Posted by: Ronnie Ali
When I’ve asked clients what brings them to therapy, they often tell me they want to “feel better.” Upon clarification, they say that they don’t want to have unpleasant feelings anymore, or that they’d like to be more in control of them.
These unpleasant feelings are associated with anger, sadness, guilt, blame, shame, envy, disgust, jealously, fear, and so on. Unpleasant feelings deserve genuine empathy and compassion. When this happens, we can listen to the message that these unpleasant feelings have for us, and integrate the experience into our lives. However, when people are closed oﬀ from empathy and compassion in their important relationships, they may experience their unpleasant feelings as horribly inconvenient, confusing, messy, socially unacceptable, and a sign of weakness or childishness.
The therapist’s eﬀort to provide clients with a genuine, compassionate, and empathic experience is critical to the integrity of the therapeutic relationship. Genuineness implies balance between what we think, feel, say and do. By being genuine in their empathy and feedback, your therapist ought to help you to be with these unpleasant feelings just long enough so that you can decode its messages and then integrate the meaning of these experiences into your life. Over time, you may learn to embrace all of your feelings, even unpleasant ones, because it adds richness and fullness to your experience of life. Through this repetitive process of a genuine relationship, therapy supports your long-term journey of change and transformation.
The Illusion Of Neutrality In Therapy
Although therapists take collective eﬀorts to develop the skill of genuineness in empathy and compassion, it does not mean that they are immune from unconsciously harbouring socially-prescribed and culturally-justified biases and prejudices. In general, therapists are not objective, neutral, or apolitical, although the discipline positions therapists as such. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of Western psychology was developed, written, and popularized by white, cisgender, heterosexual, able- bodied men with access to colonial and generational wealth. Furthermore, only 40 countries in the world have contributed to research in psychology, and 60 percent of that research is from Canada, USA and the UK. It’s no surprise that systemic bias is built into the very fabric of psychological science. In the absence of widely accepted approaches and strategies for genuinely responding to the unpleasant feelings associated with systemic oppression in therapy, most marginalized clients tend to be instructed to “take care of yourself.”
“Take Care Of Yourself.”
The concept of “self-care” has created a multi-billion dollar industry, including self-help books, apps, and personal development programs. Ironically, the self-care industry dictates that we’re only able to do so with the help of experts in psychology.
Instructions for self-care and self-help are built on the the idea that problems live inside individuals rather than between individuals, in relationships, in social contexts, or the in structures that govern our lives.
Self-care has become an individual solution to a systemic problem; self-care is the “silencer” on the weapons of oppression. Peddling self-care to marginalized communities is a questionable practice, and seems bereft of sound clinical judgement. People who are healthy, connected, and regarded positively by others naturally take care of themselves. People who have access to spaciousness in their minds, relationships, and the world naturally practice mindfulness. These skills do not necessarily need to be taught by a therapist. For marginalized communities, self-care and self-help is the problem, not the answer.
What needs to happen instead?
Systemic oppression, politically-charged science, a fragmented health-care system, and the self-care industry have created synergistic failures when it comes to providing mental health services to marginalized communities.
These realities need to be addressed by practitioners in the field. In order to genuinely respond to the unpleasant feelings of marginalization that we carry, your therapist needs to be able to confront psychology’s unethical history, namely its entanglement with colonization, and the impact of this history on modern-day psychology, their professional practice, and their personal lives. Your therapist ought to work with you toward co-developing a mutual understanding of what it’s like to be you in this world, and then clearly explain how the therapeutic relationship can help you. You can tell if your therapist has an active practice of confronting the truth of oppression beyond the words they say: you should be able to feel their genuineness in your intuitions. When things do not go as planned, your therapist ought to practice radical honesty and wholehearted humility, and ultimately take responsibility for their role in contributing to your discomfort or pain.
Therapists may proceed to use interventions that they learned from their education and training in psychotherapy to help alleviate “symptoms,” but without this critical shared perspective, you may be left short-handed and positioned to re-enter negative spirals of oppression and invalidation without the relational care you deserve simply by virtue of being human.
About the Author
Ronnie Ali (they/them/their) is a Registered Psychotherapist, consultant, coach, and founder of Leaves on a Stream, a consulting practice that centers mindfulness, ethics and relational integrity in supporting social systems such as workplaces and community initiatives. They’re a non-binary, trans, queer, able-bodied, immigrant-settler, person of colour. They live and work in the place called “Toronto,” T’karonto, where the trees meet the water, the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, Seneca, Petun, Chippewa, Anishnawbe, Haudenosaunee, and Mississaugas of the Credit. To learn more about their work, visit http://www.leavesonastream.ca/