the horror of the bourgeoisie he described women as sexual beings and even postulated that they had a mental life equal to men's. By analyzing upper-class women in Vienna Freud had gained insight into women's stories about incest, and he published his theory that men's exercise of power over women made the women mentally ill. BUT the bourgeoisie was not going to put up with that, and when they threatened Freud's position he folded and altered his theory, now suddenly viewing the stories about incest as fantasies – expressions of female penis envy. At a much later time, Karen Horney corrected this theory and wrote that penis envy must be understood symbolically: as women's justified envy of men's hold on power in the world. Combining social science with psychology, she concluded that psychological development relied on a person's culture and time. But that did not happen until 1937.

I 1903 – almost simultaneously with the publishing of Freud's theory about penis envy – the very young and gifted Austrian scientist Otto Weininger write his dissertation “Sex and character”. The dissertation was met with great recognition, even within the arts, where the famous Swedish author August Strindberg himself lavished praise on Otte Weininger's work for “solving the most difficult problem of all, the woman problem.” (According to Strindberg, the problem was that women sought emancipation). Here, a few samples from this highly praised scientific work: “The pure man is God's epitome, the absolute Something: The woman, also the woman in the man, symbolizes Nothing: That is the meaning of the woman in the Universe....” (p. 475). On page 553 he continues his logical conclusions: “Thus, the meaning of woman is to mean Nothing. She represents Nothing, the antithesis of divinity...” and further on page 553: “Only the old woman fully reveals what a woman really is. Experience shows that a woman's beauty is created only through a man's affection: The woman becomes more beautiful when a man loves her, because she passively responds to the will that lies in his affection; however mysterious this may sound, it is but an everyday observation. The old woman demonstrates that the woman was never beautiful ... only a hollow vessel that for some time was painted over”.

And it goes on like that, page after disgusting page. A scientific work, recognized on the highest level, only 100 years ago. (The only consolation is that Weininger took his own life immediately after reaping his scientific success).

There are, sadly, an infinite number of similar examples, and talented and gifted women were kept from having any influence. We therefore find that our great-great-grandmothers, our great- grandmothers, our grandmothers and our mothers have lived in a world that took a disparaging view of women which was officially endorsed and widely accepted. Of course, there were women who rose above this oppression (for example the Danish painter Anna Ancher, writers Karen Blixen and George Sand and many others), but the female painters were relegated to a secondary position because they could not get into exhibitions, and female writers had to write under a male pseudonym. Unavoidably, even these pioneers passed on the messages to the next generation of women, openly or implicitly, through their conditions, their habits, and their self-image.

In therapy, women often put this lack of importance into words. When asked, “How would you describe yourself?” especially older women typically reply, “I'm not pretty. I'm not young. I'm not a wife. I'm not a mother. I'm not sexy.” These women describe themselves in accordance with Otto Weininger's description of women as Nothing. (Cf. also Lise Winther-Jensen's article in GF-bladet, September 2008: Man kan ikke leve i ikke (You can't live in Not).

Therapy with (older) women

Elderly female clients often seek therapy because they have fallen into a “black pit”, where they cannot find or do not recognize themselves. They are disheartened, blame themselves and cry, and they point to menopause as a likely explanation. The trigger factor is often that they have lost some form of traditional female role, for example because of their husband's death or infidelity, divorce (he left her for a younger woman) or because the children do not need them anymore or may even have cut them off. As these events often coincide with the early stages of bodily decay (sagging breasts, spreading waistline, turkey neck, loose skin on the upper arms, etc.) ageing is experienced as an unbearable loss of dignity.

The therapeutic process reveals that these factors may have been the trigger, but that the real “culprit” is the inner deprecating socio-cultural messages that threaten their self-image. In a sense they are attacked both from the outside, by actual losses, and from within, by a loss of identity. The combination of traumatic events and the activation of introjects leads to a sense of emptiness (nothingness) and a loss of identity, a denial of their own resources, and self blame that justify a diagnosis of depression. However, viewing the condition exclusively as an individual psychological disorder and treating it accordingly places the therapy in far too narrow a framework. In many women, this condition cannot be described simply as a psychological disorder where the psychological resources are inadequate, or where the client is “overwhelmed” by introjects from her personal history. The direct contact in therapy will undoubtedly often be characterized by retroflection or confluence, and of course these contact disorders should be addressed. It is, however, crucial to unfold the messages of the introject fully, so that attention is also drawn to the socio-cultural messages that, in a sense, stick to the personal messages. This lets the client discover that she has – unknowingly – brought along a mental baggage of denigrating messages that have been passed on for generations through her upbringing. This expands the client's horizon and allows her to develop a holistic and more profound understanding of her condition as an existential life crisis that is not hers alone, but which she shares with all women.

To be able to use the crisis as a “spring board” for the development of new opportunities, it is essential for the therapist to keep his or her eyes open for an often underdeveloped/blocked mid- zone activity or an actual lack of information. Apart from working with contact disorders and the differentiation of the personal and socio-cultural messages of the introject, it is also necessary to focus on the activation of thinking, the client's capacity for analyzing, assessing and understanding the link between her current situation and personal history and the common fate of women. This is the only way of re-establishing full connections among all three awareness-zones.

I emphasize that this does NOT turn the therapy into cognitive therapy. Indeed, cognitive therapy aims to make automatic thoughts increasingly visible (unfolding them), as we do too. But while the cognitive therapist typically aims for a restructuring (a correction) of the self-destructive thoughts and response patterns, the gestalt therapist often does the opposite. He or she helps the client re- experience her entire reality as it is, i.e., in a way that reveals and clarifies how the socio-cultural messages mixed with parental messages affect the client's self-perception and behaviour. When the thought patterns are fully unfolded, the client will be able to respond to them and reorganize her self-identity (I) as part of a WE within in the field/in time.

This experience affects younger and older women in rather different ways. Younger women often resist being part of this history of oppression, and many are even startlingly ignorant about the roots and effects of this history. They know themselves only as “free”, individually functioning women and place the entire blame for their misery on themselves, their parents or their boyfriend. The older women typically do not resist but instead feel that this is probably how it “should” be. The oppressive messages are not unfamiliar to them (mostly just temporarily forgotten – what psychoanalysis calls preconscious). When they relive them, they recognize them and become even more depressed. Part of the message of the introject is exactly to bow down to the superior power without complaint. The “should” message is very strong for these women. The therapist must follow the client without falling for the temptation to correct this inner “should”, accepting it instead as the woman's reality. By noting and accepting the “should” messages with a curious stance the therapist conveys provocation and activates the oppressed independence. For example: “So you think it's right and proper for you to have been (to be) treated as a sort of second-rate person?”... “Tell me why you think so.” Why is the question that challenges the client's mid-zone activity unlike the question how, which examines her more emotional state. In an effort to activate mid- zone activity, the why question is essential. When the client has answered the why question, it is time to address emotions: “How do you feel about that?” This establishes a connection between different awareness-zones.

The therapist may have to take an educational approach to expand the discoveries with specific information about the historical, social and legal facts. In addition, the therapist should share his or her reactions to these facts in a spirit of solidarity. The female therapist can show solidarity with the client on a shared social level. Of course this has to be done at the right time and in the right context and in a manner that prevents casting the therapist as either “top dog” or friend – but instead as a fellow human being. This facilitates the consolidation of self-support, which stems exactly from seeing oneself as part of a bigger WE in the field.

The responsibility remains the client's, but the burden of responsibility is eased when she realizes that she is not alone. At best, she may even have the sense of being part of a larger cultural liberation movement. That has nothing to do with manipulating the client into rebelling. It is simply an awareness that helps the client gain a new sense of dignity and gives her the courage to resume control over her own life.

References and inspiration:

The Bible: St. Paul's letters to Timothy, Chapters 2 and 5

Irene Henriette Oestrich: Kognitiv Terapi, Matrix: 1995; 4, p. 47-62

Lisa A. Simon: The Nature of the Introject and its Implications for Gestalt Therapy, The Gestalt Journal, 1996, p.109

Otto Weininger: Kjøn og Charakter. A. Christiansens Forlag, Copenhagen 1905

Information about Lilith: among others, The Gnosis Archive, translated by Jørn Surlan, Hebrew Myths, Robert Graes and Raphael Patai.

Selma Ciormai: The Importance of the background in gestalt therapy, The Gestalt Journal, 1995, p.7

Exhibition at the Danish National Museum: Ugift eller lykkelig. Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1974 Lise Winther-Jensen: Morgianesyndromet. Dansk Psykologisk Forlag, Copenhagen 2008

Zinker, J.: Creative process in Gestalt Therapy. Vintage Books, New York, 1977

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