Written by therapist Doxa Zannou
Feminist therapy posits that effective mental health efforts must consider women’s psychology and development, as well as women’s socio-economic and political restrictions. Prior to the development of feminist therapy in the Western world, psychology was supposedly ‘founded’ by White men later dubbed as “fathers” of psychology. These men often conducted research using exclusively White males as subjects, and then inferred psychological, universal truths from this single population. As for the women who were included in research efforts of the time, they were stereotyped and inferiorized by the White male gaze. Thankfully, as women gained more rights within the academic sphere, they began denouncing this form of misogyny. They demonstrated that women suffer from being socialized and conditioned with burdensome gender roles and socioeconomic limitations within a patriarchal society.
Black Feminist Therapy
Nonetheless, Feminist therapy failed to acknowledge and validate the unique struggles faced by Black women. Hence, Black feminists in political and psychological spheres of influence recognized the urgent need to voice and define the intersecting factors of Black women’s identity (ie: socioeconomic status and class, sexuality, race, and gender) that lead to a unique form of marginalization and prejudice. Lenora Fulani, a pioneer in Black feminist therapy, explored the intersecting traumas of poverty, capitalism, sexism, and racism on Black women’s mental health. She found that Black women suffer from race-based, class-based, and gender-based oppression in both their personal, domestic, and vocational lives. They must constantly work against, or in spite of, burdensome stereotypes placed on them by the dominant culture (ie: “Mammy,” “Strong Black Woman,” “Welfare Mother,” ”Family Matriarch,” “Promiscuous and Sexually Depraved Prostitute,” “Lazy and Incompetent Impostor,” etc.). Without a doubt, Black women’s psychological wellness is intimately tied to their liberation from the confining, traumatic, and abusive spaces they inhabit and move through daily.
One could argue that Black feminism only became a reality because Black women were forcibly confronted with and abused by European and middle eastern colonizers and their patriarchal norms. A journey back to the ancestral roots of African spirituality, reminds us that in many cultures, women were considered inherently sacred, divine, and vital to human life. They were not limited or dehumanized by patriarchal norms but were more commonly seen as powerful, capable, and equally competent co-creators and co-caretakers of all life.
Sacred spaces are spaces where your soul feels safe to speak its authentic truth. It is a transformative relationship that empowers you to come as you are, and gives you space to mourn your losses, while finding courage and strength to actualize your fullest self. Sacred spaces welcome you with abundant love, usher you in with reverence, and promise to hold you gently. If you are searching for a therapist or if you are still in doubt regarding therapy, I encourage you to consider the power and relevance of sacred space in your healing journey. Some of you may already have these spaces where you feel unconditionally heard, seen, validated, accepted, and empowered to change. Nonetheless, therapy provides an added dimension of healing because therapists are meant to be intentional agents of change, who have made a highly important commitment to seek, pursue, and promote holistic wellness for those assigned to their care.
8 Components of A Sacred Space
Here are eight components of a sacred space that I encourage you to look for when you are ready to start therapy:
Vulnerability and strength
Black women can struggle with vulnerability because being honest about one’s pains, weaknesses, fears, and struggles, has often meant additional harm, trauma, punishment, or ostracism by the dominant culture. It is okay to be afraid, it is okay to fear judgment or condemnation, and it is okay to reveal your truth at the pace with which you are most comfortable. In fact, I invite you to consider the magnanimous strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable in the context of a safe relationship. Please know that you can experience something new and different in therapy. Change happens as you progressively lower the walls you erected around yourself to ward off real and perceived threats. You begin to see that the walls were also alienating you from what you need to heal – a safe, authentic community. Indeed, we are here on this earth to see each other, and to be seen.
Many of us use denial as a coping tool because our nervous systems intuitively know how much we can handle at any given time. It is however important to identify, accept, and process our grief, our traumas, and our losses. It is harder to mourn what we have not identified or accepted. For instance, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart notes that Indigenous communities have suffered so much historical trauma that they experience historical unresolved grief across subsequent generations. Likewise, Black women must often wrestle with the effects of personal and historical traumas that cause emotional and psychological harm, and can lead to higher suicidality, self-sabotaging behaviors, self-harming or self-destructive tendencies, increased depression and isolation, heightened anxiety, chronic stress, and more.
In a sacred space, you should feel safe. The bond you create with your therapist should reflect one of safety, mutual trust, comfort, and authenticity. This does not mean you will not be challenged when appropriate, but it means you will not be condemned or judged for the choices you have made or will make. We understand that the road to change is often riddled with coping mechanisms and belief patterns that protect and harm us at the same time, and it takes time to unlearn what kept you going for so long.
Your therapist should hold themselves accountable for providing tools and guidance so you can achieve the goals you set for therapy. Nonetheless, your therapist should also hold you accountable to do the work. Each party must take ownership for their role in this process of transformation and change. Therapists are not here to do the hard work of healing on your behalf (nor can they!) Therapists work with you, not for you, or in your place. Therapy is a space that reminds you of your agency, encourages motivation for change, and educates you on various ways you can take control of your mental health. Again, therapists are also accountable for promoting concrete change, and you have every right to voice your concerns if you do not believe you are both working towards your goals.
It may be hard to believe things will ever change, or that you have what it takes to change. Upon starting therapy, you may also discover that part of you wants to change, but part of you is afraid of change, afraid of the unknown it will bring, and afraid of the discomfort or unfamiliarity that healing and growth engender. Nonetheless, take heart – you have what it takes to adapt and grow. Your fate and future are not solely determined by your environment and your experiences. You may have internalized learned helplessness due to the traumas you had no control over. If so, part of healing means reclaiming your lost sense of agency and finding your voice again.
The crux of Black feminist therapy lies in the acknowledgement of societal injustice, and the radical commitment to alleviate, fight, and disrupt systems of oppression. This means that in the therapeutic space, your therapist should acknowledge and validate the cumulative effects of intersecting stressors and traumas in your life that continue to affect your mental health. Dismantling oppression also means acknowledging the ways in which the field of psychology has harmed, and continues to harm, marginalized people groups.
Dr. Ayesha Khan notes that in a capitalistic, individualistic society, mental health concerns are instigated, exacerbated, and even sustained because inequality always profits somebody. We live in an imperfect world that has been shaped and molded by people who viewed humans as disposable workers of the matrix. Unfortunately, wherever there is pain and oppression, the root causes can often be traced back to greed, power, and a desire to dominate and limit access to wealth to ensure that the protected classes continue increasing their profits, while middle and lower classes continue struggling to survive. In therapy, it is therefore important to acknowledge the environmental factors that contribute to one’s psychological deterioration, while also identifying the inner and external resources that can increase mental wellness, and nurture wholeness.
The mind-body-spirit connection is an integral part of what it means to be human. Often, trauma happens to our bodies, and our minds try to make sense of it. Of course, certain forms of abuse only target the mind (ie: verbal and emotional abuse) but the effects still reverberate in our bodies and impact our sense of safety within ourselves, within close relationships, and within our community at large. Some mental health practitioners are therefore trained in various somatic forms of healing such as somatic experiencing, trauma-informed yoga, breath-work, dance therapy, and EMDR. You may find that you benefit from a combination of talk therapy and somatic-based therapy, or you may find that you need to prioritize the healing of your body before you can engage in talk therapy.
Mindfulness and spirituality
In many traditional communities, various methods have been used to process and heal from trauma. These communities are purposeful about using mindfulness and intentional presence to promote greater self-awareness, insight, and change. Practices that involve music and singing, circles of dancing or drumming, and oral storytelling, are all ways our ancestors have dealt with pain. A strong emphasis is placed on community and having a circle of witnesses who provide support, validation, empathy, and understanding. This is antithetical to the psychological conceptualizations of “mental illness” in individualistic societies because the burden of healing is often placed on the lone individual, which discredits the external factors that contribute to people’s pains and traumas. Healing must involve a radical community wherein love, acceptance, support, and authentic, meaningful connections are promoted.
Recommendations For Care
Dr. Lani Valencia Jones notes that newer therapeutic approaches should encourage Black women to identify and process their emotions within various contexts where they have experienced racism, sexual or physical abuse, abandonment, and humiliation. A strengths-based approach is also important because the goal is not to highlight Black women’s deficiencies but to highlight and build on their resources and strengths, so they can foster sustainable resilience and adaptive coping mechanisms to navigate the psychosocial stressors they face.
Dear Black woman, you are divine, God-sent, and inherently worthy of love, respect, and dignity. Your pain, abuse, and exploitation are just as valid as anyone else’s pain and traumas. If you struggle with feeling unseen or unheard, if you are tired of bearing the burdens of your community, if you are looking for a soft, sacred space to rest in, please know that I would be honored to start this healing journey with you. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment today!