In the counseling field, conversations about social justice or anti-oppression in the therapeutic relationship generally focus on education about systems of oppression and self-reflection. Those are necessary starting points, but there’s more to be said about how to integrate this stance as a therapist. Here are some of the ways I do it.
I devote time and energy to educating myself about racism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, classism, colonialism and imperialism, and other forms of marginalization and oppression operating both historically and currently. I learn how those forces play out interpersonally, economically, and socially to move closer to understanding the effects those systems have you, knowing that I will never fully understand experiences outside my own.
I explore my own experiences of privilege and marginalization to learn how they show up in my interactions with you and how I can work against dynamics of power in these relationships. Without this reflection, I risk reproducing a power-over dynamic, minimizing your experiences, and introducing microaggressions. Even with it, I know I will make mistakes, and I invite you to challenge me when I do.
When you share an experience of erasure, oppression, or any form of prejudiced violence with me, my first response is not “how did that feel?” It is to validate that the behavior was wrong and that your emotional response makes sense, whatever it is. A neutral stance is not apolitical; it (often inadvertently) signals to you that the status quo—the systems that are causing harm—is fine.
I reject the idea of cultural competence and embrace the idea of cultural humility. I can never be competent in someone else’s culture. What I can do is learn about it through listening, educating myself, and engaging respectfully with others from that culture. There will always be layers I do not understand. (More about a cultural humility stance.)
I don’t subscribe to cognitive-behavioral models of therapy. I believe that simply imposing thought changes from above does little to honor the very real fear, paranoia, anger, and isolation you might be experiencing as a result of marginalization or systemic violence. Further, I believe that thoughts and actions stem from emotions and core needs, and a focus on the latter will gradually lead to changes in the former if such changes are part of your goals.
I will never claim to know better than you what you need to heal. I trust you to have inherent wisdom about yourself, and I believe our brains innately know how to heal. I do not position myself as an expert on you. I may make suggestions based on observation and hypotheses, but I support your right to reject those suggestions and challenge my input.
Increasing your sense of agency is integral to existential therapy, and that starts in session. I will ask you what you want to do during our sessions and use that information to guide my engagement. I may also challenge you to explore possible answers to questions you bring to me.
I seek to understand your feelings, thoughts, and actions through the context of your own life experience as informed by gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, body size, relational style, and neurodiversity. The field of psychology is founded mostly on the ideas of cis, white, heterosexual men and its history is full of misdiagnosis based on cultural difference read as pathology. I practice in an alternative way that does not pathologize your feelings, thoughts, and actions, but rather sees them as inevitable outcomes of trauma, developmental and attachment wounds, and the struggles of existing in a world that does not support your ability to thrive.