- Politics and therapy represent opposite poles of the human condition: advancement in the world's eyes vs. inward reflection and authenticity.
- The incongruity between therapy and politics exists not only on the personal level but also on the national and international levels.
- As we seek a healthy balance of these opposites, we benefit from recognizing the conflict they represent.
One lesson I have learned from experience is that therapy and politics are contrary skills. Not only that, but they are often fundamentally incompatible with each other. I find this to be true from the smallest of personal settings, such as the mundane dynamics of the workplace, to the far-reaching impact of governmental authority.
As a therapist, I’ve had to be clear with my clients that politics and therapy represent opposite poles of the human condition: advancement in the eyes of the world versus inward reflection and authenticity. For example, let’s say a client is experiencing significant levels of depression and is considering asking for accommodations, or even a medical leave of absence from work. They may ask me, “Should I tell my bosses what I’m going through? Will they be helpful or would this put an invisible stain on my prospects for advancement at my company?”
While a company may not legally retaliate against an employee for their health care conditions, therapists know that the world can be unjust. Sadly, it is sometimes the case that employees are discriminated against, and it can be difficult or impossible to prove. It’s not a therapist’s job to encourage the client to live their life as if life were fair, but to help them navigate the fact that it isn’t.
So the answer to the client’s question about whether they should tell their boss is a relatively simple one: I have no idea. Some managers would be supportive. Some wouldn’t. In some workplaces, an employee may be praised for their bravery in coming forward; in others, they would be stigmatized. Many organizations would pay lip service to the employee’s rights while tacitly blacklisting them from future promotions. I don’t know which type of workplace my client is subject to, nor the inner motives of their supervisors.
One support I can provide is to ask the client questions to help them explore their own appraisal of the situation and their tolerance for risk, basically guiding them in their own cost–benefit analysis. However, if the client lacks sufficient career experience, or their thought process is impacted by their mental health symptoms, they may be guessing blindly as to the likelihood of different scenarios. In this case, neither I nor the client can provide any real insight into the implications of such a decision.
In a case like this, I recommend that my clients seek the input of a mentor figure, a career advisor, or someone else who has the practical savvy to maneuver through the metaphorical game of chess. The wisdom of a guide can be beneficial for our clients in other ways in which we lack skill or life experience. For example, I am thankful to a number of amazing Black and Latinx professional colleagues who have been open to contact from my clients seeking workplace advice.
National and International Levels
The incongruity between therapy and politics exists not only on the personal level but on the national and international levels as well. I don’t think any reasonably informed person would argue that national politics is a bastion of integrity and fairness. Subterfuge, deception, misdirection, and many other nefarious tactics have been a fundamental component of the internal and external functions of every government since the dawn of civilization. While "Game of Thrones" is fictional, it brilliantly captures the inherent treachery of statecraft.
Of course, this does not imply that every system of government is morally equivalent. Nor does it mean that a therapist or client is prohibited from being politically engaged. Fighting for a just cause, such as to protect the vulnerable or to relieve suffering, for example, can and should fall very much within the purview of therapists and clients alike. But, to try to distill a complex distinction down to a few words, I would say that these ethical causes usually fall under the umbrella of “power to” another person rather than “power over” them.
As I stated at the start of this piece, politics is the exercise of power over others while therapy is the exercise of power over oneself. Therapy is about the authentic, while politics is about the artificial. They are both necessary skills, and they are both tools that are inherently neither good nor evil. But they are the antithesis of each other. As we seek a healthy balance of these opposites, we benefit from recognizing the conflict they represent.