Feminism and Intersubjectivity: Whose Reality Is It, Anyway? // Mae Adams Shirley

(Image obtained from wanelo.com; African Sculpture in Teakwood)

Feminism and Intersubjectivity: Whose Reality Is It, Anyway?
By Mae Adams Shirley, M.A., M.S.
George Fox University

     It’s true, for years psychoanalysis and feminism appeared to be opposing forces in the field of psychology. As a previous blogger in this forum pointed out, we have only recently begun to re-formulate our understanding of Freud’s work with the female psyche to make room for the feminist perspective, through Freud’s treatment of the classically misunderstood “hysterical woman,” (Wierbinska, 2016). Despite Freud’s use of classical psychoanalysis to establish a hierarchal, expert vs. layman relationship between the analyst and the analysand, I would posit that Freud (however unknowingly) propelled the field of psychoanalysis into the 21st century through his identification of the transference/countertransference possibility within the analytic relationship. This was the first time it had been suggested that the patient and therapist influence one another through projection of one’s self. The idea that patient and therapist psychically impacted one another was a monumental claim by Freud. It would be many years later that the field of psychoanalysis would broaden this concept of transference/countertransference to encapsulate the way the two, separate unconscious worlds of the patient and therapist interact with one another through various relating styles.
     Theorists such as Winnicott, Klein, Fairbairn and later Ogden, Mitchell and Benjamin changed the course of psychoanalysis through exploration of subjectivity in the therapeutic relationship. While object relations theorists proposed that psychoanalysis is a “one and a half psychology” where the subject (patient) uses the therapist (object) to enact recurrent relational themes, relational psychoanalytic theorists took things a step further. It is not a matter of subject and object, they would proclaim, but rather two subjective experiences in the therapeutic relationship that interrelate and interact with one another in rhythm. In her article, Recognition and Destruction: An Outline of Intersubjectivity, Jessica Benjamin explained: “Intersubjective theory postulates that the other must be recognized as another subject in order for the self to fully experience his or her subjectivity in the other's presence. This means that we have a need for recognition and that we have a capacity to recognize others in return, thus making mutual recognition possible,” (Benjamin, 1998).
     But what does mutual recognition mean? And why is it important for feminism? When I began my doctoral studies, I knew that I wanted to pursue a deeper understanding of psychoanalysis. I also knew that my eyes had been opened by feminist theory and other postmodern approaches in psychology that emphasized a social consciousness and a movement toward action that recognized systems of power and oppression. It wasn’t until my second year of my PsyD program that I first discovered the works of Jessica Benjamin, Ph.D. Until discovering her research and her infamous book, The Bonds of Love, I had no idea that any marriage between psychoanalysis and feminism had ever been discussed. These two theoretical orientations had felt incompatible and even at odds with one another in my mind. To be fair, my assumptions were supported by historical evidence of classical psychoanalysis’ view of the hierarchal therapeutic dyad that placed the analyst in a position of power and authority over the patient. But as I began to read about a newer development in the field of analysis known as relational psychoanalysis, I realized that for years there has been a growing and widely adopted movement to dismantle these positions of power in lieu of a more mutually-focused therapeutic relationship.
     Feminism and this relational psychoanalytic approach fit neatly together because of their shared ideology that one’s experience in the room does not diminish or invalidate the existence of the other. As one of my supervisors frequently states: “I have an unconscious, too.” In relational psychoanalysis, we make space for the subjectivity of the patient because we as the therapist know too well what it means for psychic health if the internal world is discounted at the expense of another (case in point- the Narcissistic parent and their extension, the child). Therapist neither dominates nor subjugates their position in relationship with the client in a relational psychoanalytic frame. This same premise has existed since the beginning of the feminist movement. The idea is that I cannot make space for the reality and experience of another at the expense of my own. When one dominant group holds power, it necessitates that another group is disempowered and thus objectified. In an intersubjective therapeutic approach, both the therapist and client’s realities co-exist and are equally as valid. They not only hold value, but they mutually influence one another. Through the co-created relationship between the two, we find not a “one and a half psychology” but rather a “two person psychology” that allows space for both therapist and client to exist with their own internal worlds, fantasies, fears, past experiences and present reveries.

     Much like my first exposure to feminist theory, my first experience of relational psychoanalysis greatly shook my understanding of relationships, theory and clinical practice. I was faced with my own bias of psychology that had been created by a historical conceptualization of the therapist as the expert. This oppressive perspective had been more deeply ingrained in me than I cared to admit. And much like someone first allowing themselves to identify as “feminist”, my transition into a relational psychoanalytic perspective was slow and felt risky. But I could no longer ignore the fact that patient and therapist are constantly influencing one another in the shared relational experience of therapy. I could not ignore the impact that my clients have had on me, nor pretend that my own subjectivity has not been experienced by those that sit across from me in the client seat. My admission that I am a subjective being, even in the clinical space, requires that I embrace rather than forfeit my own internal reality and perhaps even learn to use this reality as a way of gaining even greater perspective into my client’s internal world. This mutual recognition of each other’s subjectivities reminds me that we are both human, both seeking empowerment, and both fearing the dominance of the other. The feminist perspective holds this same basic tenet: That only through empowerment of the marginalized individual do we find a more evenly constructed playing field where both voices can be heard. In therapy, this is done through inviting the patient to share his or her own story, creating a space in which they are the expert on their own internal experience and inviting that experience to interact with the subjectivity of the therapist.

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