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Do You Struggle to Find the Perfect Words?

And here Jen was now, in my office, confused and sad again because she'd just received another message from Christopher. This time, he wanted to tell her that he'd realized over the last year how poorly he treated her. That he was sorry.

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That he hoped she was well. She read me the email. It struck me as not manic or fake like his previous ones, but gentler and more self-aware. They were the words she longed to hear last year. So why did she, and I, feel confused? She looked startled.

Do You Struggle to Find the Perfect Words?

Is he still looking for a response from me? Does he want me to forgive him so HE can feel better? I am so beyond done with this shit. The white female university professor is usually better off than the Latino migrant farm worker, and the clothes she purchases at Banana Republic impact the quality of life of men and women across the globe. The cisgender woman is almost always safer and taken more seriously than the transgender one. We don't live in a binary world, and feminism must always look for the shades of gray. But some patterns between men and women are hard to ignore, especially when they play out in your office and in your own life day after day.

And I do hear it, literally every day, both on the therapy couch and in coffee shops and parks where I sit with my own friends on weekends. And if I tell him I'm tired of it he just says, 'Well then don't do it, we'll figure it out. So I end up figuring it out again. He's worked really hard for it. I'm so proud. A few months ago, I was introduced to the concept of "Emotional Labor," from sex workers who were tweeting about the topic. These women talked about how they get compensated for their sexual labor, but a huge part of their job is emotional work listening, validating, pretending to feel something for the sake of the other , which is assumed by the male clients to be given for free.

Emotional Labor has been studied in the field of sociology for a while, and somewhat recently has been incorporated into feminist discourse. Feminists have begun asking the question Rose Hackman posed in her article on the topic in The Guardian: "What if, much like childcare and housekeeping, the sum of this ongoing emotional management [that women do] is yet another form of unpaid labor?

When I work in therapy with heterosexual couples, the disparity of training each gender receives in emotional management is stark. Often, the woman is aware of her male partner's needs and feelings at the expense of her own, whereas the male partner struggles to identify and understand both his own and his partner's emotions. He has been taught that it is either dangerous, not manly, or not his job to feel and respond to feelings, including his own. It's tragic. As a female therapist, I often have an urge to join the female partner and save the man from the struggle and embarrassment of this work.

We name his feelings for him, begin extrapolating on them, and once again, the man becomes an emotional project of women. It has taken me some time to catch my own impulse to collude with wives and girlfriends when I sit with heterosexual couples, to step back and let men find their own words for their own experiences.


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  7. Do You Struggle to Find the Perfect Words?.

With individual male therapy clients, I hear echos of the emotional labor the women in their lives may be putting in when the men speak of the "random explosions" that "seem come from nowhere. Many women are taught to not "nag," which is usually code for "don't ask for what you need," and so they do bottle up and explode. But then, I wonder if the women in these men's lives ARE communicating. If the men are just untrained at the emotional work of listening and responding, and the explosions are not a matter of build-up, but of not being heard the first forty times.

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What, after all, did Jen's ex-husband hear when she said, "Do not contact me" the first, and second, time? As the obvious disparity in emotional intelligence has come into societal focus, gender essentialism has re-entered our lexicon, medieval Calvinist theology wearing a lab coat, and speaking in words like "Naturally," "Biologically," and, my very least favorite, "According to neuroscience. And, frustratingly, these begging-the-question conclusions bring comfort to many.

Women feel a temporary relief that they don't have to stop themselves from the things they are so practiced at, and men never have to admit to the constant emotional failures they inflict on the women around them. Honestly, I don't know how to work with this, as a therapist or as a human. It's so lopsided. It seems like women, on average, have a PhD in emotional labor and men are trying to pass third grade.

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And as the unspoken rules of patriarchy have it, men are not ever to feel inferior at anything. So we're all in a bind. We keep trying to fix this emotional labor problem with the same tools that built the shitty structure in the first place. Women continue to do the emotional work they are so good at, protecting men from feeling incompetent and inferior, or else exploding in frustration and becoming scathingly critical.

Men, often not having language for their emotional experiences, shirk away from hard talks, and in some spaces, they mock women for wanting to have them. In January the foundation will begin advertising for the next group of eight, this time visual artists.


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  • The foundation pays the rest. The writers in analysis, who all requested anonymity, give the program high marks for life-changing, low-cost therapy. The confederacy of clients do not meet one another, although some confess to a guessing game about the others' identities. One, a writer and musician in his 30's, had experienced ''bouts of depression ranging from very bad, suicidal to not getting enough out of life, day-to-day.

    A fiction writer and teacher in her early 50's who has been in the program for six years is about to end her treatment. She said analysis had helped her stop brushing the ''lint off drafts that I would go over and over,'' and added: ''Flaubert said he spent a whole weekend putting a comma in and taking it out. I did a lot of that. Now my relationship to the work is different. It's not some kind of baby blanket that I have to cling to mentally all the time. The back story of the Lucy Daniels Foundation is almost as quirky as the program itself. Daniels, 68, a novelist and practicing psychotherapist who recently published a memoir, ''With a Woman's Voice: A Writer's Struggle for Emotional Freedom,'' has a case history that might have fascinated Freud.

    At 17, Ms. Daniels was anorexic and weighed less than 60 pounds. She was institutionalized and was subjected to electroshock therapy and insulin injections and was force-fed through a tube. During her nearly five years of hospitalization, she wrote a novel about race relations in the South, ''Caleb, My Son,'' which was on the New York Times best-seller list after it was published in Daniels went from being a mental patient to making a celebrity appearance on the ''Today'' program.

    Five years later she wrote a second novel, ''High on a Hill,'' based on her experience in the institution. She married twice, had four children and is now divorced. But a crippling case of writer's block kept her from writing for 40 years.

    With a Woman's Voice: A Writer's Struggle for Emotional Freedom (Signed)

    During her first divorce, in the mid's, Ms. Daniels turned to psychoanalysis. She credits her more than 20 years in treatment both with saving her life and ultimately dissolving her writer's block. She also earned a Ph. Baucom explained. But we don't make the assumption that if people progress in therapy that it necessarily means they are going to be more productive or creative. A successful outcome of treatment might be a healthy resolution not to write.

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    Baucom said a distinctive aspect of the program was that transcripts of the therapy sessions are being used to create a computerized database that tracks each patient's progress in terms of defenses, symptomology and the relationship to the analyst. A digital coding system assigns numerical values to, say, such indicators as the number of times a patient uses a defense like projection when the patient attributes his or her feelings, like anger, to others.

    In addition, the analysts document every session in an extensive questionnaire rating the patients' responses as well as their own.


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    But the writers are far from unusually articulate guinea pigs.