Learning How and When to Discuss Social Justice in Therapy

Mariana Plata on May 06, 2018

Guest post by Mariana Plata

It’s been almost a year and a half since I first used the “feminist” label to describe myself. I’ve practiced and believed this ideology for a long time, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve felt comfortable enough to use it as a part of my identity. I didn’t know I would have to get comfortable using it in two separate parts of my life, though: my personal life and my professional one, as a therapist.

Our training as therapists teaches us to be neutral, objective, reserved, and observant. And delving into feminism – or any social justice issue for the matter – is going deep into the uncomfortable. It’s recognizing that a “neutral stance” when talking about cases of abuse and violence simply does not exist. It’s fighting for our rights as women, instead of sitting back and observing. It’s voicing our opinions and concerns regarding injustices that happen daily, which meant facing a professional crossroads.

As I began to read more about this and my role in this activism, I wondered how exactly I could blend these two perspectives in my professional work. This forced me to ask myself a few questions: how can I be a therapist and a feminist at the same time? Being a child and adolescent psychologist, how can I make parents and teachers aware of their gender bias? Should I even be doing this? Is it my job to talk about this in therapy? Where do we draw the line between our ethical duty and our humanity? 

I feel like these questions are helpful when coming to terms with your own social justice fight, especially as a way to honor this very important part of your life. But, it’s also our responsibility to do this cautiously, and learn to recognize if we’re doing it to advance our patient’s emotional wellbeing or if we’re doing it to advance our cause.  

Remember your inner awareness awakening when considering your social justice awakening

When I was 16 years old, I was diagnosed as short-sighted. This meant that I had to get glasses so I could see from a distance. The feeling I had when I first put my glasses on was similar to the feeling I had when I started going to therapy, and the same feeling I had when I identified myself as a feminist: I saw the world differently now. More clearly, which was both a blessing and a curse. 

This meant I could see things I wasn’t able to before: the good, the bad, the pretty, and the ugly. Some things were easier to see, and others took me longer to process. And I’ve learned along the way that those issues that are more difficult for me to face, are precisely the ones I should be reading more about. However, as a therapist, I also recognize that everyone has a different timing when they’re facing the uncomfortable. Some people power through and are able to process it rather quickly, others take a while longer. 

When I’m able to remember this, I can empathize with my patients so much better. I’m better able to consider how they might not be ready to have this awakening just yet, or might not even want to. But, if I’m able to plant a “thinking seed” that directs them towards personal growth, then it’s melding my activism with my patient’s needs. It’s about understanding that your timing doesn’t necessarily align with your patient’s timing, and that’s okay. As long as there is an openness to self-discovery, the time that it takes for people to realize this and have an awakening is not as important. 

Don’t be afraid to express your authenticity. Your patients will value it. 

One of the first articles I read on TherapyDen mentioned precisely this. Patients, and the general public, value authenticity. That means not being afraid to voice your personal stance about topics that matter to you, but at the same time clarifying that this is your personal point of view. It also means not being afraid to voice your stand on topics that matter – especially with the current global heavily charged socio-political atmosphere. 

I loved how Lily Sloane brilliantly wrote, “my role as a therapist is both to support the individual and to support a greater good. These are inseparable to me.” And clients will value this point of view. It tells them that you are aware of your surroundings outside of the counselling office, which means that you’re able to relate to real life as well. 

When thinking about my way of blending social justice into all parts of my life – including my therapeutic framework – I find myself going back to Juliet Mitchell’s perspective. In an interview, she says:

“I’m a psychoanalyst and a feminist, they meet in me, so to speak…” 

To me, this means it’s not about becoming two different people outside and inside the therapy room, but acknowledging your personal and professional points of view and being unapologetically authentic and honest about how both of the facets shape you. Because before you’re a therapist, you’re a human being.

Mariana is a licensed child and adolescent clinical psychologist based in Panama, specializing in working with children, teens and parents. She is also a play therapist in training, writer, educator, and public speaker, with a strong commitment to educating the general public on mental health issues, education, and parenting best practices. 

Her writing focuses on parenting, mental health, and psychoeducation about social justice and feminist issues. Her work has been published in Psychology Today, Psych Central, Tonic by Vice, Ravishly, Hello Giggles, among others. 

Mariana’s writing focuses on parenting, mental health, and psychoeducation about social justice and feminist issues. Her work has been published in Psychology Today, Psych Central, Tonic by Vice, Ravishly, Hello Giggles, among others. Find her at her website: http://marianaplata.com and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as @marianaplatapsy.

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