I want to start off my blog post with a story. Last week, my colleague in Counseling Psychology and I were running a group at our clinical placement, which is a substance abuse treatment center in conservative East Tennessee. The group was all men, and it was a process-oriented group that ended up focusing on trauma that particular week. The group started off innocently enough- there were a lot of veterans, one police officer, and one railroad engineer who all talked very genuinely about their traumatic experiences in the field. There was a lot of anger, sadness, and frustration in the room. However, the discussion quickly derailed when one client started taking his anger and displacing it onto the Black Lives Matter movement. His words were along the lines of “we’ve been through so much, what do those people have to complain about?”. In that moment, another group member jumped in and began to defend BLM by saying “you can’t judge them, you don’t know what they’ve been through”. Luckily, I was able to redirect the conversation easily back to talking about trauma.
However, this moment, among others at the same clinical site have got me thinking about working with clients who explicitly espouse political views that are very different from mine. How do I work with clients who explicitly endorse Trump and talk about it in the room? How do I work with clients who displace their anger over going through a traumatic experience onto the Black Lives Matter movement? Or clients who wear “veterans over refugees” shirts in the therapy room? These are questions that have been going through my mind as I continue my work with these clients.
Of course, I realize that therapy is about the mental health of the client and not about my own views. However, coming from a feminist therapy orientation, I believe in bringing at least part of myself into the room in order to even out the power differential between therapist and client. Therefore, does that mean I cannot truly be myself with these clients? Can this be something that would create a gap in my empathy for them? We feel more connected to those who are like us in some ways and disconnected to those who are different. However, through my multicultural training and experiences in the field I know that it is important to build bridges across differences in order to give the client the best care possible. In addition, I believe these clients deserve the care and empathy given to any other client who may walk into my office.
As I continued to think about this seemingly unsolvable issue, a thought crossed my mind. Since I identify as politically radical in a lot of ways, I thought why not extend this idea of being radical into therapy? Using radical empathy may be one way to connect to clients who may cause strong reactions in me due to their political beliefs. Although radical empathy has been defined several ways, I will personally define it as the concept of using empathy as an act of political protest by caring for others in the face of a world that is hateful and oppressive. As a feminist therapy using radical empathy to truly care for others who believe that Black lives don’t matter, that women do not deserve access to reproductive healthcare, and that LGBT people are defective is a way to protest the hate that these opposing political views represent. I realize this will not be easy, but it will be necessary in order for me to connect with these clients who I truly care about as well as a way to stay true to myself. It is a way for me to take the high road that Michelle Obama encouraged us all to do in the face of adversity. It a way to remind me that love will always trump hate.
Written by: Renee Mikorski, M. S.