The 2016 presidential election has impacted our therapy practice in a number of ways. This conversation on the election took place over roughly a month–much longer than our typical collective conversations. This is indicative of our own complicated feelings about what the election has brought forth and how hard it has been to verbalize. We publish this today on Election Day not only as a way to draw this election cycle to a close, but show how the issues that have arisen from it continue to live on an affect our therapy practice as a whole.
Matt: We’ve recently been talking about the politics of therapy and politics in therapy, with an emphasis on the “little p” politics and less electoral politics per se–looking at how race, class and gender affect our work and how the modality and rules of therapy isn’t neutral politically.
I’ve been realizing more and more that I would like to have a conversation about “big P politics.” So many institutions that rarely endorse a political candidate (Atlantic Monthly) or have never endorsed a candidate (Foreign Affairs) are doing so. There’s a sense that they just can’t help themselves, or that it would be irresponsible in the current circumstances not to speak out by any means necessary. I find myself considering a similar sort of question: Should we endorse a presidential candidate?
It’s a cliche to relate to a given election as particularly high stakes–I believe this one is high stakes in both the traditional sense and more. I feel as though we have something particular to say about the emotional character of this election and, to be clear, how Donald J. Trump has comported himself.
My initial question here is this: What do we have to say about this election, the video that surfaced of Trump and Billy Bush discussing assaulting women and Trump’s subsequent actions? Of the choice this country is making? Of the emotional response on both side (pro and con) that Trump’s candidacy has culled to the surface?
Heather: Something that we, as a practice, have talked a lot about (and something Rachael and I have recently blogged about) is how there is a place for politics, race, gender, and religion in therapy. We have expressed feeling that patients did not realize that they could talk about these things in therapy, that it would be useful, or even, how to go about talking about this stuff. So the only positive thing I can see about what this election cycle has done, especially in recent weeks and months, is: boy, that is that no longer the case.
Almost every patient is raising what is happening in this election in some capacity–many in some pretty meaningful ways. This openness and breaking of boundaries have led to some extremely fruitful conversations about how people feel in and about our greater society, the impact of hypermasculinity and rape culture, and fear regarding race, religion, and appearance. It has brought up amazing therapeutic opportunities–in addition to personal ones–to get closer to patients and understand them more. That said, there is a great deal of fear, anxiety, disgust, and trauma that this is bringing to the surface, as well as overall feelings of being deeply unsettled.
Matt: I talked to a patient who came in and exclaimed at just how overwhelmed she is. By any standard, she’s dealing with a lot right now. She listed everything off, most of which I’ve been aware of, and then said “and you know, Trump.” For her, like a lot of people I’ve been talking to lately, Trump is taking up a good deal of emotional energy. Many of the worst sentiments in our country are on full display on the evening news. A post by a well-known writer inviting women to share their experiences of sexual assault on Twitter produced thousands of responses.
I find the lines of demarcation about what constitutes a legitimate therapy topic–a legitimate source of pain–to be intriguing. What’s happening in our election cycle is deeply troubling to many people. I’ve had women–women I’ve worked with for years, in some cases–sharing their own experiences of assault, particularly in the workplace.
I’ve been particularly disappointed at the ways this story has overshadowed the significance of us being on the cusp of electing our first female president. I catch myself at moments forgetting to be excited about that. It’s not a coincidence that all of Trump’s sexism–when it’s not intimidating women–is distracting us from such a significant moment for women.
I’m glad we’re talking about this stuff on Twitter and in our therapy office. There’s a collective anxiety–a sort of holding our breath.
Rachael: Yes, to the idea of collective anxiety that both Matt and Heather raise. I feel it in the air in the city and, in particular, how tongue-tied some patients are about their emotions in regards to the debates and the news as of late.
The pro of this election is that a woman is running. And people are vocalizing the existence and prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. The con is the struggle about who is the leader and how discombobulated this makes people feel. They feel threatened, uncertain and aghast all at the same time.
We are talking about it, but it is difficult to tease out while making sure we give attention to the patient affected and ourselves as therapists. It feels radical to stop someone in session when they run past this phenomenon and say, “This is really happening and we are going to talk about it.”
Kiran: What you all are saying is resonating with me and my work with clients. I agree that the idea of nothing is off topic has come up in my sessions in this political climate. In particular, making connections between feeling upset, weighed down, and anxious has been linked to the 24-hour news cycle that is difficult to turn off. Some of the things that people have been exploring with me are questions like, “How safe is this world for me?” While many knew that these painful ideas and positions that some candidates and followers are taking, existed, there is a new level of transparency that cannot be veiled after this. The impact of this discourse is far-reaching.
Matt: I’m wondering if I’m being tame in how I started this conversation off. Contemplating that led to another thought: Are therapists and our patients perhaps hesitant to talk about this in some way because we’re afraid to name explicitly the fact of sexual assault and sexual predation? I wonder if it doesn’t have as much to do with a resistance to talking about politics as a therapy topic per se, but perhaps our own systemic complicity in covering for the abuser, as happens, for example, in a family where everyone has some idea that abuse is happening but no one talks about it.
Everyone has been arguing over the question of whether or not the conversation between Billy Bush and Donald Trump was locker room talk. His defenders say it was, and countless men and professional athletes (who spend a good deal of time in locker rooms) declared that, in fact, that isn’t how men talk in locker rooms. To me, this retort leaves out two massive issues: First of all, the conversation wasn’t just about demeaning women (though it certainly was that). In the conversation, Donald Trump stated that he sexually assaulted women. That’s something altogether more concerning than objectifying women (unacceptable as that is). Second, the assertion that men don’t talk that way (“I’ve never heard a man talk like that, and I go to the gym everyday”) is a dangerous lie. Of course, men talk that way. Men talk about women as prizes to win, as prey to chase, and yes, they talk about assaulting them. All the time. I personally don’t hang out that long in the locker room, but I have certainly heard this sort of talk and worse. But, my experience of hearing men talk about it isn’t the relevant matter at all. We need to talk to women, who know very well how men talk and, much more to the point, know very well what men DO by virtue of the fact that it has been done TO THEM!
I’ve been listening very closely to the women in my life (and I want to note that I’m talking here with 4 important women in my life). That includes bringing a particularly careful sort of listening into the conversations I’ve been having in the therapy room. When women mentioned Trump, the debate, the awful tape I was inclined to a sort of “Me, too” reaction. This is almost never helpful, as it is the opposite of curious. And so I thought about the conversations we have been having about politics and thought, “Oh, I should work harder to relate to these conversations about Donald Trump as therapeutic offerings.” When I did, I saw these as more than political concerns. This wasn’t just about being afraid of a maniac controlling our nuclear arsenal or appointing Supreme Court justices–as terrifying as those notions are. This was about rape, sexual harassment, and sexual predation. This was about a man and a woman competing for the same job and the man forcing her to listen to insults about women’s weight, insults about her own health and aging, sexually violent language, and constant insults about her husband’s past infidelities. Donald Trump is creating a hostile work environment for Hillary Clinton and he’s doing it in attempt to outbid her for a job. Donald Trump bragged about sexual assault and a number of women have come out and alleged that his boasts were true.
All by way of saying, I think I got caught up for a moment in making the Politics (the election, debates, posturing) more important than the politics (rape, sexual harassment). Sure, Politics has a place in therapy, but politics are embedded in the act of therapy itself. Listening to patients, creating conversations with them, being honest together about the pain, abuse and violence in their lives. Politics don’t just have a place in therapy. Therapy is political.
Rachael: Matt, wow and thanks for this. I think, as with many things in therapy, we struggle naming. I often have female patients shy away from wanting to talk about rape, abortion (due to unsafe sexual situation), sexual harassment and sexism. It is political!
I found the debates so disgusting I had to turn it off. I couldn’t watch Trump (what for me looked like) visually rape of Hillary. I, instead, read the aftermath and watched clips. But in retrospect, I think I should have watched and shouted just like many people did that night. I often, in session, when someone shares about rape want to shout at the rapist. I want to listen to the patient and help them talk through it all. I don’t shy away. But to physically watch it happening in life sickened my stomach.
There is something about this election that is psychologically confusing people. I think right now people aren’t shying away, which is great, and I think it’s bringing to light ways women have been seen, treated, talked about, and messed with for years.
Kiran: Thanks, Matt, for your thoughtful response and the posing of new questions. This feels so heavy at the moment. I am also sitting with Rachael’s point of this being “psychologically confusing.” I wonder how many women are struggling with what is happening with the election and the media in terms of sexual harassment and sexism and not saying anything because this is all too common. It’s an everyday occurrence for so many people. I am wondering about how traumatic this is and also whether some are not speaking about it because it is so ingrained in everyday life. I heard a female commentator brush it off because it’s so prevalent. I continue to work on creating an open space where these difficult dialogues can be had as these events unfold, a space where we can sort through the complicated feelings together.
Karen: It has felt like the whirlwind of the election has stirred up so much for all us–as therapists and for our clients–just us as humans in the world. The question that Kiran raises around, “how safe is this world for me?” is something I have not been able to stop thinking about. Right now, people are experiencing so much unsafety and fear for the what the future holds. The space that we have in the therapy room–and are responsible for creating–feels so important right now.
Creating a safe space is something that is always a part of therapy process and relationship. In this particular moment, the therapy room is an interesting space because we don’t allow technology to enter. Phones are off, no tweets and no news alerts. I think that kind of forces folks to acknowledge how they are relating to media and how this is impacting them. Being free of media for 45 minutes allows us to feel how we are being affected by it. Talking about fears and concerns for safety–for oneself now, for the future and for grandchildren–has taken center stage in the therapy room. It feels like a part of the safety of the room is that, in this space, what people are saying will be taken seriously. It is a part of a larger conversation about them as individuals and as folks connected to their families and to their family histories.
Rachael: The election has made me be more aware of how the media, politics, and culture come into the therapy room, especially if we are aware and curious. For me as a therapist, I think the election has brought to the surface that politics are coming with everyone up the stairs and into the room. This election has highlighted the importance of talking about sexual harassment and ageism, sexism, fat shaming and overall judgement and persecution.
Sometimes, I struggle with making the conversation bigger. I want to rush and get back to a conversation from last week. I think the election is sometimes hard to focus on in therapy because I do not know where the conversation will go or how I might get it back “on track.” However with say trauma or anxiety, I don’t always know either, but I know when I listen and am present, we will get somewhere. I’m learning the same is true with politics. This election has been a lesson in keeping my eyes and ears more open to this possibility in therapy.
Overall, I found talking about the election a little hard to address in this conversation. Not only because I have a lot to say, but it also feels vulnerable to say it all at the same time.
Heather: This election has really affected me as a person. Many of the sentiments my patients brought into the room–feeling upset, frustrated, overwhelmed, even a bit foggy–were all things that I felt personally at least at some point during this election cycle. In some ways, it felt like a relief for patients to name these feelings and for us to really dig into what it was bringing up for them. It also helped me feel, on some level, like we were making what was upsetting more tangible as we looked for ways to feel more grounded and empowered. In a lot of ways, talking about this with my patients was also therapeutic for me, even as I was focused on their needs.
It is interesting though–in retrospect, everything my patients expressed lined up at least mostly with my own personal beliefs. I wonder what it would have been like to have a patient express discriminatory opinions of things I found personally offensive or against my belief system. That is something I am going to need to continue to think about and explore for myself–what is good therapy in these situations and what is best for the patient? And also as a person in the room and as 1/2 of the therapeutic relationship, is it helpful, honest, good for the relationship in some way for me to express some difference? I’m honestly still chewing on this.
Karen: I think what I have found challenging is the vulnerable feelings that have arisen around being a woman in the world and what this means for me as a female therapist: What is it that I share with female clients? What is it, if anything, that is assumed we share in terms of our experiences that has gone unspoken? There have been moments when I think I have felt a bit like hiding during this election and I have not always been sure what to do with those reactions. A part of what I decided to do was to really work to make the therapy room, which is a shared space for myself and my clients, the safest place I can make it.
Kiran: Oftentimes, clients will make reference to the climate we are living in right now or the all that is in the air. I take a moment to check-in regarding what they are referring to. I find that sometimes clients are unsure whether it’s appropriate to talk about what’s happening with the election or what the media is reporting. My own feelings of vulnerability around being a woman in the world and in these times has made me more sensitive to what my female clients may be carrying with them. I make an effort to open up this conversation if my clients want to go there, if it will be helpful to them. I am finding that my therapy is shifting in that I am pausing more and making more space to include contextual pieces. I work with my clients to unpack the sometimes complicated feelings by first naming that these feelings are complicated with many layers of experiences and feelings.
Matt: In some ways, this has me thinking about I wrote in my bio about the experience of 9/11. Those of us who were counseling were in the trauma, too. That’s always so, to a degree–sitting with someone who’s had trauma is trauma for the therapist, too, but on 9/11, none of us understood what was happening. We were all scared. That allowed us to be together and there was no reason to hide that we, as therapists, were also struggling. But there’s a difference between sharing yourself and making something about yourself. Just because I was also emotionally disrupted by these tapes–by Trump’s candidacy–doesn’t mean I understand the experience of the person sitting with me. That’s non-negotiable. Saying “Me, too” presumes that I understand. If I understand, there’s nothing to discover. I appreciate the ways public circumstances compel private conversations, but it’s easy to slip into a sort of coffee klatch way of relating. The very nature of sexual abuse or racial trauma, for example, is that it’s painful to share. Meaning part of how our culture supports these behaviors to continue is by keeping quiet about them. In this sense, being triggered in a context where there’s a safe space to share and heal with what emerges is perhaps a good thing. My responsibility is to make sure my own politics don’t get in the way of my patient’s.