Queries Concerning Psychotherapy and Privilege

Every time we ask a question, we are generating a possible version of life. (~ David Epston in Cowley and Springen, 1995 , p. 74)

Friends (Quakers) approach queries as a guide to self-examination, using them not as an outward set of rules, but as a framework within which we assess our convictions and examine, clarify and consider the direction of our life and the life of the community. (~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, page 205)

Does psychoanalytic psychotherapy as a profession make sufficient assessments of conscious and unconscious, explicit and implicit racism, sexism, heteronormativity and bias in all its forms in ourselves and others, and the destructive consequences to all parties?

Do we believe that healthy relatedness demands well-developed empathy, mutuality, and parity? Do we recognize bias in all forms, personal and institutional, implicit and explicit, acknowledged and unacknowledged as a failure of empathy, an objectification of others and as an obstacle to healthy relatedness and psychological well-being?

Do we accept that the conscious and unconscious empathic failures surrounding bias and oppression are certainly a more profound loss for the oppressed, but a loss to all parties nonetheless?

Do we consider Lacan’s and Foucault’s idea of the privileged “Gaze” of the therapist? Do we see ourselves as people who gaze out from inside a dominant narrative, a “regular” story requiring categorization or explanation from all who we see as “different”?

Do we understand the differences between individual prejudice, institutional racism, and unexamined privilege?

Do we examine the narratives of success, of health, of family, of connection, of development that are viewed as “normal” regular, ordinary, usual, and taken for granted as universal by the dominant culture?

How do we take this made-up story about who is “regular” for granted, and wittingly or unwittingly put these narratives forth as better, more important, more normal than others?

Do we examine our own participation in how “othering” or “normaling” stories get disseminated or disrupted? Do we critically examine how the institutions in our culture – media, government, schools, religious institutions, and graduate and post-graduate psychotherapeutic training institutions – inform us as to what is “regular”?

Do we advocate for inclusivity in our psychotherapeutic practice and training institutions? Do we feel an institutional environment, or our own caseloads are sufficiently diverse when in actuality very few of people of color, differently abled, or LGBT people are represented?

Do we recognize that we speak through our inaction as well as our action? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we participate in panels, conferences and workshops, peer groups led entirely or predominantly by those in the dominant culture?

How have the dominant stories about race, gender, homosexuality, disability, and class determined and shaped our psychotherapeutic practices and training institutions, fee setting, size and composition of our caseloads, choice of colleagues, and our preferred psychotherapeutic models?

Do we, as psychotherapists ever place ourselves in professional, or social circumstances where we are not in the majority? How might such experiences help us to better empathize with those who carry narrative burdens, who are regularly challenged to explain, defend, or advocate for themselves within the dominant culture, and those who are on the receiving end of bias and oppressive circumstances more often than we are ourselves?

Do we cultivate relationships with adults with whom we have racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious differences outside of the psychotherapeutic setting?

Do we cultivate therapeutic relationships with clients who differ from us in identifiable ways?

What life experiences or personal characteristics, if any, have made you feel “gazed at”: forced to explain, alienated, ignored, misunderstood, distorted, or excluded by most people or by institutions? What circumstances, if any, have you found yourself in where you were instantly and visibly identified as an outsider in someway?

How might these experiences be useful in practicing psychotherapy with a concern for social justice? How might these transitory experiences offer only limited insight into what it is like for a client who lives with more chronic or different forms of oppressive or unjust circumstances?

Do we listen deeply without becoming defensive or competitive when clients friends, or colleagues or people online share experiences of oppression, even if we feel implicated, guilty or uncomfortable?

Are avenues for exploring differences kept open? To what extent do we ignore differences in order to avoid possible conflicts?
~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we allow ourselves and our worldview to be changed by hearing stories of other people’s discomfort, anger, grief and pain from experiences of oppression, exclusion, bias, and prejudice?

Do we monitor ourselves for defensiveness, minimizing over-identification, excessive or non-generative forms of guilt, hopelessness and indifference?

How can racial, gender, sexual/gender identity and/or class differences between therapeutic partners affect the way they tell and hear each others story?

Do we proactively and thoughtfully confront, explore and examine biased narratives when we experience them in our office, with friends and colleagues, and in ourselves?

Do I treat conflict as an opportunity for growth, and address it with careful attention? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

What do you worry people will assume about you?

What do you hope people will assume about you?

What do we understand about our clients’ hopes and fears about the assumptions of others?

What assumptions have we made about clients that were inaccurate, injurious, or unrecognized (by us)?

How do we respond when confronted with the inaccuracy or injuriousness of our assumptions?

Am I careful to speak truth as I know it and am I open to truth spoken to me? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Do we consider that there are parts of our client’s stories that are never given words, are essentially deleted, or never even noticed by themselves, by us, or by others because they just don’t fit in with the dominant story, or with our assumptions as psychotherapists?

How can we learn from clients and colleagues who are different from us without making them feel unduly burdened or pressured into teaching and explaining?

Are we mindful that those with experiences of oppression and narrative burden need to protect themselves from scrutiny and the unempathic Gaze of individuals, institutions and environments that are distorting, enraging or exhausting?

Do we condone or assume that narratives of privilege are healthy for privileged people? Do we remind ourselves that none of us are free unless all of us are free?

Do I examine myself for aspects of prejudice that may be buried including beliefs that seem to justify biases based on race, gender, sexual (and gender) identity, disability, class, and feelings of inferiority or superiority? ~ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

What is my psychotherapeutic practice doing to help overcome the contemporary psychologically wounding effects of past and present oppression?

Questions, and more questions, and questions as yet unformulated.

No answers please.

Deeper questions.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Goat

Sacrifice is an unavoidable part of life.

But sometimes you are the sacrifice.

At some point, we will all serve our turn as The Goat.

And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
~ Leviticus 16 King James

And the sheep will be separated from the goats: Goats are independent, differentiated, disobedient, and hard to direct; a wholly different creature than a happily herded sheep.
Even the three Billy Goats Gruff cross the bridge to face down the hungry troll one at a time.

Every school, church, social clique, graduate program, social service agency, group therapy, small town, every team, club, and every family system has their own identified patient, the angry one, the-who-do-you-think-you-are one, the broken, vulnerable one who absorbs all of the cast off sins, shames, and discomforts – who manifests “dis-ease” for the rest. The chosen Goat suffers so that we may escape ourselves, distance ourselves, externalize our terror of loss, of aggression, of suffering, of inflation.

In groups forced to negotiate in close proximity to each other, and especially groups that feel a strong need to see themselves as Unified in Goodness – relational tensions build up which must be disavowed. The more energy spent repressing aspects of ourselves which threaten to destabilize the collective – the more shame and aggression accrue, the more the community brims with repressed energies, anxiously awaiting discharge.

Envision the Collective as one big agitated kid stuck inside on a Sunday afternoon, wearing wool socks and shuffling though shag carpeting: Flush with electric charge, index finger poised for an unsuspecting sibling to absorb the spark.

Therapy offices everywhere are full of traumatized Goats, marked by their families, schoolmates, employers, coworkers, neighbors. People bearing the weight of collective distortions, targets of harassment, victims of abuse, absorbing vilifying projections of whichever dominant narrative surrounds them: Strung up for being too smart, for telling a threatening truth, for being “other” in terms of their race, sexual or gender identity, for being too gifted, for being obviously wounded, for being too vulnerable.

One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things just doesn’t belong….

Any experience or self-state that makes others uncomfortable, that threatens, frightens, exposes or in someway challenges the status quo can mark you as the sacred goat, the Sin-Eater, the point of discharge.

With boring regularity we seize the opportunity to elevate those who seek out and gather up our idealizing projections. Inflated far beyond the limits of humanity, past the point of sustainable hubris – the crowd enjoys the taste of blood and justice when they eventually dismember and destroy their idol, cutting them “down to size.”

Perhaps there is a corrective function, as ugly as it may be, in such repetitive public cycles.

But most of those chosen to eat our sins have not sought out their role at all.

In sports (from my limited understanding) , “The Goat” is the one who slips up, who stumbles, who drops the ball or misses the crucial shot at a pivotal moment. He or she is assigned the stigma of failure for the entire team, although certainly other members could have worked to accrue a larger advantage earlier in the game. Here it is simply our fallibility, our capacity for error, vulnerability and loss that threatens the collective narcissism, the group’s fantasy of omnipotence and immortality.

Goats are nimble climbers, able to negotiate steep and hazardous slopes. Those who find that their ambition and talents lead them to penetrate into new spheres are particularly likely to be selected for sacrificial punishment: A woman or a person of color employed in a profession previously under the sole domain of white men. The first teenager to publicly come-out as homosexual in the history of their high-school.

A Tale of a Very Angry Goat:
I worked once, on a treatment unit with a particularly smart and gifted clinician who appeared, at every staff meeting, in the guise of The Angriest Social Worker in the World. Rage – at the systemic obstacles, injustices, and stupidity surrounding her and her clients, surrounding and perpetrated by us all – emanated from her in waves of hot toxicity. We all appeared to ourselves to be remarkably patient, pragmatic, and well insulated in contrast. The rest of us believed we had our work, our goals and boundaries in proper perspective and that she did not. We all thought more highly of ourselves because we were certain that we were not so so very angry.

And of course, when she announced that she was leaving – we all assumed, that although we admired her impressive skills and her gifts, that we would be relieved to be rid of her daily tantrums and diatribes.

Instead, we all got crankier. In fact, we grew increasingly cranky with each other each passing day.

Eventually, I got damn cranky. Intolerably cranky. Everyone else now seemed to be going about their business while clients died, disappeared, suffered, were involuntarily medicated, unjustly incarcerated, or deported. A few of us shared the collective shadow this time, and became, in rotation, the Angriest Trio of Social Workers in the World. Great hot waves of toxicity preceded us into meetings and trailed in our wake. And I’m sure, that after I left, many people began to feel a little bit crankier…..

Once a community or a group or a family has built up sufficient momentum, and is in the throes of projecting their unconscious, unprocessed conflicts onto the selected goat, there is no logic, no argument, no discussion, no call to morality or reason that can dissuade them.

As Jung himself says (approximately, sort of, somewhere)
It is a pointless task to argue with another’s projections.

Even the Gods cannot protect themselves, and must withstand the shadows projected upon them by the masses.

Once selected: some rail, and struggle, fighting back with full force, refusing to cede any ground or relinguish any standing. Others quickly surrender, either by going limp, passive and derealized or with an eerie dignity and certainty about who they are in the face of terrorizing, baffling lies, exaggerations, accusations and distortions.

Some catch the smell of danger in the wind early, and know how to become completely invisible, or quickly build a protective consensus of support.

Others attempt to master the terror by internalizing the distortions, taking the shadow of the group into their own identities and beliefs about themselves. Self-hate, toxic shame, internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, a false and degraded Self is organized to further protect the clan. Contact with the essential self is lost and abandoned, in order to stay connected to the family, team, community. A goat can take on the Burden of the group’s Badness and believe it, claiming it as their own.

I spend hour upon hour every week, as do therapists all around the world, working in many different modalities to try to sort through these calcified, internalized projections, and separate the wheat from the chaff, the false beliefs from the core Self, peeling away the distorting voices of introjected herd from the goat’s true, original nature.

“There is clearly danger in opposing the mass and safety for the individual lies in following the example of those around him.” ~ S. Freud, Mass Psychology

Or not.

It depends, I suppose on how you define safety.

Psychological scape-goating may offer the collective some temporary relief, serving to reestablish short-term homeostasis for the group, but it is only through coming into direct contact with our failures and fears, by facing and integrating our own shadow that we move toward wholeness.

Casting our sins away without a conscious reckoning defeats the processes of creative psychological growth.

But not for the goat.

And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. ~ Leviticus 20 King James

Ultimately the scape-goat, escapes.

When the ordeal is survived, all old hopes of the former life in the community mourned, the shock and terror assimilated, the projections of other’s shaken off its shaggy coat- the goat owes nothing further to the community. Released to the wild, it reclaims its original nature, free and clear, the confines and conventions of domestication left behind and forgotten.

Free.

Goats are archetypes of regeneration. Thor’s chariot is drawn by pair of magic goats – which can be cooked and eaten each night for a delicious dinner. In the morning, when the sun rises – there they are, happy and intact, magically reassembled from the remaining skeleton and hide.

It is an inevitable and inescapable reality, that at some point in our lives, the group will turn on us.

The herd lives in constant terror, perpetually fleeing from its own shadows..

It is the goat, even if only mere skin and bones, that is set free.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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