Today I’m speaking directly to women, about the pervasive and chronic stress they experience as a result of living in a patriarchy. (Although if you’re of the male or non-binary persuasion I hope that you’ll keep listening, because being curious about others’ experiences and empathy are both important parts of being a better person.) When I first encountered this idea, I definitely looked like a meme of a person whose mind has just been blown. It’s the idea that in general, women are vulnerable to thinking less of themselves, chronic stress, and warped perceptions of their own worth because we live in a patriarchal society.
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Fight Like A Girl: Overcoming Patriarchy Stress Disorder
I learned about this perspective from my guest today. Dr. Valerie Rein is a psychologist and author of the book Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Inner Barrier to Women’s Happiness and Fulfillment. In her work, Dr. Valerie helps women acknowledge and heal from the traumas they’ve experienced–the ones they realize they’ve lived through, even if it was ‘not that big a deal’ and ‘so long ago’ as well as the one they may not recognize because it’s been hiding in plain sight, and that is that society sees us as second class citizens.
It’s tough to love yourself as a woman in a man’s world. Let’s talk with Dr. Valerie to dig into this a little deeper.
1) You identified and coined the term Patriarchy Stress Disorder. What is it? How can we tell if it’s something we’re reckoning with?
PSD is intergenerational collective trauma of oppression that lives in our DNA. It lives in our nervous system. It lives in our subconscious. And by definition, this being the patriarchy for about 10,000 years, we all have it. It expresses differently. We experience it differently. We cope with it differently and yes, we all have it. And how we can tell most things that we have been wrestling with our entire lives, thinking what’s wrong with me? It’s not us. It is PSD chances are. Most issues that I have heard women struggle with can be traced to one type of trauma or another. And this, this trauma of oppression through patriarchy is one common denominator, one thread that runs through it all. It is one kind of trauma that we all share.
2) Wow. And so maybe we know it by other names? Or we, become familiar with it through other names?
Yeah. Names such as, the upper limit problem that may be familiar. Especially to those who are entrepreneurs. Self sabotage, holding ourselves back, getting in our own way, fatigue, mental fog, trembles, sleeping, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune conditions. So many expressions through both health and thoughts and how we relate to ourselves and others. And even anxiety and depression. They start out as normal reactions to an unsafe experience. The system going into either fight flight or freeze, fight flight as in anxiety, freeze as in depression.
And if that trauma remains in the system over time, those things can become chronic. And that goes for all these things. So many of them, we have come to accept as this is just who I am. I am just this way. I’m a shy person, or I’m not good with money or I’m unlucky in love. Or I’m not just not social, et cetera, et cetera. The truth of the matter is that all of those situations may have trauma wrapped around them, making them feel unsafe to the nervous system. And then the nervous system goes into a fight, flight, freeze response all the time, and whatever we repeat over time becomes a part of who we are. So we might have mistaken PSD for our character. And that ain’t necessarily so.
3) I’m so curious to know, how did you come to have this insight?Like, this is something that I think of as hiding in plain sight. Right? So how did you see it?
Oh my goodness. I have been trying to see it without realizing it ever since I was a little girl. And my whole life was defined by this question, what’s wrong with me? I kept getting these messages. Don’t laugh so hard. People don’t be like that. Don’t be so smart. No one would want to marry you, et cetera, et cetera.
And of course I grew up to study psychology. What else would I study to figure out what’s wrong with me? And then two graduate degrees later, I was having it all, I was running a private practice in New York. I loved my work, I loved my family. And I loved my home in the suburbs. And one day I was on the phone with a client and I noticed that I was smiling only with the right side of my face. The left side of my face just hung in there as did my left arm. I ended up in the emergency room with symptoms of a stroke. That day, after a lot of testing, I was assigned the official diagnosis of quote unquote, just stress.
And that was a huge relief. But that was puzzling for me because I actually did not feel stressed at all. And if you would have asked me, Valerie, are you happy? Are you fulfilled? I would have said, of course I am. Because look at my life. I have everything I’ve ever wanted. And the most painful realization of that day was that the security blanket of stress started slipping. Underneath it, that question of what’s wrong with me was alive and well. I wasn’t as happy and fulfilled as I looked on paper. And that was the question that propelled me to that next level of inquiry.
And the inquiry was how come my clients were making these breakthroughs? They were shifting out of that numbness and disconnection and into the fullness of their lives. What was I doing for them that I wasn’t doing for me? And the answer was with all of my clients, I was using mind-body trauma-healing tools. And so I wasn’t using them for myself because the irony is, I didn’t think I had trauma until literally half of my body went offline to make a point that, well, perhaps you do.
The question became what kind of trauma could we all carry without realizing it? And that’s when the research in epigenetics started jumping into my awareness. Showing that traumatic experiences are genetically transmitted. And that was the light bulb moment that connected the dots. Women have been oppressed for thousands of years, not having ownership of our bodies, not having access to resources for survival, outside of being attached to a man. We couldn’t marry for love. We couldn’t express our gifts in the world in any way. And that is traumatic, and trauma is genetically transmitted. So that is how that discovery of patriarchy stress disorder or PSD came through. And that’s what changed everything.
4) Wow, I’ve heard the phrase, your mess is your message. So your story is such a classic example of that. All this week on the podcast, I’m talking about ways to love yourself. So, what unique challenges do women have when it comes to loving themselves?
I’m so glad you asked Kate. Again, back to that statement that there is nothing wrong with us. It is not our fault that we may struggle with self love or self care or authentic self-expression. We live in a society that has been oppressing and denigrating women. Considering women for all intents and purposes, less than men. I call it the wound of worthlessness in my work. And we have been getting this message since before we were born, consistently and unequivocally that our bodies, our minds, our lives, our desires are worth less than men’s.
And so then we get put on this hamster wheel of trying to earn our keep. To achieve, to give, to over-give. And nowhere in that scenario is self love a factor. How do we love ourselves in a society that hates women? That exploits women? That wages a war against women and that war gets internalized, right? A simple example, look in the mirror. What is your emotional reaction? What are your thoughts? How typically that’s the, inner critic that chimes and says I don’t, I don’t like this. Look at, look at those ankles. Look at my body. I gained weight and nothing looks good.
And these thoughts, these two are symptoms of PSD. These are not your authentic thoughts because your beauty is unconditional. Your worth is unconditional. Your power is unconditional. But that’s not what we learned through that traumatic conditioning of PSD. And the key to uncovering the possibilities of deepest self love, lies in uncovering and healing the invisible traumas.
Man. Yeah. When you said, look in the mirror, I just thought to myself, Oh, I don’t want to do that.
That’s it. That’s an honest answer. Right? I think of my mother and how she looks at herself in the mirror and how I grew up experiencing her, like ever since I was tiny. She was in her twenties when she had me. Right. So she was young. I was tiny. And I have never, ever seen my mom look in the mirror and be pleased with what she saw, ever.
5) I get it. Oh man. I could go down a conversation about just looking in the mirror of that is such an interesting topic. Thank you for even bringing that up. But so I’m curious. So that’s actually a very practical exercise that women can do to kind of maybe come face to face, no pun intended with some of these thoughts. But I’m curious, do you have another practical takeaway for us? Something that women who are listening can go and do in the next 24 hours to give themselves a different experience?
Oh, absolutely. Thank you for asking. So if this topic is resonating, if you’re feeling, Oh, perhaps it’s not me, it’s PSD, which is one of my mantras. On my website, you can download the first chapter of my book and read my story and see if that resonates with you and unpack that further. That’s dr.valerie.com/book. And on that same page, I have book resources, supplemental resources available for download as well. And among them are the tools that you can start using right away.
I like to start with a couple of tools that are very practical and revealing. One is called the repower tool. And this one is to help us get into the body. It’s revealing in the sense that you notice how you feel before and after. You will notice the change. And it’s diagnostic in a sense of how little time we spent hanging out inside our bodies. We’re mostly hanging out on the head because the head feels like the only safe place to be. The body carries so much trauma and the repower tool helps us step into our power of the immediate embodied experience. And it’s healing.
The more you practice it, the more shifts you will see in your relaxation and focus and concentration and creativity and connection, all the good things. And another tool is a meditation on connecting with your deep desire. That is very diagnostic too, because you may discover that it’s not that easy to connect with that deep, authentic desire. And that is all also because there are all these traumas that women have received from patriarchy around their desires.
A woman was never entitled to have what she authentically desires. In fact, a women’s desires have been a punishable offense, and there is nothing more dangerous to the patriarchy than a woman who is in touch with her desire. So I encourage you to play with this practice as an exploration and just see, see where it takes you. It will start revealing some breadcrumbs and see if you want to follow that deeper.
Awesome. That sounds so good. I’m excited to go download those chapters. Tell us again where we can find them.
Daily Tiny Assignment
So I know when Dr. Valerie was talking about looking at yourself in the mirror and telling yourself that you love yourself. I have this reaction that I shared with her, where I was like, Oh God, I don’t want to do that. Well, listen, I’m sorry, but that’s your tiny assignment for today. It’s mine too. I mean, if we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror and at least feel loving toward ourselves, if not outright say the words I love you, it’s game over.
Right. So let’s do it. Just do it. I know you’re going to go to the bathroom today when you’re in there, stop yourself. Look in the mirror, gaze lovingly at yourself and say, I love you. Okay, I’m going to do it too.