Recently with many others I took issue with the BACP publishing a letter from Transgender Trend, an anti trans lobby group who take a non evidence based approach to working with trans and gender diverse young people. As always if one speaks in support of equal rights and fair treatment of gender, sexuality and relationship diverse (GRSD) people publically, trolls appear to berate you. This time I was accused of being “judgemental” towards those who do not believe in an affirmative approach when working with GRSD individuals.
Being non judgemental is one the core conditions as described by Carl Rogers, the grandfather of humanistic counselling and therapy. What does it actually mean though, in the practice room, and in our wider political and social interactions?
Risk Assessment and Safeguarding.
One area in which we must, from the very moment of first contact, be judging (which is surely the active process of being judgemental) is in risk assessment. I take an emergency contact number for every client, in the event that I judge that they are a risk to themselves, and I need to act. In our first session I will explain that hopefully I would support them getting help themselves, but that, in an extreme case I will use my judgment to contact their GP or the crisis team to get the help that I judge they need.
This first session will also include the limits of confidentiality, again, where I have, as an ethical practitioner, and member of the BACP, to make clear that if I judge that someone else is at risk, a child for example, I may need to inform the relevant services/authorities.
So, non judgemental does not mean not judging behaviour as being a risk to either a client or others.
Even before we even meet I may have made a judgement of my own competency to work with an issue. This may need an honest appraisal of not only my skills and training, but a delicate balancing of the competing needs of a potential client. They may, for example, want to see me because I have specialist training in one area, but I may lack the same in another. It is purely a judgement call on my part in weighing up these competing needs, although usually I would present the dilemma to the client, with an honest “I know about X but not about Y, how do you feel about that?” Thus asking them to exercise their own judgement of what matters the most to them in a therapist. Judging ourselves competent, or not, is an area all too rarely discussed, and in which being “non-judgemental” is even touted as a good enough replacement for training, especially when it comes to GRSD issues.
Prevention of harm
I have already mentioned the risk assessment side however, part of the job of a therapist is working with people who may be in danger of harm, or of harming others. One of the areas in which I have no training is working with offenders, it is one of those times when I would refer, but i have great admiration for those like Stop it now who do so. Here judgement and non judgmental have to be held in balance. If we are completely non judgemental, them we would turn a blind eye to offending behaviour. We also have to provide an ethical baseline, whilst still offering empathy and support. However we cannot collude with, for example, someone who believes child abuse causes no harm.
Working with survivors often the same balance is needed, it can be very difficult to admit that someone we love or care about has hurt us. Victims of domestic abuse and child abuse may seek to minimise what happened to them, and ask a therapist “Was it really that bad” or “If he loved me, that makes it OK doesnt it?”
Of course asking a client to reflect on why they minimise, or want to believe that abuse was not harmful carries with it judgement, as does any challenge. We cannot always just leave a client floundering, especially if they ask questions directly such as “Was this abuse” “Was this rape” “Is it OK to hit your child/partner?” A purely non judgemental stance would leave us unable to answer such questions, and very often we will be the first person to say to a survivor, what happened to you was not OK.
Prevention of harm, as explored in the previous section is often part of psychoeducation, where a therapist judges that information about subjects such as human sexuality, behaviour, coping mechanisms, brain function and so on would benefit a client. A classic example is around human sexuality, and “Is this normal?”. Yes, we need to explore what normal means, what the fear or abnormality is, but we often have to provide simple facts, which show that yes, indeed, this fits into how human beings are.
Where does this leave “non-judgemental”
Having explored various times in the therapeutic relationship when we need to exericise our judgement, to be judgemental, where does that leave the core condition of being non judgemental?
I believe kink can help us here, with its very descriptive word of “squick” Squick is a term which loosely means – “You do a thing which gives me a strong negative emotional response, but I accept this is my thing to work on, and not your problem”
For example –
Jane; There will be needle play at the event on Friday
John; Needle play squicks me, so I might go to the rope demonstration instead”
John knows that hir reaction to needle play is about hir own feelings and that it is up to hir to work a solution to the fact other people will be doing it at an event zie is attending.
How does this relate to therapy? I believe the original injunction to be non judgemental was based on the idea that we need to step away from moral censure, and the imposition of our norms and values on clients. Stepping away from “I believe this is a better way to be/behave for every individual because it is how I believe/behave” is a fundamental part of the bedrock of creating a useful therapeutic space. Part of the point of training is to leave those beliefs and values at the door, and to learn that our “normal” is not universally applicable. It is very common for students to make statements of universality of norms, and part of their training will be to learn how to prevent these causing them to make judgements about clients.
However, we will still have squicks, those strong emotional responses, those judgements, which spring up totally from our own internal worlds, often unbidden. Simply saying “I am non-judgemental” as if it were an identity, rather than a process, may even cause harm to clients.
Non judgemental is not something we as therapists are, but a behavior we practice. Partly because we have to constantly exercise our judgement when working with clients, but also partly because we cannot erase those squicks, those emotional responses. Even if we could I would argue that it would be harmful to the process where we are meant to be authentic and congruent human beings. If we have a strong emotional response, in the form of a judgement, it may be important to work out where that is coming from, since if we, as a trained professional feel it, then how will others respond to a disclosure, plan or ambition?
If non judgemental is a process, not an identity, where does that leave judging those whose beliefs are different to others, such as groups opposed to affirmative treatment of trans people? Is this a squick on my part? If it were a client in front of me, it might well be, and I would have to work through whether I could ethically provide therapy to someone who (for example) was abusing their child or spouse by refusing to accept their gender. This does not mean I could not work with the distress, confusion and pain they were feeling, but I may not be the right person for them. This is not about being judgemental so much as honesty, about seeing being non judgemental as a process of constant reflection and self awareness rather than a label awarded with our graduation certificates.
Non judgemental does not mean a blank slate, where anything goes, but instead constantly assessing our reactions to others, and working out what is provoking the reaction within us, then determining if we act on the basis of this reaction. My personal reaction to those promoting non affirmative stances is that they are causing harm. My judgement is based on good clinical research, less of a squick, more of an opposition to the attitudes which historically have caused harm to GRSD people. If that leaves me being accused of being judgemntal, then, so be it, part of being a therapist is also not needing others to provide your sense of validation.