Emotional Self-Defense Groups for Women

By Sara Joy David, Ph.D.
Excerpts from: Women Look at Psychiatry.
D.E. Smith and S.J. David (Eds), (pp. 165-174).
Vancouver, BC: Press Gang Publishers, 1975.

In 1973-74, while at Simon Fraser University, I initiated a series of Emotional Self-Defense Groups for women in which the elements of personal growth groups, consciousness-raising groups, communication skills groups and assertiveness training groups were combined. All the women reported some feelings of distress, or felt in some way impeded in their per­sonal and professional development as a function of being female.

The title “emotional self-defense groups” was selected in recognition of the fact that women face a hostile world that discri­minates against them and that this mounts massive pressure to force them into roles that have been societally rather than self-defined.

From infancy, women are conditioned by the toys they are given, the books they read, the clothes they wear, the media, peer and parental expectations, and the schools they attend to be supportive and subservient both in marriage and in the world at large. They are carefully prepared to be the facilitators who make it possible for others, usually husbands and children, to be the initiators of action and the decision-makers of society. As a result of their socialization, most women have over­developed certain attributes such as warmth, compassion, ten­derness, intuitiveness, nurturance and flexibility at the expense of other attributes equally important for effective human func­tioning; for example, assertiveness, endurance, initiative, indus­triousness, risk-taking and self-reliance.

Women’s emotional talents are constantly exploited and abused. The support services women perform are taken for granted and not fully acknow­ledged by the recipients of those services.

Since society sanctions such self-sacrifice, many of the women who are aware of it come to ex­perience it as virtuous rather than oppressive. These attitudes are shaped at such an early age and are so deeply rooted that it takes considerable will and dogged determination to change them. The concept of emotional self-defense implies in­creasing one’s awareness of, and resistance to, emotional mani­pulation and blackmail. This does not mean giving up the very valuable aspects of the traditional female role. On the contrary, when women are the recipients of the warmth, understanding, and support they have given to others, they come to value these functions more fully. The result is a more selective use of their psychological resources and a determination to end interpersonal oppres­sion.

Dilemmas Women Face

Being manipulated by language

Most behaviour can be described neutrally, negatively, or positively. By giving up the power to define what is occuring, women allow themselves to be pushed and pulled at the mercy of significant others. False humility and self-effacing behaviours are encouraged by label­ling them “modesty”; “submissiveness” and “acquiescence” are maintained by renaming them “flexibility” and “co-opera­tion”. Other behaviours important for individual growth but inconvenient for family and friends are discouraged in a similar manner. For example, self-confidence, assertiveness, autonomy and independence are incorrectly labelled “arrogance”, “ag­gressiveness”, “selfishness” and “indifference”. Women need to be on guard against these tendencies in others (and in themselves) to sabotage the acquisition of needed behavioural options.

Surrendering authority to another

A woman in a dependent rela­tionship with a person who is highly critical of her may come to believe the negatively assigned characterization. Her own perceptions and intuitions may be sufficiently undermined to lead to profound self-doubt. This can lead to a very serious emotional upheaval in which a woman even questions her own sanity. The usual way of handling such distress is to seek individual counselling or psychotherapy. The female patient, more vulnerable and other-direc­ted than ever, gives power to still another authority figure who is entrusted to validate or invalidate her judgment. If the counsellor is wittingly or unwittingly sexist (or otherwise incompetent), the disequilibrium period may be needlessly prolonged.

Seeking approval

Many women come to feel they must be liked by everyone, and, similarly, are obliged to like all others. Failure to meet this im­possible standard leads to feeling hurt or guilty. It becomes difficult to express resentment without profuse apologies, ex­planations, justifications, and sometimes tears. Similarly, criti­cism becomes difficult to hear, let alone evaluate, without feeling hurt, tearful, defensive or angry.

A strong need for approval can be hazardous in another way; it may lead to losing touch with skills and abilities. The high school student who stops volunteering answers to math and science questions, in order to get more dates, may forget she ever had a talent in the area. The female athlete who with­draws from volleyball to be a cheerleader may never develop her own athletic skill and competence. Moreover, the strategy of abandoning basic needs and desires in order to accommodate another can only have a negative outcome. Either one wins the sought-after ap­proval for being someone other than oneself, or there is a double loss of having sacrificed self-development without having gained the desired appreciation and validation.

An excessive focus on relationships

A large majority of women hold them­selves entirely responsible for the success or failure of relation­ships. The awareness that it takes two to relate is simply not taken into consideration by many women in deteriorating rela­tionships. Many women spend an inordinate amount of time and energy discussing relationships, problems emanating from them, the pain experienced in terminating them, and the fear of being alone. Women need to find a better balance in the alloting of attention to self knowledge, self-care, career development and community service instead of losing themselves in an intimate relationship.

Needing another to succeed

One of the major tasks of the other ­directed individual is to encourage others to succeed. If self-­esteem is dependent on the success of a mate or children, encouragement may turn into pressuring and nagging a recalci­trant other. Moreover, there is a risk of defining oneself as a failure should the other fail to succeed. Because there is more direct control over one’s own endurance, motivation and abili­ty, it is far better to invest one’s energy in one’s own success than requiring it of another.

Needing to be needed fosters artificial dependencies. Mothers may do many things for their children long after the latter are able to do them on their own. Since independence training is considered important with male children, the result may be a particular infantalizing of daugh­ters.

Preoccupation with physical appearance

Because women’s status and success is often judged by whom they marry rather than by what they achieve, their physical appearance takes on great importance to them. In turn, to the extent that women are preoccupied with their appearance, whether it is with feeling shame about some aspect of it or with expending energy to improve it, they are distracted from learning the skills necessary for effective independent functioning. Once women have dealt with these issues, they can strategize about how to handle some of the behavioural responses that typically greet those attempting to move out of stereotyped roles, responses such as patronizing laughter, being ignored, being misinterpreted or more direct retaliatory put-downs. Women must develop the ability to express their wants and needs, to set clear firm boundaries, and to present new ideas in an assertive, persistent manner which is neither attacking and accusatory nor apolo­getic and defensive.