Therapists as Allies: Helping Clients Navigate Political Stress

Person with long hair looks into window box and works with plantsAre you struggling with the uncertainty and unpredictability of our current political climate? Are you concerned about how to help your clients weather the impact of the rapid changes taking place? You are not alone. It has been over a year and a half since the transition in the American government, but the impact continues.

Many of us are feeling the pressure of political stress—and so are our clients. According to the American Psychological Association, a poll taken in 2017 showed that 63% of Americans are stressed about the future of the United States. Further, 59 percent believe this to be “the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember.”

Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, collective uncertainty and social discord is challenging, in and out of the office. Transition of power is especially difficult when the speed of change accelerates more quickly than expected. If you are among the marginalized and oppressed, it is likely that the change in power and ensuing polarization is causing enough stress to trigger adaptive coping strategies, both functional and dysfunctional.

This means that those who have been dealing with discrimination and oppression all their lives may now, due to the divisive social and political landscape, be navigating even more stress, worry, anxiety, and depression. For mental health professionals, this means the people seeking help from us may be initiating more conversations about discrimination and oppression than in the past.

As we navigate a more stressful collective experience, there are two main considerations that may be helpful in maximizing the quality of our support:

  1. Consider using the therapeutic relationship as a vehicle for empowerment and liberation from oppression and internalized oppression. Doing so can be invaluable to the mental and emotional health of our clients.
  2. When people seeking help bring in painful issues that trigger distress, consider taking special care to do the inner work necessary to prevent overwhelm and heal your own internalized oppression to provide the best support possible.

As mental health professionals, we have an opportunity to create a safe space to process heartbreak and foster resilience around stressful collective experiences. Therapy can help with family of origin issues, insecure attachment, cognitive behavioral patterns, emotional imbalances, and addiction.

But therapists can also play a role in helping people in therapy navigate the discrimination and marginalization that impacts their well-being. When we hold the individual and collective impact of polarization, oppression, and internalized oppression with as much importance as we do other factors, we are more able to attune, empower, and collaborate with clients in the most difficult times.

Therapist as Ally

We see oppression operating when one group has more access to power and privilege than another group, and when that power and privilege is used to maintain the status quo. But internalized oppression can be more difficult to detect.

The intersection of oppression and internalized oppression is where therapists and counselors have the greatest opportunity to help empower clients by becoming an ally. Allies choose to commit themselves to actively supporting others. They use their privilege to help reduce the impact of discrimination and suffering.

Internalized oppression perpetuates and amplifies the maintenance of the status quo by constructing subservience in the minds of oppressed groups. Taking on the prejudice of the oppressor, it may appear in therapy as any of the following:

  • Self-hatred
  • Self-doubt
  • Self-concealment
  • Fear of violence
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Isolation
  • Rage
  • Powerlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Gratefulness for being allowed to survive or have access to resources.

The intersection of oppression and internalized oppression is where therapists and counselors have the greatest opportunity to help empower clients by becoming an ally. Allies choose to commit themselves to actively supporting others. They use their privilege to help reduce the impact of discrimination and suffering.

In our role as therapist, this may include, but is not limited to:

  • Helping clients learn to regulate their nervous system during political actions
  • Employing positive adaptive strategies in the face of discrimination and violence
  • Attending to the conflict between activated parts when feeling unsafe
  • Navigating symptoms exacerbated by increased stress
  • Connecting people in therapy with additional resources.

Regardless of the theoretical framework, we can help people make a radical shift in their relationship to the difficult thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that compromise mental and emotional health.

Inner Work

As we know, we are of greatest service to our clients when we do our own inner work. When we prioritize addressing how the intensity of the political landscape is affecting our own mental health and attitudes, we are more able to hold space for the range of experiences our clients are going through.

The active professional psychology community is 84% white, 16% people of color. Whether you are among the former or the latter, uncovering and transforming your own social conditioning can help you become more fully and compassionately present to yourself and the people you work with. Even those who are oppressed can inflict pain within their own group or unconsciously perpetuate discrimination against people from another oppressed group. Thus, it is especially important to consider ways we can unravel internalized oppression to encourage conscious connection and collaboration.

As we sit with people in session, we have the opportunity to mindfully notice our internal process and prevent unintentional enactments of the same divisions experienced within society. We are human. We will make mistakes. But by doing our inner work, we lay the foundation for the possibility of deeply supporting our clients in a larger system that may or may not be as sensitive to their needs.

The Power of Mindfulness

One of the most challenging aspects of the current political climate is that so many people are in harm’s way or have the potential to suffer injustice. Just as difficult is the thought that the earth is suffering destruction influenced by the perception that she is only valued as a disposable resource for capitalistic endeavors. These divisive experiences have grave mental health consequences, which are but a fraction of the overall negative impact on our collective well-being—for the current population as well as for those in future generations.

In an environment that encourages hostility between those who have different political opinions or backgrounds (i.e. sexual orientation, gender expression, class, race, culture, religion, or ability, among others) mindfulness can help us deal with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise in our daily experience. When we intentionally pay attention to what is happening, as it is happening, without judgment, we can cultivate an internal spaciousness that gives us the opportunity to observe and respond, rather than react. As we tend to the moment, we more effectively notice an ability to pause before a trigger manifests into a reaction. This gives us a choice to consider our next course of action.

Another benefit of mindfulness is that it promotes self-compassion. Mindfulness has two wings. First, it helps us see what is true. Second, it helps us hold with love what is seen. Whatever arises in the midst of our country’s changes, we have the choice to hold with love whatever is perceived within, whether it is anger, fear, shame, helplessness, or the internalized prejudices against ourselves that occur as a result of oppression. We then can become aware of our capacity to hold intense experiences with care. This allows us to expand our window of tolerance during politically stressful times and empower ourselves to transform suffering into a more balanced, flexible, and generative expression that can benefit all.

In terms of extending mindfulness to therapy, spaciousness and compassion increase our ability to be present enough to deeply listen to a person’s struggles. When we bring our full presence to the clinical setting, we increase our ability to track and attune to a client’s internal experiences as we navigate our own. Being mindful helps us become acutely aware of what is happening in the moment, while holding in mind the relational dynamic. Remaining mindful of the therapeutic relationship helps us consider the interpersonal and intrapsychic experience the person in therapy is having.

While we can’t change the current social environment, we can be sensitive to the power dynamics in the relationship so we can work to create a therapeutic environment that supports and empowers. Political stress is challenging. But when we do our inner work and use mindful awareness in the midst of rapid social change, we can serve as a supportive ally—to ourselves and our clients.

References:

  1. 2005-13: Demographics of the U.S. psychology workforce. (2015). APA Center for Workforce Studies. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/workforce/publications/13-demographics/index.aspx
  2. APA Stress in America survey: US at ‘lowest point we can remember;’ future of nation most commonly reported source of stress. (2017, November 1). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/11/lowest-point.aspx.
  3. Brach, T. (2016). Radical acceptance: A Buddhist guide to freeing yourself from shame. Audio Training. Boulder: Sounds True.
  4. David, E. J. R., & Derthick, A. O. (2018). The psychology of oppression. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
  5. Pheterson, G. (1986). Alliances between women: Overcoming internalized oppression and internalized domination. Signs, 12(1). pp. 146-160.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tamara Thebert, MFT | Berkeley Women's Psychotherapy, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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