How Can Therapy Help When the World is the Problem?

by Karen L. Smith

Many people across the country have experienced current politics as directly impacting their moods and dispositions. More so than perhaps at any time since the ’60s there are sides, and lines in the sand, and overt contention. On TV, radio and social media, the news is bombastic, divisive, frightening and disheartening about the state of our Union.

While it is hard to track our general feelings about life over a one year period, I think many of us would agree that if we had taken a survey about our outlook on life in October of 2016, and then again in October of 2017, we would see a sharp decrease in feelings of hopefulness and general well-being, and a sharp increase in feelings of anxiousness, hopelessness, agitation and even rage.

Between moments of despair and apathy, many on both the political right and left have found some solace in community, activism and rigorous self-care. Certainly, as a psychotherapist, those would be some of my top recommendations for how to deal with the crises of our current political climate.

Another of my top recommendations would be psychotherapy. I suspect some would question how therapy could help, since therapy is directed toward change within the self. And if the political climate is a primary source of distress, individual psychotherapy certainly cannot change our political climate. So, I have two answers to that.

The first answer is perhaps the most intuitive, which is that therapy can be a place of self-restoration to counter the debilitating effects of threats to our feelings of safety, the pull toward inertia, the exhaustion of relentless over-mobilization, guilt regarding how much we are or are not doing to promote political change, and the weariness of rage and disbelief. Whether your reaction has been immobilization or hyper-mobilization, psychotherapy can be a supported, contained, contemplative space where you can sit in relationship to another whose only investment is your well-being.

As therapists, many of us see our work as inherently political, both because of the impact the social, moral and political world has on the lives of our clients, and also because the internal freedom and clarity obtained through psychotherapy allows our clients to shape and engage with the world without the distortions of fear, pain and trauma. Citizens build a nation, and citizens connected to their truths, uncompromised by harsh superegos, distorted familial and societal narratives and traumatic visceral responses, will inherently help build a kinder nation.

This brings me to the second answer as to why psychotherapy can help in times of such political chaos, even though its immediate focus of change isn’t the external world. This answer is one that clients often seek regarding other external situations they cannot change. For instance, clients will routinely ask, “Why talk about the past when it can’t be changed?” or “Why talk about my family if they are never going to change?”

Here is an answer: nothing is over until it is grieved. I mean really grieved.

When you have a friend whose partner just cheated and ended their marriage, the next many months will be filled with them crying on your shoulder and reliving moment after moment of both the love that was shared and the hurt and loss. They will repeat the same stories. They will shake their head and widen their eyes in disbelief. They will want to let it go and have it in their past, but will be haunted with grief. If they have good enough friends to listen to them, and force themselves to relive every one of the special moments and horrible moments, they will find themselves slowly moving on.

When a tragedy involves loss, and all tragedies do, the sufferer must review each tentacle that they have wrapped around that lost object, and slowly unfurl each one, suffering the loss of that connection each time they release each tentacle. The longer we have been “attached” to someone/something/the object, the more tentacles we have wrapped around it. Some of the tentacles are thin, and only need one or two times of grieving them to release their hold. Some tentacles are long and thick and must be reviewed many times before they lose their grip.

The tragedy of our our current political climate is different for all of us. What we lost is different. Some had horrible truths about the United States confirmed, some learned new truths. Some were directly put at greater physical/legal risk, some watched those they love get bigger targets on their backs. Some had dreams and hopes crushed, some lost their innocence about the goodness of our country, or democracy, or people. But we all suffered great loss.

When we still open our eyes wide in disbelief, it is because we haven’t yet faced what we know, what we lost. We haven’t mourned it. We haven’t successfully come to understand it is gone.

Psychotherapy offers the most contained and safe place for this kind of deep grieving. And there is freedom born of deep grieving. Even if our past is still the same. Even if our families are still the same. Even if our government is still the same.

Karen L. Smith, MSS, LCSW, is the founding director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, with offices throughout Greater Philadelphia. For more information or a free initial consult, call 215-494-7818 or visit FullLiving.com. December 2017.

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