Recently I was sitting across from a client in the process of enduring and assimilating a devastating, irreplaceable loss. In the midst of her profound grief and flowing tears, she spoke of an impulse to destroy herself, and a heartfelt realization came to me:

For the last twenty years, I’ve been trying to keep women from hurting themselves.

The feeling my client was articulating isn’t personal to her. I say this with complete confidence, having witnessed hundreds of women wrestle with (and sometimes succumb to) urges to hurt, blame, judge, starve, punish, silence, and deplete themselves. When a woman experiences a loss to which there is no foreseeable remedy, this is one of the first places she tends to go inside.

I believe this urge to inflict pain on herself stems from an extremely long history of female oppression, abuse, and silencing. I think it stems from lifetimes of females experiencing loss without repair. Generations of women losing their sovereignty, their dignity, their children, their parters, their freedom, their creative expression, their sisters, their safety—the things that make life livable, and worth living. Women have lost it all, at some point or another.

And this is still happening. In some parts of the world, the ongoing destruction of women and girl’s basic health and safety, let alone their lack of access to education and other basic rights, is terrifying. Today, even in the most protected, privileged, and insulated places, women are still at risk of getting lost in the modern (and self inflicted) version of destruction: overworking, overextending, punishing the body through starving and extreme exercising, depleting oneself through catering to other’s needs at one’s own expense.  Or maybe she simply disconnects, and loses access to her rich inner life–home to her deep feelings, perceptions, intuitive understandings, and knowledge.

As women, it helps if we understand the burden we carry around inside emotionally, energetically, and mentally.  We need to know what we are at risk of doing to ourselves, and why. If you don’t think you do some form of self destruction, look again. I don’t think we can extricate this urge from our psyche anytime soon, but we can recognize it’s existence, and make a different choice.

While all these years I have been holding (often literally) the hands of your sisters, daughters, girl friends, mothers, and wives, now I am a wife and mother myself to a daughter (and a son, who is also impacted by all of this confusion) while doing this work.  And that changes things for me.

Something new is emerging in my approach.

It has to do with the healing and empowerment possible in our intimate relationships.  This understanding, along with my own experience, has led me to study couple therapy intensively for the last 3 years. My own marriage has been so transformative that I wanted to learn how to facilitate others here, too.  Because having a good therapist isn’t enough.  We have to create loving relationships in our lives, alongside a more integrated self, that can be a refuge and place to regenerate in this rather unforgiving world.

We learn to love, grow, care for ourselves, and develop within relationships–not outside of them. This is why therapy is good for us when it comes to facilitating growth and healing. But better than a therapist is a loving, thriving marriage or partnership, family system, community, and beyond.

Thriving relationships can change this world, and women’s experience in it.

I can get overwhelmed when I think of how the entire structure of our world needs to change for all life to have a chance. And yet, I believe that if we start with ourselves, and gradually extend out to our partners, children, friends, family, colleagues, clients, communities, whatever your concentric circles are, we can do this.

As mothers, it is important we embrace the responsibility we’ve been given, and not shrug it off when things at home are hard.  We have a deep power and influence, just not in the way society recognizes.  We often feel blamed for our family’s problems, or invisible and devalued, rather than empowered.  But we know, and must remember, how integral our nurturing, presence, and guidance is to this world.

As a wakeful, intentional young woman, my client knows that being female in this world requires tremendous awareness, reflection, and regular pausing.  It takes work not to get caught up in the raging river of “shoulds” and other assaults that limit, polarize, and crush a woman’s innate beauty, intelligence, and wisdom. This client relates wholeheartedly to her loss, and she is receptive to the possibility that she doesn’t have to destroy herself to make things better.

So remember: depleting, judging, minimizing yourself, or whatever your go to self destruction pattern is, its not helping you or anyone.  What we can cultivate instead is a broader perspective and deeper experience of our struggles and suffering.  When we see the whole landscape, including our own history and the women before us, as well as our children’s lives unfolding beyond us, it will change things.  Then, with an eagle’s view, we are capable of seeing the place where our energy would be most useful.

I’ll be curious to hear what you find out.