Political Discussion In Therapy

Our society is highly polarized by disagreements about political and cultural issues, and perhaps even basic values. Because many people have strong opinions about these matters, they may want to discuss them in therapy, and they may also feel concerned about how a therapist will respond to their views. I’d like to explain how I engage with clients when they discuss their political views with me, which will hopefully be informative for someone who is considering working with me.

My basic approach is to treat people’s beliefs non-judgmentally, with curiosity and empathy. All feelings and opinions are welcome to be explored, even if I disagree with them. I generally avoid sharing my political opinions, except on the rare occasion when doing so serves a therapeutic purpose.

Instead of engaging in a political discussion, I’m more interested in exploring the personal issues and feelings underneath my clients’ positions. I feel curious about the meaning of their views – how these views relate to their individual experience and deeper feelings. For those who are ready, therapy can be an opportunity to look inwards and understand where one’s attitudes and opinions are coming from.

No matter how valid one’s perspective may be, political themes and issues tend to emotionally resonate with us because they tap into our personal history in ways that aren’t obvious to us. Political conflicts often unconsciously remind us of interpersonal dynamics from our formative years. For example, our righteous outrage about socio-political issues may contain old anger from childhood, perhaps related to how we were treated by family members or peers. And we may use our political identity to avoid difficult personal feelings such as powerlessness or insignificance. Good therapy helps to clarify these issues, rather than simply shoring up existing positions or engaging in the usual political discussions.

Therapists likely have their own blind spots when it comes to how their psychological dynamics influence their perspectives about the world. Therefore I believe that therapists have a responsibility to inquire into the meaning of their own political views, especially when they feel a strong emotional charge about them. Developing that self-awareness allows therapists to be compassionate rather than emotionally reactive when their clients’ views conflict with their own beliefs and political identity.

In addition, it is helpful for therapists to recognize that socio-political issues are often complex and many-sided, and their own beliefs may not necessarily be correct or highly informed. Therapists should try to avoid limiting themselves to an “information bubble,” in which they are only exposed to people and news sources which reinforce their existing positions, making it harder for them to accept those who think differently.

This short article provides a sense of how I approach people’s political beliefs in therapy, and the self-reflective, non-judgmental attitude that I think it is helpful for therapists to have. My clients can be assured that I will be respectful of their views, while also being curious about their deeper personal meaning, if they chose to discuss them.