Therapism and the Taming of the Lesbian Community

by Joan Ward

Sinister Wisdom 36: Winter 1988/89


Therapism is not a word you’d probably find in the average Lesbian’s vocabulary. But oh, how it permeates our communities. Therapism overtakes a community when too many of its members undergo therapy. Actually in this day and age therapism is like herpes–all you need to do is rub up against it a little and you’ve got it. Although preferred, no personal experience with therapy is required. Since so many Lesbians have turned to therapy, those of us who haven’t are also influenced by the behaviors therapy teaches. So therapism is more than just the behaviors learned by women who have undergone therapy. It has become the standard of behavior by which our community judges all of its members.

Therapism emphasizes feeling–having and expressing feelings. Because of this focus on emotions, therapism encourages nurturing, tact and acceptance–all traditionally feminine ways to behave. According to stereotype, women are the emotional gender and men are the rational gender. There are several common ways that oppressed people fight stereotypes. The way therapism has adopted is to say, “So what if we’re emotional. Emotional is the best way to be, and you’re just jealous. Womanhood is superior. Worship the goddess. Revel in your menstrual blood. Glorify your emotions.” Now our community embraces these stereotypes with a zest. This makes me more than just a little suspicious.

Standards of Behavior

It is important to point out that therapism does not necessarily equal therapy. Perhaps the goal of therapy is for us to be more honest about our emotions, for us to learn that it’s OK to feel certain emotions that we’ve been conditioned not to feel (e.g., anger, pride, etc.). This may even be a good idea in certain situations. Whatever the goals of therapy, therapism is the resulting doctrine in our community. And therapism says you must feel–usually at the expense of rational thought. There is an entire set of standards of behavior that follows this basic premise. Of course these standards were not devised by some devious Lesbian who wanted to harm the community. They are an attempt to establish ethical ways of dealing with one another. Unfortunately they have been far from successful.

I have said that therapism requires you to feel. I know this because everyone is always saying how they feel. “When you interrupt me, I feel as if you aren’t listening to me.” “When you raise your voice, I feel frightened.” “When you are late, I feel you don’t care.”

I find it redundant for someone to continually use the phrase I feel as a disclaimer before every opinion. Why say, “I feel you don’t understand,” rather than, “You don’t understand.”? I’ve never credited anyone with infallibility. When you continually use these disclaimers, I feel insulted. (That’s a little therapy joke.) Or, equally annoying, I think you’re a self-effacing wimp. And, believe it or not, when you say, “I feel you don’t understand,” some of us hear you call us “stupid” anyway. For all your attempt at tact, there are those of us who are good translators and don’t buy the sweet talk.

This I feel language encourages us to judge everything by how it makes us feel. If we go to a lecture or read an article on some political topic, therapism encourages responses such as, “The author seemed very hostile to me,” or “She made me feel very frightened.” Rather than encouraging us to evaluate the substance, therapism encourages us to examine how her words made us feel. This promotes a microscopic view. It encourages us to look at most events in terms of how one person’s behavior affects another person’s emotions.

Of course, once one has recognized and expressed how she feels, process begins. After all, you have made yourself vulnerable by sharing your emotions. It would be cruel for the other person not to reciprocate. Process becomes the means by which women either singularly or together dissect their feelings surrounding an incident. I recall the first time a woman explained to me that the process of getting there was just as important as reaching the goal. I agree with this idea. It is important to be ethical in the means we use to achieve our ends. It is also important to recognize that we learn things in the struggle along the way. But today, we frequently process ourselves to a standstill. Process now is the goal.


In the good old days–pre-therapism–friendships were made in a variety of ways and were various in nature. We spent endless hours exchanging opinions, brainstorming ideas and telling life stories. During that era, bad times were the exception, not the rule. We knew that friends were there for us in times of crisis just as they were there in good times and even in boring times. This knowledge assisted in getting us through bad times. And we were further assisted by knowing that our friends would not be there if the crisis went on indefinitely. We expected that our friends would overcome their problems in a reasonable period of time. In other words, our friendships were based on the belief that we were strong. And, because we assumed we were strong, we also assumed that we could triumph over difficult situations.

Therapism teaches us quite a different way to be friends. In the first place, one must take one’s problems to a therapist so as not to overburden one’s friends. If one doesn’t have any friends, one doesn’t have to make any. Once in therapy, women come back to their friends with a whole different set of expectations. Now we hear a lot about “getting needs met.” We hear ad nauseam how our actions make our friends feel. Friends don’t ask friends for advice. They have their therapists for that. Friends ask friends to take care of them, not to advise them. Friendship is now based on the assumption that we are weak rather than that we are strong. Instead of being a delightfully varied experience, friendship now consists almost entirely of nurturing or being nurtured.

And let us not forget about “safe space.” A major problem with these therapistic means of communicating is that they can be so damn manipulative. “Safe space” is perhaps the biggest manipulator. At one time safe space for lesbians meant space where we could show affection for each other without fear of heckling or verbal abuse. It meant space where we could dare to look like Dykes without fear of physical assault. This kind of safe space was particularly important to working class Lesbians and Lesbians of Color who did not enjoy the relative safety that academic communities offered white Lesbians. However, today the term “safe space” indicates something entirely different. It means safety from each other. As far as I can tell, “safe space” is now an environment where a woman can express her emotions or feelings without fear of criticism. Safe space is a good example of how therapism has taken away our ability to discern the appropriate application of political ideas–sometimes popularizing these ideas past the point of significant meaning.

Political Ramifications

Let’s talk politics. Politically speaking, what has therapism done to the Lesbian Community? Do you remember what the expression the personal is political originally meant? It meant that all those small, personal day-to-day things we did had political impact. Where we lived, who our friends were, where we worked and how we spent our money were all political choices whether we liked it or not. Now it means that working on personal problems equals political activism. The more time you spend giving or taking support or nurturing, the more politically groovy you are. As a result our community has become politically immobile.

When a lesbian judges everything in terms of how it makes her feel, she becomes very emotionally vulnerable. She cannot take a bold stand on anything for fear of being criticized. Or she cannot criticize for fear that the community will disown her. Although support and safety have always been important to us, our community used to be based on movement. Now, we are so “safe” we cannot move.

Therapism has taught us to find everything equally upsetting. I see Lesbians respond to minor disagreements with other women as if they’d been raped. How did we lose our perspective? We are so emotionally vulnerable that we cannot distinguish between a philosophical difference and a physical assault. Lesbians seem to be spending most of their time being upset with each other rather than recognizing and fighting the real enemies: male dominance and violence.

Therapism also tells us that we cannot trust our intellects because they have been corrupted by male-dominated society. We must trust our “natural” feelings because they are our essence as females. What makes us think our emotions have not been equally corrupted by male culture? It is certainly true that while we remain emotionally vulnerable, refusing to use our intellects, fighting among ourselves in our safe space, we pose absolutely no threat to our oppressors.

Therapism teaches us to make our actions consistent with our feelings. No longer do we try to make our actions consistent with our beliefs. One example is the Lesbian baby boom. I refer, of course, to the explosion of Lesbian motherhood we’ve been experiencing lately. I can see several problems that make this baby boom politically unwise for us. Yet there is an appalling lack of discussion in our communities about the politics of having children. Remember, Lesbian motherhood “feels right.” And safe space means no criticism of feelings.

Therapism has encouraged us to do what “feels right” to the exclusion of political analysis. As a result our community is tolerating behaviors we used to find abhorrent. The resurgence of butch/femme and sadomasochistic activities are good examples. Women who demand the right to play butch/femme and/or sadomasochistic roles because it feels right are failing to accept responsibility for the larger political ramifications of their personal actions–a perfect example of therapism’s approach to the personal is political.

Support Groups & AA

Many Lesbian mothers are forming support groups, as are Lesbian incest survivors, Lesbian adult children of alcoholics, Lesbians battered by Lesbian partners and on and on. If it begins to sound like a list of victims, it’s no wonder.

The support group is a direct manifestation of therapism in our communities. Where we once formed CR (Consciousness Raising) groups, we now have support groups. The difference between the two types of groups is striking. The goal of the CR group was to raise our awareness of our oppression so that we could fight it. The goal of the support group is to band women together to take care of one another. Although they may claim differently, one can see that the majority of women in support groups spend most of their time nurturing one another. Perhaps the original intent of the support group was to give women the strength to overcome their specific hardship. However, I see little of the overcoming or moving on to action. Support groups have become self-perpetuating systems of dependency, once again encouraging weakness rather than strength.

A good example of the support group phenomenon in our community is Alcoholics Anonymous. Certainly no one can deny the importance of Lesbians overcoming drug and alcohol dependencies. Still, the method one uses to overcome these dependencies is important. AA, like many other therapistic ideas our community has adopted, escapes with amazingly little examination. I think it’s time we had a look.

A concept fundamental to AA is that of alcoholism as a disease. The first of the twelve steps proclaims the alcoholic’s inability to control her drinking. Like other manifestations of therapism, AA once again teaches us that we are weak, that we are victims of something beyond our own control. For Lesbians to believe that we have no control over selected personal behaviors is political suicide. In order to overcome our oppression it is vital to recognize and believe in our own individual strength. Most of us have heard the idea that to be truly strong one must know when to be weak. This paradox is very misleading. Yet it is a basic concept for AA people. Alcoholics Anonymous promotes the idea of strength through weakness in its insistence on a “Higher Power.”

AA stresses the idea that its members can believe in God in whatever form God might take to them. For example, Lesbians are free to believe in the Goddess rather than God. On the surface this sounds very open-minded. However, there is no hiding the fact that AA wants its members to believe in an all-powerful, external deity. Those of us who believe that we are the goddess and that the only deity in existence is the one within ourselves are shit out of luck. AA material is full of submissive suggestions like #7 of the twelve steps, “Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.” Needless to say, I find this spiritual advice to be questionable. It further insures the timidity and passivity of those Lesbians involved with AA.

Quite frankly, AA solves the problem of alcohol dependency by replacing it with a dependency of another sort. In order to overcome alcohol abuse, one must depend on a “Higher Power.” Additionally, AA makes its members dependent on the AA group. Frequent attendance of meetings is expected of members lest they start to drink again. As long as AA convinces its members that one drink will do them in, they will cling to the group out of fear of their own fragility.

The bottom line is that AA doesn’t offer any real improvement for our community. In that it may offer sobriety, it might well benefit some individual Lesbians. But the ideal solution to Lesbians’ chemical dependency would benefit both the individual and the community. As long as we remain convinced that the AA method is the most successful one, we will not look for a better way. By encouraging weakness that needs continual support rather than strength that enables us to move on to other things, AA contributes to our oppression. Rather than looking at AA as a temporary solution until a better one can be found, our community is now using 12-step programs for all kinds of things including drug addiction, eating disorders and “loving too much.”

Lesbian Spirituality

Although AA clearly teaches a Christian spirituality, therapism in the Lesbian Community really teaches more of the pagan beliefs. A combination of Dianic Wicca, Eastern philosophy and “new age” spirituality seems to be popular today. However, both the AA spirituality and the more popular “Women’s Spirituality” teach helplessness. Many of you will sit up at this point and loudly object. Women’s Spirituality claims to teach strength. But this claim can be deceptive.

Those of you who have been in therapy recently or who have observed your friends go through it (just about all of us) have witnessed how many therapists are into Women’s Spirituality. You need not shop around much to find therapists who’ll guide you through creative visualization, teach you self-hypnosis and meditation, clear your aura and clean your chakras. There are even therapists who’ve started ritual groups.

But once again there has been little political analysis of this phenomenon. At first glance one sees the idea of powerfulness. We are told we can create our own reality in a very tangible way. Light a candle, say your words of power and that new job, new car, new lover can be yours. But with power comes endless personal responsibility. So Women’s Spirituality teaches the threefold law which basically says that whatever you do comes back to you threefold. This leads us to another concept common to Women’s Spirituality, karma. Karma is sort of tied into the threefold law but approaches it backwards. Since everything you do comes back to you threefold, it only follows that whatever happens to you is the result of something you did previously. You are responsible for everything that happens to you. It is no wonder that most Lesbians I know who are into Women’s Spirituality are amazingly passive–particularly when it comes to political action. According to karma, a woman who has been raped has no one to blame but herself. Furthermore, the threefold law teaches us to leave known rapists alone. Any harm we do them will only hurt our karma. And the rapist will eventually “get his” threefold some time later anyway (if not in this life, in a future life). These beliefs are almost identical to what our male-dominated, Christian society has been telling us for years. Women are responsible for the abuse they suffer at men’s hands. Bad things will happen to women who try to hold men responsible. If this is teaching Lesbians to be powerful, I fail to see it.

As a woman who believes much of what Dianic Wicca has to teach, I am appalled at the transformation of this information within a therapistic community. It once seemed logical to me that radical politics and Dianic Wicca would go hand in hand. But my experience with the women of my community has been quite the opposite. Those Lesbians who are into Witchcraft usually claim not to be very political (and believe me, they’re not). Furthermore, most Dykes I know with radical politics (and granted they are fewer these days) find Lesbian Witchcraft to be a joke. Therapism has caused this schism. So it is not until we solve the problems of therapism in our communities that our spirituality will fuel our activism again.


It becomes very clear as we analyze further what’s going on in our community that therapism is doing us harm. It has taught us that we are basically fragile and weak. The language of therapism is full of talk about empowering or enabling because we assume that on a personal level we don’t have power to begin with. True, as an oppressed group, Lesbians lack significant political power. However, therapism doesn’t address Lesbians as an oppressed group. It addresses us as individuals. And it tells us that as individuals we need to have personal power because we ain’t got it to begin with. In addition, therapism teaches us to judge everything in terms of how it makes us feel emotionally. It tells us that friendship and caring must be expressed primarily through nurturing. It teaches us to be tolerant, passive and apolitical.

I remember one day when I was very young, my grandmother explained to me her amusement over the corruption of the word square. Calling someone a square was to ridicule that person for being too conservative, too cautious, too old-fashioned. But when my grandmother was a child, calling someone a square was a compliment. It meant the person was well-rounded, balanced and level-headed. As individuals, we need to become more square in my grandmother’s sense of the word. As squares we’d take for granted that we are innately strong. We’d start dealing with specific political topics once again rather than just vague personal “issues.” We’d start to “empower” ourselves in more tangible ways like owning more women’s businesses or thwarting rapists rather than simply solving individual emotional upsets. As squares we’d have less therapy and more friendship. Our friendships would consist of excited philosophical discussions and work on common projects as well as support during difficult times. Our friends would challenge us as well as listen to our troubles. And as friends we would show each other what it means to be strong individuals committed to being a community of Lesbians.

[Note: This essay has been substantially edited by Sinister Wisdom.]