In Favor of Rebellion
I am a proud social justice warrior. Even though this term has a negative connotation – I own it. The perception is that we purposely antagonize those with differing views, and that we don’t even have an authentic belief in the “wars” that we fight. I can’t speak for others, but for me this social justice war is very real and very close to my heart. Why? Because it’s taking casualties – our clients. People are dying because of the color of their skin. People are dying because of who they love. People are dying because their gender doesn’t match their birth certificates. People are dying because their faith tradition differs from someone else’s. As systems thinkers, we know that the society in which our clients inhabit has long-lasting impact for them, their families, and the generations that come after. So, if we aren’t actively working to make that system (our society) a more hospitable place, we are contributing to their pain and possibly even perpetuating transgenerational trauma.
This might sound overwhelming. Few of us have the time or the emotional resources to go on marches or engage in macro activism – but luckily micro activism is something that we can do every day in our client interactions. From the clothes that we wear, to the language that we use, to the art in our offices; we tell clients who we are and what we believe in. There is no way that we can be an entirely blank slate to our clients, and even if we could, I argue that’s more damaging than it is helpful. When we purposefully try to make ourselves so bland as to become invisible, what does that say about us to our clients? For marginalized clients to feel that we believe in nothing, or at the very least that we aren’t fighting for them, is a damaging message. If we aren’t on the side of the oppressed, then we are on the side of the oppressor and (consciously or unconsciously) our clients know it.
I don’t bring this up to cause shame for how you’ve been practicing. You don’t know what you don’t know. But once you do, consider some of the small, yet powerful, ways that you can show up for your clients including: posting inclusivity signage in your office. Signage supporting Black Lives Matter, stating “all are welcome here,” or flying a rainbow flag, can go a long way to show that you are supporting your clients in their fight. Including similar language on our websites or Psychology Today profiles is also an indicator of support. In session, language is so important. I invite you to begin to pay attention to the way that you respond when a client talks about systemic racism or marginalization. Again, it’s a small but powerful thing to acknowledge not just the client’s feelings, but that the system is flawed and that you see it. Consider the energetic difference for your client between hearing “that sounds hard” and “it feels impossible to exist in such a broken system.” Recognizing injustice is not giving an opinion it’s acknowledging an obvious and harmful societal power differential.
If those suggestions feel like too big a jump from where you are, consider starting a bit smaller. I invite you to look at your intake questions. If you don’t already, consider including questions that ask about a client’s: (identified) gender, their pronouns, their sexual/romantic orientation, their cultural identity, and how important these identities are to them at this time. Ask questions that allow the client to talk about their own marginalization experience and allow yourself to sit with the discomfort you might feel if you are a member of a more privileged group. Remember that not asking implies either a fear of engaging with the topic or a lack of interest. Either sends a message to clients that the therapist isn’t in their corner or that there are aspects of themselves that they must keep hidden – even from their therapist.
If you still feel resistance to these words, that makes sense. We’re taught from the earliest days of our therapeutic careers that we are to keep our personal thoughts and opinions to ourselves. And somewhere along the line this “rule” bled into keeping discussion of obvious social injustices out of the office because they’re “political.” But I argue that if we are truly thinking systemically, it’s impossible to ignore the inequities in our current society. These aren’t opinions. These are the facts of social stratification and the damage that they do. If we truly want a better life for our clients and believe that change is possible; we need to be a part of that change. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when engaging in these topics for the first time. When you do experience discomfort, pay attention to it and seek consultation when needed. It’s easy to continue to keep these conversations out of the room because you believe that there are “rules” against it. But remember that as long as we are working within ethical guidelines there is no need to follow arcane “rules” that no longer serve us. Our world, and therefore our profession, is socially constructed; we make the rules, and we choose how we wield our power. I invite you to join me in the fray and use your power as a shield to protect your clients from further harm, and as a sword to fight against their oppressors. We cannot be conscientious objectors in this war. Welcome, social justice warriors.
Justine Mastin, MA, LMFT, LADC is the owner of Blue Box Counseling in Minneapolis. She specializes in working with clients who self-identify as being outside the mainstream, such as those in the geek, secular, and LGBTQ communities. Justine is also the fearless leader of YogaQuest, a business that blends geek narratives with yoga. In addition to her work in her office/studio, she appears at pop culture conventions around the country, teaching yoga and speaking on geek wellness topics. She has authored chapters in Supernatural Psychology: Roads Less Traveled, Daredevil Psychology: The Devil You Know, as well as the upcoming books Westworld Psychology: Violent Delights, and The Psychology of Zelda. In what’s left of her free time, Justine co-hosts the Starship Therapise podcast. Justine takes a holistic approach to healing: mind, body, and fandom. Follow her on Twitter @mindbodyfandom.
The above article is a Commentary piece. Opinions expressed in the MAMFT NEWS do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Editors or of MAMFT.