by Annabelle Parr
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression as men. Women are also the largest group diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some argue that rather than some innate, biological predisposition to these disorders, the context in which women exist may be the cause of the gender disparity (see Dr. Robyn Walser’s article and Dr. Jill Stoddard’s upcoming book Be Mighty). The WHO states, “gender specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women include gender based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility for the care of others.” When gender intersects with other facets of identity, such as race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, risk factors and inequities are further compounded.
As Dr. Stoddard discusses in Be Mighty, women are paid less for equal work (Bishu & Alkandry, 2017), are largely responsible for household and caretaking tasks even when working outside the home (Pew Research Center, 2015), are less likely than men to be introduced by our professional title (Files et al., 2017), are evaluated as either likeable or competent as if the two were mutually exclusive (Heilman et al., 2004; Rudman & Glick, 1999), and are seen as less desirable when we outperform men (Park, Young, & Eastwick, 2015). Women are also taught that there is a narrow and rigid standard of beauty to which we must conform. Not only is our inherent worth devalued in all the ways above, but 1 in 3 women experience sexual violence in their lifetime (and little girls are twice as likely as little boys to be sexually abused). And 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of intimate partner violence (domestic violence). On top of the violence women are subjected to, we watch as victims are blamed when they come forward. They are asked to provide extensive hard evidence for the injuries perpetrated against them, questioned on their authority to be the expert on their own experience. Meanwhile, the perpetrator’s word that he didn’t do it is sufficient evidence for so-called justice to take his side, and the victim is demonized for having the audacity to speak up.
Things are changing. In the past few years we have seen a dramatic shift with women everywhere speaking up and sharing their stories, both leading up to and following the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But there is still a long way to go. When we really let in awareness of the injustice present in our culture, it can trigger enormous anger – an emotion women are taught we are not allowed to have. Though anger can drive productive action against injustice, it can also become overwhelming and a barrier to movement. And particularly when we are not allowed to have it, it can easily turn to depression.
Some argue that in boiling the problem down to individual mental health problems, we do women a disservice and we miss the bigger problem. What if we had an alternative? What if instead of suggesting she is the one with a problem, we saw her pain as a result of a system that tells her she is worth less?
Yeah, what if? But what now? What do we do with all of this information? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has some suggestions to help empower women in a context of inequality.
First, we get present. We attune to our experience in the here and now. We do our best to cultivate a willingness to feel it, to not turn away from it, despite the larger messages designed to silence us, our experiences, and our pain. This allows us to turn toward doing what matters, rather than focusing all of our energy on turning away from our pain.
Next, we cultivate an observer self. We begin to hold ourselves with compassion, like we might hold our 5-year-old selves. No matter how many negative messages we have absorbed about who we are, what we deserve, and how we have to be, there is a self underneath all of that. We are much more complex and greater than those stories we have been taught to believe. When we are able to take a new perspective on how we see ourselves and our pain –holding ourselves with the compassion we would have for a child or a friend – we become our own ally rather than our own worst enemy. In connecting to a sense of ourselves that is more nuanced and complex than any one story, we are no longer defined as unidimensional. We are free to do what matters, to live life according to our values rather than confined by messages designed to keep us boxed in.
With this observer self awareness, we can learn to examine our thoughts, such as those that tell us we have nothing of value to say, that we can’t make a difference, that we are alone, or that we are to blame. And we can learn to see those thoughts for what they are: words. When we can stop taking our thoughts as literal truths, we can choose to take action that deliberately defies them when they do not serve us. We can think “my voice and my actions don’t matter” and still choose to stand up for what we believe in.
We show up to our pain because it deserves to be acknowledged and seen. And because within pain is valuable information. Behind our pain lies our values – they are two sides of the same coin. We wouldn’t hurt if it didn’t matter. Pain and values are inseparable and both are vital; we can’t have one without the other. Pain can feel overwhelming, but when we listen to the message it is communicating, we can identify those things that are important to us. And when we connect to our personally chosen, deeply held values, we have a compass pointing toward the direction we want to move. When we know what is important to us, we are also afforded the opportunity to connect with others who share our values. The connection to what is important to us and to others who share our values are the fuel that keeps us going when it gets hard. When our minds tell us we can’t keep going, our values remind us why we will try anyway.
Once we know our values and we are able to show up willingly to our experience in the present, we are able to commit to specific actions that are connected to what matters to us. All those thoughts that we can’t make a difference or that our voice is not loud enough are suddenly not quite so significant, because now what matters in this moment is that we act in service of what is important to us. We don’t get to control the outcome, but we do get to know that we are engaging in life in a way that is empowered by our values rather than dictated by systems determined to keep us silent and small.
Just as research shows us the ways that women are treated as “less than,” it also shows us what happens when women are empowered and are present in spaces that were traditionally not open to us. In Be Mighty, Dr. Stoddard notes that patients show health benefits when they are treated by female physicians – including lower mortality rates and fewer hospital readmissions (Tsugawa et al., 2017); corporate finances improve when women are present in leadership (Hunt, Layton, & Prince, 2015) and boards become more effective when women bring our skills to the table (Daehyun & Starks, 2016). Women’s presence in decision making improves the environment (Cook, Grillos, & Anderson, 2019) and helps facilitate more effective and enduring peace agreements (Paffenholz, Kew, & Wanis-St. John, 2006; O’Reilly, Súilleabháin, & Paffenholz, 2015). And when women are involved in politics, the lives of all women and mothers improve as their interests are represented and advocated for (Swers, 2005; Anzia & Berry, 2011).
The world is a better place when women are represented in positions of power and leadership. And just as it is important to acknowledge that things improve for everyone when women are empowered, it is also important to acknowledge that women deserve equality and empowerment as individuals whose worth is not gauged based on the collective value we offer, but is based on our individual humanity and inherent worth. Our worth is not defined by what we can give to others, but is instead based on the fact that our existence alone is enough to mean we matter.
So how do we move toward empowerment? We start by holding our pain the way we might hold something precious. It deserves our attention and our care. Once you know your pain, you can begin to consider what it says about what is important to you. And then you can start to take actions, large or small, toward what matters.
For more information on using ACT to empower women, check out Praxis trainings, particularly the upcoming Fierce, Fabulous, and Female online training. Also, check out Dr. Jill Stoddard’s book, to be released January 2020: Be Mighty: A Woman's Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance and Dr. Janina Scarlet’s upcoming book, release date TBD: Super-Women: Superhero Therapy for Women Battling Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma.
CSAM IS HERE TO HELP
If you or someone you love might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for anxiety, panic, phobias, stress, PTSD, OCD, or insomnia, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at email@example.com
Anzia, S. F., and C. R. Berry. 2011. “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?” American Journal of Political Science 55: 478–493.
Bishu, S. G., and M. G. Alkadry. 2017. “A Systematic Review of the Gender Pay Gap and Factors That Predict It.” Administration & Society, 49: 65-104.
Cook, N. J., T. Grillos, and K. P. Anderson. 2019. “Gender quotas increase the Equality and Effectiveness of Climate Policy Interventions.” Nature Climate Change 9: 330–334.
Daehyun, K., and L. T. Starks. 2016. “Gender Diversity on Corporate Boards: Do Women Contribute Unique Skills?” American Economic Review 106: 267–71.
Files, J. A., A. P. Mayer, M. G. Ko, P. Friedrich, M. Jenkins, M. J. Bryan, S. Vegunta, C. M. Wittich, M. A. Lyle, R. Melikian, T. Duston, Y. H. Chang, and S. N. Hayes. 2017. “Speaker Introductions at Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Forms of Address Reveal Gender Bias.” Journal of Women’s Health 26: 413–419.
Heilman, M. E., A. S. Wallen, D. Fuchs, and M. M. Tamkins. 2004. “Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks.” Journal of Applied Psychology 89: 416–427.
Hunt, V., D. Layton, and S. Prince. 2015. “Why Diversity Matters.” McKinsey and Company Annual Report. https://www.mckinsey. com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity- matters. Accessed March 24, 2019.
O’Reilly, M., A. S illeabh in, and T. Paffenholz. 2015. “Reimagining Peacemaking: Women’s Roles in Peace Processes,” New York: International Peace Institute.
Paffenholz, T., D. Kew, and A. Wanis-St. John. 2006. Civil Society and Peace Negotiations: Why, Whether and How They Could be Involved. Paper presented at the International Studies Association Conference, March, San Diego, CA.
Park, L. E., A. F. Young, and P. W. Eastwick. 2015. “Psychological Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 4: 1,459–1,473.
Pew Research Center. 2015. “Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load.” Accessed November 10, 2018. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/11/04/ raising-kids-and-running-a-household-how-working-parents- share-the-load/.
Rudman, L. A., and P. Glick. 1999. “Feminized Management and Backlash Toward Agentic Women: The Hidden Costs to Women of a Kinder, Gentler Image of Middle Managers.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 1,004–1,010.
Stoddard, J. A. (2020). Be mighty: A woman’s guide to liberation from anxiety, worry, & stress using mindfulness and acceptance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Swers, M. L. 2005. “Connecting Descriptive and Substantive Representation: An Analysis of Sex Differences in Cosponsorship Activity.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 30 (3): 407–433.
Tsugawa Y., A. B. Jena, J. F. Figueroa, E. J. Orav, D. M. Blumenthal, and A. K. Jha. 2017. “Comparison of Hospital Mortality and Readmission Rates for Medicare Patients Treated by Male vs Female Physicians.” JAMA Internal Medicine 177: 206–213.