Hulu’s popular series “The Handmaid’s Tale” has shone a much-needed light on how sexism and patriarchy silences women, in order to limit women’s roles, rights, and power. Even though “The Handmaid’s Tale” harrowing portrayal of extreme patriarchy where women’s only role is as wombs and sexual and domestic slaves can be hard to relate to in today’s western society, we must not forget that the silencing of women is still very real today and at some level, we all internalize and normalize this sexism. It is important that therapists and coaches are aware of the silencing that they have inherited and normalized from their family and the silencing that they have internalized from the society they live in. The common saying - “we can only bring our clients as far as we ourselves have come” is particularly pertinent here. Patriarchy silences women in many ways and some can seem very normal and okay. When a therapist or coach does not understand how the silencing of women is the underlying motivation behind common beliefs, behaviors, and gender role expectations, they will struggle to recognize how emotional silencing causes women emotional and relationship harm, and how it stops women from advocating for themselves and reaching their career and life goals.
There are many topics that clients bring up that have women’s generation history with being silenced at their core. What I mean by this statement, is that whenever a female client comes to therapy or coaching because, for example, she is struggling to set boundaries, has relationship problems with her mother or daughter, relationship problems with her partner, feels stuck, has low self-worth, is struggling with an eating disorder, depression, or anxiety, her experience with being emotionally silenced and her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences with silence are omnipresent and need to be explored, even if the client isn’t aware of this historical link.
Women’s generational experience with being silenced is present whenever a female client talks about her relationship with her mother, because it is one of the key reasons why mothers and daughters fight. How her mother’s and grandmother’s generation silenced women, and how her family normalized this silencing is a necessary conversation to have, because it gets to the heart of why she and her mother are struggling to listen to and understand each other. It makes sense that if a family does not speak the language that inquires after and honors what women feel, think, and need - that mothers and daughters will not know how to speak this language with each other. Rather, the lack of conversation about what women feel and need causes mothers and daughters to fight over who gets to be heard in their relationship and whose needs get to be met. Having your feelings and needs heard and met is a power struggle for women in families that silence and emotionally neglect women.
Women’s generational experience with being silenced is present when a female client talks about how she relates in all her relationships. It tells the story of whether she knows how to have a give-and-take relationship or whether she has learned through what I call the ‘Culture of Female Service’, that as a woman, mother, daughter, friend, she is responsible for how she makes other people feel and for meeting everyone’s needs. I use the term the ‘Culture of Female Service’ with my clients to help them understand the many ways women are guilted and shamed into believing that it is their duty to elevate other people’s needs above their own so that they become aware of the emotional and relationship harm this belief system inflicts.
Women’s generational experience with being silenced is also present when a female client talks about her relationship with her husband, partner, or boyfriend. She needs to know how the men in her family treated women and what the women have learned to accept and tolerate. She also needs to understand whether her generational family have promoted men’s needs over what women need, and how this sexism has been normalized. These conversations will help her understand herself, how she may silence herself, how she elevates men’s and other women’s needs over her own, or how she may struggle to advocate for herself at work.
An example of how important these conversations about women’s generational experience with sexism are was highlighted in a group discussion I attended with fellow therapists and coaches. A few therapists talked about how they were working with women who had extreme difficulty with saying no. They all talked about the assertiveness training they were giving and how they were helping their clients set boundaries. Even though these strategies are excellent, on their own they lack the historical understanding of the socio-cultural environment that these women live in. In order to ‘pull anxiety about saying no out by the roots’, as I call it, these women need to understand their mother’s and grandmother’s history with saying no. They need to understand if their mother and grandmother struggled to say no, which I strongly suspect was the case, because this problem is a classic symptom of how mothers pass on to their daughters the silencing they have learned to internalize and normalize. The belief that it is wrong for women to say no and set limits is an inherited generational belief and behavior and part of the ‘Culture of Female Service’ that believes that it is a woman’s role to be the caregiver and not a care receiver.
I believe that it is every therapist’s and coach’s role and responsibility to help their female clients understand their history with emotional silence. And it is also every therapist’s and coach’s role and responsibility to help their male clients understand the role they play in perpetuating the silencing of women. As a therapist and coach, we are change makers. Our role is not to patch women up so that they can cope with the sexism and silencing that is around them. Our role is to help create a society and world where women are heard, one client at a time.
Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach. www.rosjke.com