I work with women and girls a lot in my practice. I hear the words “I’m sorry” A LOT in my practice. I hear “I know I shouldn’t feel this way” A LOT in my practice. I hear “What’s wrong with me?” A LOT in my practice. It’s both horrifying and not surprising to me that so many women have become convinced that there is something wrong with them. “My mother says I need to find better coping skills” or “My husband says I cry too much”. “My last therapist said I had Bi-Polar Disorder” or “The hospital gave me a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder”. “I’m sure they’re right because I just can’t get a handle on these mood swings.” “I’m sure they’re right because I do bad things… I do unsafe things”. “I’m sorry for having to be here, I’m sorry for being broken, I’m sorry I don’t know what I want, I’m sorry I just went off topic, I’m sorry I wore my workout clothes to therapy, I’m sorry I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” And then, how can I stop being angry all the time?” “How can I stop being sad?”. And finally, “What can I do to fix myself?”
And as therapists we can sometimes reinforce this paradigm without even realizing it. “Let’s find out what irrational thoughts you have and replace them with more rational thoughts.” “Maybe we should set you up with a good psychiatrist.” “Let’s explore your coping skills” “Let’s set goals”. This is what we are trained to do. We are trained to fix our clients—or at least help our clients fix themselves. So we pull out strategies and coping skills and medications. And we buy into the idea that our clients actually need to be fixed in the first place. But maybe they don’t.
Maybe the thing that needs to be “fixed” has nothing to do with who they are or who they’ve become or how broken they are. Maybe the thing that needs to be “fixed” is the idea that something needs to be fixed at all. Maybe these women can’t “get control of their emotions” because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to have them at all. Maybe they do terrible and unhealthy things because they have unmet needs and they are screaming out to get them met in whatever way they can.
As women we are taught to be feminine, but to keep our emotions inside. We are taught to be kind to others no matter what and to forgive those who’ve hurt us. We should be compassionate and nurturing while being strong and levelheaded. When we are unhappy in a relationship we need to work on it-- and by work on it I mean we need to shave away at ourselves to fit into the box that our partner has defined for us. If we express a need, we need to apologize for having that need. Apologize for not being self-sufficient enough to nurture everyone else and then fill our own cups too. If we need to express our anger we must do it calmly and then let it go. If we need to hide in a hole away from the world for a few days, we need to pull ourselves together and get to work. If that leads to depression and anxiety we need to take medication and stop complaining. We should admit that we are sick. We need to appreciate the life we’ve been given and “think positively”. And so we try and try and try and then arrive at our therapists’ door saying, “I’m sorry. I tried, but I failed”.
What if we stopped trying to fix these women and started giving them permission to be? Permission to be angry. Permission to be sad. Permission to hold a grudge. Permission to have a need. What would happen if we helped them see their struggles as a conflict between their true self and the self that they have been told to be? That they have failed only at being the unrealistic version of themselves that others say they should be—but they have not failed. Because there is no “should”, there is only what is. What if we refused to agree that there is something wrong with their anger or their desire to hide in bed for a week straight? How would things change if we honored the fact that they don’t know what they want? What if we said “Of course you feel that way, why wouldn’t you!?” What would happen if we asked our clients to show as much compassion and empathy to their true selves as we ask them to show someone they are in conflict with? Because it is a conflict, and the world of expectations is winning and our clients are loosing.
I can tell you what happens in my office when I remember I’m not here to fix my clients. I stop hearing “I’m sorry” so often and I start hearing “I feel like myself again” more often. I stop hearing “I need to be fixed” so often and start hearing “Thank you” accompanied by a deep restorative breath and tears of relief in their eyes. I see women who no longer look “Bi-polar” or “Borderline”, who would no longer qualify for a diagnosis of “Anxiety Disorder” or “Depressive Disorder”. I see women begin to speak their truth to those that they love and find better ways to express their needs. I see women rage and then release. I see women grieve and then release. I see women heal, brilliantly and unapologetically.