Fostering the Power Within

I began addressing the effects of sexual abuse when I was at a clinic that embraced the medical model and relied on evidence-based practices to guide treatment. Diagnoses were required for each client, as they are at most clinics that receive insurance. The diagnosis I was given mattered to me. Most disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders assume mental illness is the result of genetic predisposition and should be treated as a chronic illness with psychoactive substances. That seemed like a life sentence, one that ignored the facts of my life, particularly how trauma had altered my psyche and body. 

The Dissociative Disorders and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder validate the idea that a mental illness can result from something that happened to you rather than something you are. Unlike a diagnosis of Clinical Depression, Bipolar Disorder, or Schizophrenia, you can recover from a Dissociative Disorder or PTSD rather than live your entire life managing symptoms (at least theoretically). Simply renaming why I suffered gave me hope.

As I learned how to resolve dissociation and posttraumatic stress, and used evidence-based treatments like EMDR, I eventually moved beyond distinctions between the normal and the abnormal that seemed implicit to all mental disorders — as if some parts of me were okay, yet other psychological states were to be rejected. Even as the trauma model stressed mindfully accepting all aspects of myself, for a time I remained plagued by the idea that some mental states were normal, while others were pathological or irrational. Later, I would have clients who similarly believed self-acceptance had its limits.

For centuries in the West, treating a mental disorder has been depicted as regaining and maintaining a rational mind, which also requires the ability to discern when one’s mind is irrational.⁠1 Whether using mood charts to record what leads to changes in behaviors, or relying on a mental health professional to conduct a mental status exam, the goal is the same: reducing states of pathology while increasing times of normalcy.  

Yet when the goal is full recovery, focusing on disciplining mind and behavior by stressing the bounds of rationality takes you only so far. As trauma became more the focus of my treatment, the medical model felt more as if it encouraged being vigilant and distrustful of my mind and body. This approach was self-stigmatizing, as well as incomplete. I knew there was more to life than monitoring symptoms and seeking one version of me (the normal) while avoiding another (the pathological). Or at least I hoped.

When I first began seeing a psychiatrist — years before I committed to recovery from sexual abuse — I was reading Michel Foucault, including his reflections on the panopticon-style prison developed by Jeremy Bentham.⁠2 The panopticon was designed such that a guard could potentially witness the behaviors of every inmate at a central observing point, from which rows of prison cells stretched out like the arms of a starfish. The effect was that prisoners anticipated being watched at all times. Over time, they introjected the perspective of the guard and created an inner sense of being watched, which contributed to self-disciplining behavior.   

As the focus of my recovery became integrating dissociated memories and parts of my personality, I identified an introjected aspect of my abuser that played a role in my personality much like Bentham’s panopticon guard. This introjected, masculine attitude was critical and judgmental, and how I used distinctions between the normal and pathological to create shame and self-stigma. Whereas I needed to live a structured and balanced life to recover from sexual abuse, I also needed less mental disciplining rather than more. 

Mental disorders are identified according to the standards of medicine and its commitment to repair broken minds and bodies. Neither my psychiatrist nor the medical model encouraged me to engage meaningfully with my unconscious or revive my soul, which were the objectives that led to my recovery. Although it took time, eventually I had to jettison the medical model before I could overcome my childhood trauma. Like others, I understood recovery to mean no longer suffering intensely, and feeling as if I had my old ‘self’ back. Ideas of what were normal and pathological seemed not only irrelevant, but obstacles to well being. 

Some survivors start treatment with the belief that they are damaged, perhaps forever, and destined to feel different from ‘normal’ people, if not always marginal to society. A diagnosis of a mental disorder can aggravate such attitudes, or contribute to over-identifying with the wounding, which can lead to believing only people who have experienced the same type of hurt can understand you.

Such over-reliance on the medical model now infiltrates all aspects of society.⁠3 What we eat, how we spend our time, our relationships — everything we do is increasingly filtered through a medical lens and whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for health. I interpret the medical model as a masculine way of perceiving and engaging with the world. This masculine point of view is concerned with reaching states of perfection, including making distinctions between the normal and the pathological in the quest for perfect health. With a masculine approach, we use techniques to reach a desired state of being. 

In contrast, the feminine way of perceiving and being is directed towards wholeness and relies on embodied awareness. With the feminine approach, all aspects of psyche have value as part of the whole, including the irrational unconscious. Jungian analyst Cara Barker also claimed, “the feminine way is the way of meandering” (2001, p. 23). She asserted, “denial of the feminine is tantamount to disappearance of the soul.”

The masculine and feminine attitudes function best when they complement one another, as each has its advantages and disadvantages. As Jung observed, “Perfectionism [by itself] always ends in a blind alley, while completeness by itself lacks selective values.”⁠4 Rather than relying on one perspective, we need to continually balance these two points of view and ways of being, making adjustments and corrections as we adapt to ever-changing situations. Some may think of this back-and-forth as the interactions between the right (feminine) and left (masculine) hemispheres of the brain. Although such neuropsychological interpretations may already be embedded in the medical model, thus biased towards the masculine point of view. 

Some reject distinctions between masculine and feminine because this dichotomy doesn’t fit their experience of gender. Others see distinctions between the masculine and feminine as promoting hetero-normative values used to pathologize differences. My use of the terms masculine and feminine are not concerned with sex, gender, or sexuality. Rather, I use these terms to denote capacities that are part of every human, regardless of sex or gender. In line with Jungian psychology, I believe optimal development occurs when both masculine and feminine aspects of the self are fostered to reach their maturest potential.

Because of the prominence of the masculine point of view in patriarchal societies, the feminine approach has been routinely ignored and devalued (including irrationality). For instance, modalities such as art therapy and body-focused therapies that work with unconscious aspects of psyche have historically been treated as adjuncts to treatment rather than core experiences of recovery. Psychiatry has also been perceived as superior to psychotherapy because it is a medical science, despite studies have shown many clients prefer psychotherapy to medication. One consequence is that the primary objective of mental health science has been distinguishing the normal from the pathological. Not surprising, in the quest for recovery many of us find our souls may need time to catch up with our self-disciplining intellects.

Given the world’s present state of chaos and random acts of violence, many prefer to see people utilize techniques that lead to greater self-discipline. Especially when you have a history of interpersonal violence, feeling safe becomes a high priority. Furthermore, those who seek services want methods they are confident will relieve states of stress, sorrow, and fragmentation. Many want to be told what to do, or what to ingest, to make them feel better (if not normal). Yet disciplining minds and bodies has never been enough to heal ourselves or our societies. 

Although working with the body and unconscious material may feel less focused than managing symptoms of a mental disorder, developing a relationship with feminine wisdom is central to recovery from sexual abuse. Instead of self-disciplining through an introjected guard, like Bentham’s panopticon — one that is prone to inner states of bullying when you don’t get something ‘right’ — there must also be opportunities to foster the instinctive feminine sense of power, trusting that the wisdom you need is already present inside you. Barker described this as follows:

“She begins to reconnect with her power to discern as she reconnects with her instincts. The more she trusts her instinctive wisdom, a function of the feminine, the more her masculine side … functions as a servant of womanhood” (p. 66).

Sexual abuse breaks many more spirits than it does bones. As I have mentioned, one way to think of sexual abuse is as a type of soul murder. When regaining soul is the goal of recovery, we begin to look for opportunities to create restorative shifts from what shamans describe as being soul-lost to living soul-full. Regaining soul is not about disciplining attitudes and behaviors, but rather witnessing that an “inner being needs consideration, support, and space, to stir, breathe, come alive, move into the world more deeply and solidly….”⁠5

It would be revolutionary if all women fully recovered from sexual abuse. One inkling of how this might look comes from the poem “Our Deepest Fear,” by Marianne Williamson. Many of you may be familiar with this poem, which Nelson Mandela used in his inaugural address. Williamson begins:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. 

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. 

It is our light, not our darkness

That most frightens us.

She ends the poem with:

As we’re liberated from our own fear, 

Our presence automatically liberates others.

When you have been abused and view the world through the lens of threat and subjugation, standing strong, trusting all of yourself, and living heart-centered rather than simply disciplining your mind and behaviors can be frightening. Anyone who takes on the task of recovery from sexual abuse will ultimately have to turn towards trusting herself and her inner wisdom, accepting she is complete even as she desires perfection.

I have had difficulty with this inner trust. Whereas my own efforts at healing were directed towards regaining all aspects of myself, protecting myself from further harm, and living authentically, I still held back. I retained a part of myself capable of inhabiting my body, imagination, emotions, and thoughts as if submitting to the power of another was still possible. How could I not? I might have changed, but the world hadn’t. Thinking I should try to be the ‘right’ sort of person sometimes still resurfaced as a defense against fears of inadequacy. It’s hard trusting feminine wisdom in a patriarchal world.

Ultimately, recovery means being liberated from fear. Too often, however, we remain stuck in attitudes that contribute to playing small because of fear of reprisal for inhabiting our power. Because we have experienced power as destructive, feeling powerful may be difficult without also anticipating danger or behaving like the aggressor. Power is also identified with seeking justice — something we have the right to exercise, but can lead to thinking largely in terms of right and wrong, which although important for creating safe and ethical societies does not necessarily support recovery. A different, feminine power is necessary for liberating the soul and connecting to our deeper humanity — one that is phenomenologically distinct from mental states of judgment on which justice rests.  

When in crisis, it it wise to know how to discipline one’s mind and body, and identify certain behaviors, emotions, and thoughts as evidence of need for intervention. Yet if we are to recover, we must eventually move beyond vigilance, and begin to put faith in the power of transformation. Rather than relying solely on self-discipline and seeking perfection, recovery requires creating conditions for living with greater acceptance, connection, and creativity — all of which contribute to integration. Barker also observed how feminine wisdom integrates body and the imaginal: “Staying connected to that thread which reunites her body with her inner self brings healing imagery which can guide her in the direction of her own redemption” (p. 22). With feminine wisdom, we begin to harness a different kind of power, one that encourages the greatness of our souls.

Questions to ponder: Do you find thinking in terms of masculine and feminine points of view is a beneficial way of working with power? What aspects of your life might benefit from a feminine point of view? What experiences or practices might benefit from a masculine perspective?

See you next week,

Laura

References

Barker, Cara. (2001). World weary woman: Her wound and transformation. Toronto, ON: Inner City Books.

1 Gauchet, Marcel, & Swain, Gladys. (1999). Madness and democracy: The modern psychiatric universe. Princeton: New French Thought.

2 Foucault, Michel. (1979). Discipline & punish (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books..

3 Szasz, Thomas. (2001). Pharmacracy: Medicine and politics in America. Westport: Praeger.

4 Jung, C. G. (1958/2011). Answer to Job (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

5 Smith, C. Michael. (2007). Jung and shamanism: In Dialogue. New York, NY: Paulist Press, p. iii.

 

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).