Toward a Social Justice Therapy: Let’s Keep Talking

How psychotherapy can help dismantle oppression

I often tell patients- and have been told myself- that the issues we come in to work on in therapy have taken years, sometimes decades, and sometimes generations to be shaped into the problems we see in their lives, and so it may take just as long (or at least feel like it) to undo these problems. Similarly, systemic injustice is so deep in our society and in our minds, we perpetuate it without knowing it, and it may take generations of awareness and action to undo centuries of dehumanization.

Take Flint, Michigan, for a current-day example of systemic injustice. Since 2011, Flint has been under emergency financial law, wherein the governor of Michigan can hire a non-elected official to control a city deemed to be in financial crisis. To save money, this official changed the water supply to something so tainted and toxic that it is killing the mostly Black residents of this once-booming auto production town (made famous by the film “Roger and Me” by Michael Moore). What’s more, the city officials are continuing to charge residents for this toxic water, enforcing fines and late fees for their refusal to pay. (See this article in The Root for a more thorough reporting of events and analysis of the systemic racism and economic injustice at play.)

This is one of many contemporary examples of systemic injustice that disproportionally impacts poor communities of color. When we talk about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, as we do every January, we find quotations that illustrate the King of Love’s message of nonviolence and peace in the face of hatred and racism. We all seem to develop our own personal relationship with powerful icons, as I wrote about when David Bowie died. But, what about Dr. King’s activism, and his ongoing struggle against white supremacy? The racism, hatred, and injustice Dr. King fought against is not some far-off, distant dream that we have- or have yet to- overcome.

It is poisoned water in Flint, Michigan.

It is Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy shot to death in a playground by an unstable police officer.

It is the tenants in Baltimore public housing who were forced to trade sex for housing repairs and heating.

As a therapist, I could bring this back around to how we experience and enact transgenerational transmissions of trauma. Trauma gets transmitted internally (by your inner critic’s punishing narrative), interpersonally (like when you “otherize” someone else because of assumptions about the way they look or talk) and as a community (as with economic and racial segregation and disparate access to resources). Just as there are intersections of privilege, there are intersections of trauma and pain. Sometimes, we enact patterns that we don’t even know we are participating in. We use language that keeps us locked in to ancient and stuck ways of perceiving ourselves and others. Therapy can be an important part of addressing the shame of personal and collective pain and the process of taking responsibility for the harmful things we do even when we don’t mean to.

Social-justice focused, analytic therapy- the kind of therapy I strive to do- is one that can support the process of developing awareness that we are participating in some unconscious internal process that is also being reflected and reinforced in the outside world. Psychotherapeutic work can help individuals learn what is theirs to take responsibility for, and what is not, and can help bring awareness to cycles of trauma and injustice, so that people can decide for themselves whether to continue participating in these systems or whether to change them. Therapists with a social-justice lens encourage you to awaken to these patterns, and to help you notice when you want to fall back asleep. We understand that none of us are immune to the lull and pull of business-as-usual, and offer non-judgmental reflection so that you can think for yourself about these very human desires for connection and safety, which can lead to fear, blaming, and projecting intolerable feelings inside ourselves onto others. Paying attention to these patterns and the feelings that trigger them is part of building resilience and hope. There is also some part of us, perhaps visible or perhaps hidden, that has a desire for new possible ways of participating in the world, our relationships, and engaging with our inner landscape, that make us feel whole and connected.

Dr. King’s messages, as well as those of his contemporaries like Ella Baker, Shirley Graham DuBois, and Fannie Lou Hamer speak to this idea that no matter how aware we are, the work will not be over for some time, because of the insidious ways trauma and pain can be batted around and passed between each other unconsciously. Because of the complexity of human nature, we continue to need deeper understanding of the ways our personal trauma intersects with systemic trauma, and how to find and speak our own voices amidst our pain.