Nicole Cossu, MA, LPC
Feminist Theory of psychotherapy focuses on the way in which individuals have been affected by a patriarchal society (both those identifying with the dominant culture and those who do not) and lends specific attention to the realities of those who fall outside of the dominant, patriarchal, mainstream. Feminist Therapy emerged at the tail end of the 1960’s, alongside second wave Feminism in the United States. This theory is ‘politically informed’ which aims to view the individual within the framework of their societal and cultural reality. The basic assumption of Feminist Theory is that all individuals, living in patriarchal systems, are affected by and can be disempowered by, this system. Initially developed to address gender inequalities and sexism in the mental health field, and to offer an alternative for female clients, Feminist theory has expanded its lens to resemble more of a multicultural approach. Modern Feminist therapy also addresses the male perspective, can be used in child and family therapy and highlights the experiences of the marginalized person as a whole (examining the influence of one’s culture, social class, age sexual orientation, etc.), rather than the focus being gender specific.
Feminist Theory claims itself to be an integrative approach which credits Rogerian, Narrative and Multicultural therapies as having contributed to its theory. Adler himself has never been credited as an influence. However, in taking a closer at these two theories, one can see great similarities. Adler himself spoke on his feminist viewpoints in the late 1920’s. Adler promoted gender equality and denounced the sexist constructs of psychoanalytic theory. He regularly used the phrase ‘other sex’ when referring to women, rather than the more commonly used term, ‘opposite sex’. The use of the word ‘other’ rather than ‘opposite’ is still used in Feminist approaches today to refer to those who fall outside of the dominant culture. In taking in the core values of each theory, one can see Feminist Theory more as Neo- Adlerian than an integrative approach.
The primary tenants of Feminist Theory include; egalitarian relationships, power, enhancement of strengths, non-pathology oriented model, education, acceptance and validation of feelings. Many of these tenants are mirrored in Adlerian Theory. The egalitarian relationship promotes empowerment of the client and collaboration between client and clinician. This relationship is valued in Adlerian therapy as well. Both theories focus on the strengths that the client already possesses, views the client in an optimistic fashion and works to promote their strengths through strength-based interventions such as empowerment (Feminist) and encouragement (Adlerian). These theories move away from labeling distress as ‘pathological’. Not assigning diagnoses is preferable when it can be avoided. Psychoeducation and validation are shared traits of both approaches to treatment as well. The Feminist approach is unique in its emphasis of power. Power, from a feminist perspective is both the cause of distress (being disempowered) and the goal which all individuals strive towards. Empowerment is a primary goal of treatment which aims to aid the individual in finding the power they already possess/ help them feel like a more powerful person. Additionally, distress is seen as a reaction or a resistance to disempowerment. While Adlerian theorists do not emphasize the importance of power in this way, Adler did emphasize that all individuals strive toward goals and are consistently making this movement toward their goals. Adlerian theorists name belonging as the most common goal, while Feminists would name power as the most common goal we are all striving towards.
Adlerian and Feminists theories converge on additional theoretical concepts as well. The Feminist concept of the Biopsychosocial/Spiritual Axes of Power, for example, can also be seen in the Adlerian concept of Life Tasks. The Axes of Power outline dimensions in which all individuals strive to become more powerful and can become disempowered (somatic, spiritual, intrapersonal and interpersonal). The Life Tasks, similarly, outline areas of life where all individuals strive toward a goal (work, love, social, spiritual and self). While Adler explained the task itself as being the goal, Feminist theory poses ‘power’ in each axis as being the ultimate goal. Overall, the similarities between these two theories are overwhelming. While differences do exist, the core values of Adlerian and Feminist theory complement one another; from the attention to social embeddedness to the emphasis on individual uniqueness. For these reasons, it is reasonable to claim that Feminist theory is more Neo-Adlerian than it is an integration of multiple theories.
To explore this topic in further detail please see Feminist Therapy: A Neo-Adlerian Approach in the resource section at the bottom of this Adlerpedia page. Additional resources are also included on this page which provide an in depth understanding of Adlerian and Feminist Theories.
Adler, A. (1927). The practice and theory of Individual Psychology. New York: Greenberg
Adler, A. (1956). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Basic Books.
Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Brown, L. (2004). Feminist paradigms of trauma treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice and Training, 41, 464-471
Brown, L. (2007). Empathy, genuineness and the dynamics of power: A feminist responds to Rogers. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44(3), 257-259.
Brown, L. (2010). Feminist Therapy. Washington, D.C. American Psychological Association.
Dreikurs, R. (1956). Adlerian Psychotherapy. In. F. Fromm-Reichmann & J. L. Moreno (Eds.), Progress in Psychotherapy (pp. 111-118). New York: Grune & Stratton
Lerman, H. (1996). Pigeonholing women’s misery. New York: Basic Books
Manaster, G. J. & Corsini, R. J. (1982). Individual Psychology. Adler School of Professional Psychology
Mosak, H. H., Maniacci, M. P. (1999). A Primer of Adlerian Psychology. New York: Routledge.
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Walker, L. E.A. (1990). A Feminist Therapist Views the Case. New York: Spring Publishing Company.