Politics in the therapy room

A couple of years ago I wrote this post about politics and religion in the counselling relationship, and how a therapist should not take up the client’s space. It is an important subject, every encroachment we make onto what should be the client’s space is a barrier in the way of a good therapeutic relationship developing.

However, perhaps in the promotion of the importance of the apolitical stance of the person in the therapist’s chair, an idea has grown up that therapy itself is not a place to talk politics.

You are who you are

One of the recurring questions in therapy is “Is this OK to talk about here?” People can often feel their problems are too trivial, or that counselling should be for the big three, birth death and childhood trauma. It can hold people back from seeking help and support, an idea of not being “worthy” or “deserving” enough. Along with my familiar saying of “shoulds are toxic” I would like to add “comparisons are a waste of spoons”. It may well be that you have not experienced what another has. Since you are who you are, and not them, any comparison is simply wasted energy. If something is troubling you, then it is OK to bring it to therapy, there is no bar which you have to pass marked “important enough for Kaz (or any other counsellor) to listen to.” This includes politics. For some people politics is part of who they are, how they interact with the world, their fears, hopes, worries and dreams. To not bring this part of themselves to a session would be inauthentic.

This goes to the heart of what talking therapies are. It is a space to explore the issues which are important to you. It is also important perhaps to point out you don’t need to be at crisis point to consider counselling, although this is still how many people view it. For some of course, political considerations are what bring them to crisis point. It is nice to think of politics as something which is academic, or doesn’t impact directly on your life, and for some that is the case, but for others, it is very different. Even if we are not directly impacted by a political decision we can feel empathy, fear, or concern for others which affects us. The reaction to this of “don’t worry, there is nothing you can do” might actually serve to increase peoples anxiety and distress. Feeling powerless can often be incredibly distressing, so a response which confirms the powerlessness can be counterproductive.

I am not going to tell you how I vote (unless you ask)

There is a difference between bringing political fears, worries and anxieties to a therapy session, and using that session to engage in political debate. My personal politics are irrelevant to using the space in the best interests of the clients. If a client does want to know about my opinions, I will, 99% of the time reflect it back to them, to explore why they want to know. Do they need reassurance I will not judge them, or do they believe I “must” think a certain way for them to relate to their impression of who I am? The caveat in the title of this section is that upon occasion it will be a question that I answer, when, it comes from a position of helping the client if they know.

It is your space, use it

It might sound strange to say it is your space, but often there is still an unequal power balance in the counselling relationship.Clients cannot help but see us as the expert, and put us on a pedestal. Therefore they worry about judgement of the issues they bring, and the suitability of a particular topic. Saying if it matters to you, it matters, might sound trite, but it is in fact a very important truth. So if you want to bring a political issue bring it. Also, but the same argument, if you want to ignore politics, that is OK too. There is no rule which says you are a better or deeper person for being political. It is back to that idea of not comparing yourself to others. Just because someone else thinks X is the most important thing in the universe does not mean you have to agree. Use the counselling space as you feel works best for you, and you are likely to get the best results.

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