politics in the therapy room: can personal therapy effect social change?

There is currently a big debate happening in the therapy field about the relationship between therapy and politics, the question being - do we as therapists have a duty to raise awareness - not just about the suffering of the individual but about the suffering and injustices of the world at large. Whist we may feel so often overwhelmed by the state of the world, and feel utterly powerless to do anything about it, there is a natural process that seems to take root in the therapy room.

This quote by Pema Chödrön reminds me of the work we do in therapy, as we support clients to begin to turn their attention and curiosity to their inner world – exploring how they respond and relate to others, as well as to themselves.

“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”

I love the metaphor of attending to the arrows in our hearts - our wounds – and using our energy, love, compassion and awareness in the service of self care and healing. But I’m beginning to see another part to the story...

In therapy, as we attend to healing our own wounds and as our capacity to love and care for ourselves expands, as well as our ability to see our situations and ourselves more clearly, this has a ripple effect outwards. I see many clients, who, having done this crucial work on themselves, begin to see their love and compassion stretch far beyond their own individual needs, as they become more sensitive to the suffering of others, to the environment – without losing or diminishing themselves - and are now well versed in mobilising change.

The process of facing and accepting the injustices of our own lives, allows us to contact and embody our healthy energy of protest and anger. And perhaps it is in this very energetic embodiment that further motivates us to seek justice and resolution out in the wider world. As Caroline Caldwell observed,

“in a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.”

This is where I believe therapy can be a great catalyst for change, not just for healing the wounded individual but also, for healing the wounded planet. It seems that the very movement towards caring more deeply for ourselves, paradoxically, can bring us closer to caring more deeply for others and for the world in which we are so intrinsically connected. Perhaps, by attending to those arrows in our hearts, we unwittingly invite ourselves to *wake up, sense our outrage, and act politically!  As we say in Gestalt therapy, 

“a change in one part, affects the whole.”


(*Quote referenced from "We've had a hundred years or psychotherapy and the world's getting worse." By James Hillman and Michael Ventura, 1993.)