How therapy colludes in oppression
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In a recent therapy advice column, the writer requested some perspective on her relationship with her fiancé, explaining her frustrations as ‘I want a partnership, not someone to delegate to’. She had found herself coordinating their lives, with the familiar request from the partner: ‘just tell me what you need help with’. The advice that followed from the therapist was – somewhat surprisingly – disappointing, advising the writer to change her views of the relationship rather than have expectations of her partner.
Now that terms such as ‘emotional labour’ or ‘mental load’ are named in our collective discourse and recognised as symptoms of long-standing systemic disadvantages borne by women it is disappointing that this old story survives. The story says that it is the writer who is unreasonable, she who needs to change, and not her male partner. More than a reflection of patriarchal norms that benefit the status quo by silencing women and delegitimising their experience, it is also a clear example of why the profession of psychology and counselling is, for the most part, out of touch with people it is meant to serve and empower – doing quite the opposite – and misguided about its responsibilities in contributing to a safe and just society.
Therapy is meant to create change, to liberate us from our psychic suffering and emotional pain. Yet much of therapy – psychology in particular, with its individual diagnostics framework – ignores the relational aspects of our human existence and makes it about individual problems. In this way, psychology and much of counselling ally themselves with societal norms that harm and discredit oppressive practices, power abuses, and unjust hierarchies. Our profession, by discounting the political and moral dimension of the work, becomes another contributor to people’s ongoing suffering.
You’re addicted? It’s because of your genes and ‘addictive personality’. You’re depressed? It’s because of the ‘chemical imbalance’ in your brain. You are worried and anxious? Have you tried some deep breathing, and recognising that your thoughts are irrational? You keep relapsing? You keep making the wrong choice. You’re anxious at work and feel sick at the thought of going in each day? We will ignore the psychological violence of the workplace and the bullying by your boss. Let’s try some breathing techniques or practice counting to 10 before you respond. You’re angry and frustrated with systemic injustice in the world? Try some more self-care strategies; you don’t want to burn out.
These very common responses to clients (and ourselves) struggling in their (our) social, political, and cultural context are all ways of pathologising an authentic and valid human experience that is always constructed in relationships with others and within systems: family, school, relationships, work, society. Keeping the focus on individual ‘failings’ lets the system off the hook completely. It means that no demand is placed on systems or practices benefiting from oppression, power abuses, or structural inequality, while it tells the individual that if they don’t want to suffer, they are the one who needs to work to adjust to how things are.
Psychology and counselling offer many examples of this failure to take a stand against that which locates ‘the problem’ within the individual and ignores any contextual factors (beyond using them to strengthen the validity of the diagnosis or explanation of individual’s pathology). Our reliance on diagnoses is an example. Our passionate retelling of neuroscience research (simplified to the extreme for newspaper headlines) aiming to isolate parts of our behaviour and give explanations based on the workings of the brain, is another example. Our search for things like ‘the alcohol’ gene or ‘the addict’ gene, is another example.
The treatments that psychology and some counselling practices offer continue to cling to this knowledge as a primary source of wisdom about what makes someone human and how that human functions. As a result, the profession will remain limited in what it can offer our society and it will continue to misdirect clients away from authentic healing and wisdom while simultaneously propping up systems that benefit from a population that is feeling lost, disempowered, afraid, and, most crucially, responsible for those feelings. That is how disempowerment is maintained, how psychological violence continues to be perpetrated by our profession, and how its practices delegitimise and silence any challenges to the status quo: by helping individuals 'adjust' to it.
As the Radical Therapist famously stated: therapy means change, not adjustment.