Counsellors developing and maintaining feminist identities

Given the plurality of ideas in feminist theory, developing an identity as a feminist counsellor can also be a complex path. Building from feminist ideology, feminist therapists must understand what this approach means for them personally, as well as its implications for their practice. This approach also brings unique challenges and contradictions that counsellors must work through, in order to help reconcile their personal and professional commitments.

Deriving from her own experience pursuing feminist counselling practices, Werklund MSc graduate Vanessa Vegter worked with 9 Canadian and American therapists to gain a sense of how they develop and maintain their feminist identities. The participants were a diverse group: with 6 identifying as female, 2 as male, and 1 as queer/transgender – with their ages ranging from the mid-20s to early-70s. These participants were all drawn to feminism from different experiences in their lives – which for 2 participants included involvement in the Vietnam War – and their identities as feminist counsellors are shaped by the context and events of their current lives.

“Hot button” Tensions

Vanessa looked at 3 main tensions that the participants described in their interviews. These ‘sites of dilemma’ were significant moments or ongoing struggles that required the counsellor to reflect and respond. These tensions were particularly important for how they performed their feminist identities, and shaped how their identities played out in their day-to-day personal and professional lives.

Part of the participants’ identities was informed by their commitment to feminist values, such as social justice, equality, and compassion, among many others. However, the values aligned with feminist principles may be contested or less compatible with one another in the context of their practice. For instance, their commitment to inclusivity may be challenged by the need to maintain a client-centered approach with an overtly racist or homophobic client. The difficulty in navigating such situations lead some therapists to feelings of guilt, shame, or burnout, as they tried to reconcile their commitment to both their clients and social change.

Questions of power, in its many forms, was another source of tension in the feminist identity process. For these participants, having power over their clients (by virtue of their position, or their race, class, gender, etc.) was seen as antithetical to feminist goals. Yet, the participants also recognized that there are times when faced with administrative or societal hierarchies, they lacked the agency and power to help facilitate change. Working through these contradictions was necessary, however, to help empower their clients, which the participants recognized as a key aim of feminist counselling approaches.

Tied to these other tensions, the participants also spoke to the difficulty in navigating their responsibilities to different stakeholders. This includes their commitments to themselves and their values; to the client; their accountability to their workplace and ethical practice; and to creating a more equitable society. For example, if a client requires a diagnosis to use their workplace health benefits, the counsellors must resolve tensions between the client’s needs, and their feminist values which are less diagnostic and medication-centered.

Overcoming isolation

These tensions and dilemmas represent part of the challenges faced by counsellors developing and maintaining their identity as a feminist. This dynamic process is ongoing – with each decision having consequences for their personal and professional lives.

Vanessa hopes her study will help promote solidarity among feminist counsellors, and generate conversations around the different ways that identity is performed by feminists in counselling. The participants noted feeling isolated in their feminist values, which exacerbated the difficulty in navigating these challenges. By helping feminist counsellors to recognize the connectedness of their experiences, there is the potential to see how these sites of tension can promote new ways of being and doing – despite the inevitable ‘messiness’ of the experience.

Understanding feminist counsellor identity can also add to broader conversations around professional identity. The struggle of reconciling personal and professional identities has important implications for counsellor training, and supporting the wellbeing of counsellors. Helping counsellors to respond to their needs of their clients in different ways requires them to navigate these tensions and their sense of agency in their practice.