Politics In Therapy

Our society is highly polarized by disagreements about political and cultural issues. Understandably, someone undergoing therapy might have concerns about what positions are held by their therapist or what response they will get if they chose to discuss their views. How a therapist handles political discussion can be useful or not for the therapy process, and may also affect a client’s sense of safety or their trust in their therapist’s judgement or character. I’d like to share how I approach this in my practice.

When a client brings up political issues, I generally avoid sharing my own opinions, except when doing so serves a therapeutic purpose. I don’t use my role to promote a political perspective.

I am open to my clients’ ideas, even if I disagree with them. I recognize that everyone’s views make sense based upon their life experience, knowledge, and individual psychological dynamics, and I accept that my own are not always correct. I want to understand my clients’ perspectives and their meaning, not impose my own.

I see my role as being to help my clients explore the personal issues and feelings underlying their positions. Instead of using therapy to have the usual political discussions, I invite them to be 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 views may be, people tend to feel strongly about their positions because of deeper emotional issues related to their personal history, which may not be within their conscious awareness. For example, righteous political  outrage often contains anger that is left over from a personal experience, or represents an attempt to address more vulnerable hidden feelings. And societal conflicts tend to unconsciously remind people of dynamics within their family of origin. Good therapy helps to uncover and clarify these things, rather than simply shoring up existing positions or engaging in political debate.

I believe that therapists need to try to recognize their own blind spots when it comes to the ways in which their internal psychological dynamics influence their perspectives about the world. Therapists have a responsibility to inquire into the personal meaning of their own political views, especially when they feel a strong emotional charge about them.

The more self-awareness therapists develop, the less emotionally reactive they will be when their clients’ opinions conflict with their own beliefs and political identity. In addition, it is helpful for therapists 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 understand those who think differently.

This short article provides a sense of how I work with people’s political beliefs in therapy, and the self-aware, non-judgmental approach that I think it is helpful for therapists to take. 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.