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MAIOR CONSTRUCTS

Although feminist counselors practice in various ways depending on their approach, in general they share a commitment to a core set of principles (Enns, 2004). The most fundamental of these principles is that the personal is political. The basis for this belief is that the personal or individual problems that women bring to counseling originate in social and political oppression, subordination, and stereotyping. Thus, the goal of feminist counseling is not only individual change but also social transformation. Clients' responses are not viewed as dysfunctional or as having an intrapsychic origin but are seen as ways of coping with an oppressive environment in which they have a subordinate status. Because the environment is a major source of pathology in the lives of women and other oppressed minorities, the toxic aspects of the environment must be changed if individual change is to occur. "The goal is to advance a different vision of societal organization that frees both women and men from the constraints imposed by gender-role expectations" (Herlihy & Corey, 2009, p. 340).

A second principle, intertwined with the first, is that feminist counselors share a commitment to social change. Feminist counselors work to help clients achieve a "revolution from within" and a "revolution from without" (Prochaska & Norcross, 1994). Their goal is to assist women not only to make internal, psychological changes but also to join with others in working toward social change that will liberate all members of society from subordination, oppression, and gender role stereotyping. In feminist counseling, clients are encouraged to become active in furthering social change, through such means as joining political action groups or confronting sexism in their workplace. Feminist counselors work with individual clients, couples, and families, but they also have an overarching commitment to broader social change. They are themselves involved in social change in their own communities and sometimes in larger spheres.

Third, feminist counselors are committed to the establishment of egalitarian relationships (Ballou & West, 2000; Remer et al., 2001). One of the roots of women's problems is the unequal distribution of power between women and men, and between other dominant and subordinate groups. Thus, it is important for feminist counselors to establish counseling relationships in which clients are viewed as equal partners in the therapeutic endeavor, who have the capacity to change in directions that they themselves select and to decide on therapeutic goals and strategies. The counselor is viewed as another source of information rather than an expert in the relationship. Feminist counselors use a variety of means for sharing power with the client, including demystifying the process, self-disclosing appropriately, and paying careful attention to informed consent issues. Their twofold aim in building egalitarian therapeutic relationships is to empower the client and to model collaborative ways of being in relationship. It is important to feminist counselors that they do not replicate in the therapeutic relationship the power disparity that the client experiences in the larger social, economic, and political worlds.

A fourth principle of feminist counseling is to honor women's experiences and to appreciate their perspectives, values, and strengths. The belief that underlies this tenet is that only women's unique experiences can provide a foundation of knowledge for understanding women (Elliott, 1999). Forcing women's experiences into a traditional framework that ignores their voice and status would devalue and distort both the experiences and the women themselves (Ballou & West, 2000). Instead, theories of feminist counseling evolve from and reflect the lived experiences of women that include a number of gender-based phenomena such as sexual assault, domestic violence, eating disorders, and sexual harassment. The voices of the oppressed are acknowledged as authoritative, valued, and valuable sources of knowledge (Worell & Johnson, 1997).

Fifth, feminist counselors recognize all types of oppression, not only those based on gender. Feminist counselors respect the inherent worth and dignity of every individual and recognize that societal and political inequities are oppressive and limiting to all people. Feminist principles have been expanded to encompass an awareness of the multiple interactions of gender with other variables that affect the lives of clients who are not members of dominant societal groups. Feminists strive to be cognizant of the ways in which all people, depending on their position in a complex social matrix, are both oppressed and oppressor, both dominant and marginalized. When psychological distress is placed within a sociocultural context, it is apparent that experiences of oppression based not only on gender – but also on race, ethnicity, class, physical ability, age, religion, and sexual orientation – are interrelated in complex ways (Ballou & West, 2000; Remer et al., 2001).

Sixth, a goal in feminist counseling is to help clients challenge the androcentric norms that compare women to men and embrace the idea of a "woman-defined woman" (Sturdivant, 1980, p. 92) rather than for women to allow themselves to be defined by others. One of the ways that society has tended to devalue women's voices has been to prize the patriarchal norm of "objective truth" over subjective experience. Feminists call for an acceptance of feminist consciousness, which acknowledges diverse ways of knowing. Within this new paradigm, women are encouraged to express their emotions, trust their intuition, and use their personal experience as a touchstone for determining what is reality (Herlihy & Corey, 2009).

Finally, the feminist approach calls for a reformulated understanding of psychological distress. Feminist counselors reject the medical or disease model of psychopathology. The notion of psychological distress is reframed so that it is viewed as a communication about the experience of living in an unjust society. From this new perspective, psychic pain is not seen as a symptom of disease or deficit. Instead, it is defined as evidence of resistance and the will and skill to survive (Worell & Johnson, 1997). According to Brown (1994), resistance is a term that describes a person's ability to remain alive and strong in the face of oppression. Thus, a client's problems in living are not assumed to arise from within that individual but to derive instead from multiple sources within a complex social context.

 
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