Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Internalized Misogyny

Misogyny – hatred, dislike or mistrust of women .  You could think of it as femi-phobia, similar to the way we use the word homophobia.   Women have fought hard throughout the previous century, and are still fighting, to leave behind their  status as chattel, and enjoy the same rights that men (not including slaves) have always taken for granted.  As that awful old cigarette ad used to say, women have “come a long way.”
But in my work as a therapist with women from every walk of life, I often encounter a subtle, sometimes very unconscious kind of gender-based self-denigration.  I have come to think of it as internalized misogyny.  It takes many forms, and here’s just one example.

A patient of mine, Erika, of whom I am tremendously fond and admiring, is an artist, with Ivy League higher education degrees, a terrific résumé, a great intellect, and a funny, warm, down to earth personality.  She anticipated the arrival of her first baby, whom she knew would be a boy, with tremendous excitement, and in his first year, was thrilled with what a great baby he was.  Two years later, she learned she was pregnant again, this time with a girl.  The pregnancy was nothing like the first – she was miserable the whole time.  She had nightmares and day-mares, unable to stop herself from imagining that her daughter would be an impossible baby, and an even worse adolescent.

Some time after her daughter arrived, she came back to therapy and told me about her younger brother’s wedding.  Unlike Erika, whose every move as a child was monitored by her adoring but very demanding parents, Tom, her brother, was left alone to develop his own style.  Never a great student like his sister Erika, he did his own thing, travelled the world after high school, lived on a boat with his girlfriend, and eventually, following his own timeline, became successful developing a computer business. 

What moved Erika deeply about her brother’s wedding was the way he and his bride created the wedding they truly wanted – a joyful, thoroughly original and beautiful wedding like no one else’s.  Erika’s wedding, by contrast, had been all about what her mother had wanted. 

Erika realized that she had spent too much of her energy growing up preoccupied with trying to figure out what her mother needed and wanted, trying to please mother, guilty and anxious about her impact on her mother.  Her efforts to create a mother who could be happy always failed.  Her brother was the opposite.  He didn’t assume responsibility for his mother’s feelings, and his mother seemed to be content to just let him do his own thing.

My point is that many women pass on a subtle or not so subtle message to their children: if you’re my daughter, you must make me happy; but if you’re my son, all you have to do is make yourself happy.  These daughters grow up feeling guilty and conflicted about their own desires, their own self-interest; while their brothers grow up free to become their own man.  If this daughter isn’t subjugating herself, she’s a royal pain; but if this son goes out and does his own thing, well, boys will be boys.  Erika was able to realize that even with her own child in utero, she was beginning the cycle all over again, imagining her daughter as a royal pain that she wouldn’t be able to control. 

Early in my work with Erika, I realized she was incredibly inhibited about imagining what kind of life she really desired.  She’d found a great husband and had yet to have kids.  But she was terribly stuck in her work as an artist.  I asked her to bring in a drawing that would represent her deepest desires.  What she brought in, with much shame and embarrassment, was a drawing of herself sitting by a house where she was sipping coffee on a sunny patio.  I was kind of stunned to realize that it was excruciating for her to feel entitled even to having a home where she could sip coffee on a patio.

Now, after her brother’s wedding, something had clicked.  Now she knew where she wanted to live, how she wanted to live, and what she wanted to do as an artist.  She knew what she wanted, and she felt entitled to work toward creating it – and her husband was thrilled.  Most poignantly, Erika knew that she would have the chance to raise her daughter in the same way she wanted to raise her son:  to become a person who could be free from guilt and shame about desire and self-interest; a person who knows who they are, what they want, and is able to figure out how to create a good life.  Finally, Erika believes that that is the model she herself can provide for her children.  I’m so happy to be able to say, you’ve come a long way, Erika.        

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