POLITICS IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: A Commentary on the Role of Therapists in Politically Turbulent Times

The holidays are over. The new year has arrived. It is a January following a mid term election, and many seats in Congress and the senate will change hands. Not to mention many local and state Government positions will receive new leaders during this inaugural month. Whether our chosen candidate won their election or not, we live in a contentious political climate in our country. The strength of friendships has often been tested due to political differences, and relationships in which partners have different political perspectives have experienced greater tension and conflict. This is especially true here in the nation's capital, where political ideology plays an important role in forming not only our values, but also our identity.

Late last year, Peggy Drexler published an article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Therapy Is No Longer a Politics-Free Zone” which discussed whether therapist and clients should exchange political view points, and whether or not that poses important dilemmas around the personal boundaries of the therapist. Drexler suggests that, if the client initiates the conversation, then it might be valuable for the therapist to share their politics because that validates the client’s concerns. Although sharing with someone you disagree with might be divisive in the therapist-client relationship, on the other hand, it could help the client navigate that experience in life.

This is an important conversation because the topic of politics is volatile enough that it has the potential to compromise trust in a therapeutic relationship if it is not handled well. To simply ignore the topic of politics in therapy seems unrealistic given how important it is in our culture. Research studies show that people who are committed to therapy are also more likely to be committed to their political beliefs. They are often socially conscious and think deeply about the candidates they choose to support. Thus, to leave the discussion of politics out of therapy not only seems outdated, but ill-advised. 

As a practicing clinical psychologist within 5 miles of the nation’s capital, I have a unique perspective on teaching clients to navigate political conversations they may encounter in different contexts. Below are four steps to support therapists and clients as they approach this discussion. These steps offer suggestions for how to sensitively address the issue with compassion and problem-solving. To me, this is essential to our distinct role as therapists advising others on how to lead healthy, enriching lives.

First Step: Empathize with clients who are anxious about the political climate. Your client comes in after a major election saddened because their candidate lost, anxious about what will become of our country and the important social and political agenda to which they subscribe. You may or may not be anxious about the future along with them. If their views are similar to yours, it’s easy to empathize. If you disagree with them, listen to their perspective and understand their reasons for feeling scared, disappointed, or hopeless. It’s possible to empathize without agreeing if you are empathizing with their underlying anxiety. Most of the time, we are empathizing with situations that we know nothing about from a personal standpoint, but part of being a competent mental health professional is to exert the effort to understand what we cannot personally experience. Clients can tell if we are genuinely empathic or not. They can also tell, most of the time, when we agree with them whether we speak it or not. We must remind ourselves that, in our unique role, we must give to them something they cannot receive from others in their lives. They may have plenty of others with whom to commiserate. We offer them a safe place to be heard and to better understand how they can respond to their feelings: first by owning them. Without receiving empathy in therapy, they may not feel that same ownership. 

Second Step: Keep your focus on your clients. If they are distraught over a candidate’s loss, or overjoyed by their victory, your role is to help the client navigate their relationships amidst the outcome. If they are delighted their candidate will soon take office, but family dynamics at home are difficult with differing viewpoints and contention, rejoicing with them and failing to help them understand those around them would be a disservice. The obvious example here is the election of 2016 when Donald Trump surprisingly became the president. The DC area is largely Democratic by party association, but thousands of people who live here now grew up elsewhere. They may have gone home to families who were happy about the outcome, which caused strife and stress not only for the clients but within those relationships. While you may align more with the client, your job is also to support them in bridging the gap between them and their loved ones to retain peace and compassion in the family system. 

Third Step: Respond, but do not offer unsolicited information about your political affiliation. Remember that the focus is on the client. If they ask you if you are happy about the outcome of an election or which candidates you plan to support in the future, you have a decision to make. The decision may be different depending on the client, the duration of your relationship, and how comfortable you feel in self disclosing with clients. Rather than feeling obligated to share because it is important to the client, consider the potential consequence on your relationship. If the client’s views or party affiliation differ from your own, it could affect rapport. If you agree, it could also turn the therapeutic relationship into one of mutual venting, rather than a productive relationship where you take a leading role in advising the client about how to deal with disappointing outcomes. If you find yourself caught up in your own grief, direct the conversation towards productive responses such as encouraging political and social activism. As a second strategy, educate clients to use active listening skills to better understand views different from their own. A third approach is teaching clients to avoid catastrophic thinking. While surprise outcomes, such as those in 2016, can impact millions of people in significant ways, we all need to be reminded that the political pendulum does swing in both directions. Historical reflection on how things ebb and flow can be a helpful and hopeful perspective to share. Clients who are in therapy because they already think negatively or experience cognitive distortions leading to depression must be reminded that things do change, and they can be an agent of that change if they choose.

Fourth Step: Remember resilience. Your relationship with clients can help them become resilient if you model for them what they may have trouble grasping after disappointment, severe anxiety, or depressed thinking. Walk alongside them in understanding that there is life after an election. This does not mean that you dismiss or minimize their concerns. Quite the contrary, you have a unique opportunity to understand the context in a healthier, more objective manner. Validating them in a gloom and doom perspective not only diminishes your ability to be effective, it may contribute to the greater anxiety and feelings of helplessness. Clients who already experience persistent anxiety and depression on a regular basis need a more balanced perspective, and one that many of us are losing sight of in recent years. Sitting elected officials have a limited term in office. They may weld great power for a period of time, but ultimately, others will assume the role, and things will change. The best thing we can do for our clients is to instill in them a sense of what they can control, and how they can proactively seek the kind of life they want, even if their favored leaders are not elected.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash