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When Politics Enters the Therapy Room

Research explores how therapists manage politics with clients.

How do therapists understand and experience politics in their work with clients?

This was the central question of a study by psychologist Laura Anne Winter of the University of Manchester in the UK. Remarkably, despite the impact of politics on our personal lives and well-being, to say nothing of the world we now find ourselves in, clinicians by and large lack training on how to navigate it with their clients.

To pursue the inquiry of how clinicians make sense of politics in the therapy room, Winter recruited participants who were trainees and practitioners in psychotherapy, counseling, and psychology. In the final tally, there were 32 participants who completed open-ended questions that probed their understanding of politics, their feelings and thoughts in response to politics, how politics impacted them and their clients, and how prepared they felt to navigate politics in their work. From there, Winter analyzed the interviews for themes.

What did her team find? The data produced five themes, identifying the ways that politics permeates therapeutic work, both internally and externally. A selective overview of the results is provided below.

1. Swimming against the tide: Working against politics in therapy. The therapists in this study reported that politics had a negative influence on their clients’ and their own well-being. The analyses revealed that therapists saw that their clients’ troubles often stemming from politics. One therapist said: “Many of my non-private clients' issues come from poverty, [and] are worsened by austerity. It's hard to encourage self-worth when their environment treats them like rubbish."

2. Therapeutic work as political. Therapists in this study viewed their work as political, both in individual practice with clients as well as systemically. One therapist remarked: “Politics hugely influences me as a practitioner as I want to hear the voices that are not heard. Counseling for me can be about empowerment and giving a voice to the voiceless.”

3. We have to park our impressions of politics at the door. The clinicians in this study reported that politics was spoken about implicitly or was brought up by the client. Therapists also felt that if politics were to enter the room, it should be initiated by the client out of respect for their autonomy. As one participant put it: “We have to park our own impressions of politics at the door and concentrate on the client's experience. This is not about our agenda and so we need to be even more attuned to clients' needs and experiences without displaying any of our concerns.”

4. Professional ethics and politics: Striking a balance. Therapists sometimes experienced a tension between their professional ethics and their politics. One participant shared: “I find politics very difficult to deal with in practice. I am often torn between respecting the individual rights and beliefs of the client with what I can perceive as the danger of some kinds of politics for the well-being of people in our society.”

5. A culture of silence: Lack of training and support. The participants also reported feeling ill-prepared and unsupported when politics entered the therapy room. The therapists also noted that politics doesn’t enter the discourse in the larger profession. One therapist reflected: "Psychology has traditionally ignored politics. There is a culture of silence, a sense of trepidation in talking about these issues. Nutshell: It's a lonely process."

References

Swimming against the tide: Therapists' accounts of the relationship between p/Politics and therapy. Laura Anne Winter. Published 12 March 2021. Psychology Counselling and Psychotherapy Research.

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