Whatever Became of Feminism?: Harriet Lerner on the Legacy of the Women's Movement
By Ryan Howes
Psychoanalyst Karen Horney's questioning of Freud's idea of penis envy was perhaps the first notable challenge by a woman to the veiled sexism embedded in psychotherapy's conventional wisdom, and paved the way to other assaults on the impact of patriarchal cultural values within the profession. By the late '70s and early '80s, through the work of the Women's Project in Family Therapy and other feminist contributors to the field, feminism had become a major force, shaping not only theory but clinical practice. These days, however, it's hard to find much attention being paid to the idea that gender politics looms large in the issues that clients bring to our offices.
For 30 years, psychologist Harriet Lerner has been one of the leading feminist thinkers within the profession, as well as an enormously successful author who brings the insights of therapy to a large general audience. Her 10 books, including Women in Therapy, The Dance of Anger, and The Dance of Fear, have sold more than two million copies and been published in 35 foreign editions. She recently spoke about her body of work, and addressed the question of the continuing impact of feminism on psychotherapy today.
RH: How would you describe the core principles that define your work as a therapist?
LERNER: The thread that unites all my work is the desire to help people speak wisely and well with the most difficult people and in the most difficult circumstances. Communication is hard, even in ideal circumstances. When intense emotions get revved up, such as anger, anxiety, shame, or any form of emotional intensity, it's harder still. People get stuck in patterns that cause them a lot of pain. That's the underlying theme in each of my Dance books. My husband calls me the Ginger Rogers of the psychology world.
RH: So the therapist's job is to help change the choreography of communication?
LERNER: Communication works best in a hypothetically perfect world, where we're all free of anxiety, fear, and shame. In such a world, we'd all be kind to each other and we'd navigate relationships with clarity. The reality is that anxiety will always be with us, and life brings one thing after another. The older I get, the more humble I feel about avoiding the pitfalls in my own relationships, because when everything is calm in my life, it's easy to see myself as a mature, highly evolved, clear-thinking, Zen Buddhist-like person, but when enough stress hits, I have the brain of a reptile. I'm interested in helping people understand the patterned ways they move in relationships under stress and find the courage to get self-focused so they can navigate their relationships differently.
RH: Therapy typically starts when clients come to see us in the middle of a crisis. As a practical matter, how do you see your role in that initial stage of therapy?
LERNER: Crisis often gets people into our offices—so in a certain sense, thank goodness for crisis, or the symptoms that motivate them for change. Because change is so difficult and so scary, even when we're seeking it, the pain of the current situation often needs to be greater than the fear of change. The first step, for me, is to help clients calm down. People don't think well in the midst of a tornado—when they're drowning in emotions and can't think about their feelings. Therapists must learn to be a calm, emotional presence in an anxious, emotional field.