Popular forms of social justice activism are creeping into psychology training programs and therapist offices. Even if woke theory is your preferred path to social justice (there are others), this creates a “buyer-beware” situation.
Unlike friendships, intimate partnerships, parenting or collegial teamwork, psychotherapy is a relationship that is all about one person—you, the client. The job of a therapist is to clarify your individual goals and then mirror back your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways that help you to change the ones that are getting in the way. To do this, the therapist has to set aside (as much as possible) their own developmental priorities and ideologies—their religion, their culture, their politics, and their own hang-ups or life goals.
The American Counseling Association Code of Ethics puts it this way: “Counselors [strive to be] aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.”
But this is very different from how political activism works, in particular contemporary woke or critical social justice activism. Woke theories and cultural norms encourage adherents to be in social/political activist mode all the time, even in their work as therapists. To be sure, some people may seek therapy specifically to process experiences of, say racism or sexual violation, and may want a therapist who helps them to frame these experiences through a historical-political lens. In this case, the client enters therapy with this as part of their goals. But others tell of poor care from therapists who imposed their own agenda—promoting a version of feminism, anti-racism, or “sloppy” gender care that made the client’s marriage or mental health worse. In each case, trust was broken.
There is another way that a woke approach in the therapy office can undermine growth and healing. We know from decades of research that certain kinds of emotional regulation and habits of thought promote individual mental health and positive relationships. But some of the psychological and social dynamics in woke social justice activism encourage the very habits that psychotherapy seeks to undo. Here are some examples. In each of the pairs of statements below, the first represents a woke social justice activism approach. The second represents an approach from evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy.
On Emotions and Reason
- WOKE SOCIAL JUSTICE APPROACH: Feelings are reality. If a member of a traditionally oppressed tribe (someone female, queer, disabled, or black, for example) feels violated, they have been violated; if they feel unsafe, they must be protected; if a member of a traditionally powerful tribe feels guilty, they should own it. We shouldn’t question another person’s feelings if they are from a traditionally oppressed tribe.
EVIDENCE-BASED THERAPY APPROACH: I am not my feelings. My feelings are one indicator of what is real and important, and they are worthy of attention. But they can be wrong or simply out of proportion.
- WSJ: If we are not white, straight, able-bodied and male, being asked to examine our assumptions is invalidation. People who genuinely respect us will accept what we say about ourselves or our tribe as truth. It’s insulting to have people doubt or question our memories or interpretation of events.
EBT: People who respect me will listen to my experiences and self-perceptions but also will challenge me. They will validate my feelings but won’t always assume those feelings and the story I am telling myself are the final word on reality. Being asked to examine my assumptions is a sign of respect for my strength, integrity and capacity for self-reflection.
- WSJ: For those who have been wounded or who feel wounded, people and situations that trigger strong negative emotions are harmful. Classes, books, public art and such should provide trigger warnings. Schools should cancel speakers who make students feel triggered.
EBT: My sense of threat—even getting emotionally flooded—may or may not signal real danger because trauma causes people to overgeneralize and get triggered by superficial similarities. Staying away from triggers lets the past define me and may make me less resilient. One way to know I am getting healthy is that external people and situations lose their power to trigger me.
- WSJ: We are born into intersecting tribes of oppressors or oppressed, and these inherited memberships define us. We cannot get away from them regardless of how or where we live or which parts of ourselves we embrace.
EBT: I have the power and right to choose my tribes, my family, loves and loyalties—or to reject tribal ties in pursuit of something that better fits my nature. My own preferences and actions define me.
- WSJ: When bad things have happened to our tribe; that is the key to who all tribe members are—victims.
EBT: Bad things have happened to my parents and grandparents and me; but they don’t have to define me. I do best when I center on my strengths, successes and the ways that I can chart my own future.
- WSJ: People who have victim identity shouldn’t be seen as victimizers even when they harm others. Lashing out at members of oppressor tribes is justified, righteous punching-up. Collective guilt means this is true even if the oppressor is individually less powerful than the oppressed.
EBT: People who harm others very often have experienced similar harms themselves. Often a goal of therapy is to break the cycle. Being a victim doesn’t prevent me from victimizing others.
- WSJ: If our ancestors and other members of our inherited tribe did horrible things, we are guilty of the harm they caused and undue advantage accrued whether or not we personally participated or benefited. This guilt never goes away.
EBT: I am not responsible or guilty for my parent or ancestor—no matter how awful he or she may have been. Since power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, if I didn’t have the power to change what happened, I’m not guilty for it. I am responsible to examine where I might continue to play out hand-me-down patterns that harm me or others, and I am responsible to use my own power to correct old wrongs and break these dynamics where I can.
On Agency and Causal Attributions
- WSJ: When members of traditionally oppressed tribes feel stuck, thwarted, violated, or pain, assume that somebody outside the tribe is to blame.
EBT: Causes are complicated. When I experience frustration, injury or pain, there may or may not be someone to blame. Getting rid of self-blame doesn’t mean there has to be a guilty party. Sometimes seeking to pinpoint blame just severs relationships or distracts from solving problems.
- WSJ: Since other people caused our injuries, our afflictions will be healed only when other people change. Our role is to call them out, stop them, and demand redress or punishment.
EBT: Even when a person or system has harmed me and needs to be stopped or served justice, they won’t be the ones who make me healthy and whole again. Even when I have truly been violated, I can nurture myself. I have power to heal no matter what other people may do. My challenge is figuring out what parts of flourishing are in my power and how to move forward.
- WSJ: If someone hurt or insulted us, they were aggressive or micro-aggressive and we are free to aggress back. Intentions are beside the point.
EBT: Whether someone hurt me deliberately, through a pattern of carelessness, or by accident matters. These differences can guide how I respond and process the experience. Understanding motives is crucial to moving me, them, or us forward.
- WSJ: All interactions are competitions for power. Our injuries and anger and the collective guilt of other people are at the center of our power in relation to tribes that have hurt us.
EBT: I am much more than my scars and wounds. I can recognize the weight and severity of past injuries—even serious traumas—and still center my power in my strengths and accomplishments.
On Conflict and Disagreement
- WSJ: Disagreement about social issues mean that someone is either ignorant or bad (i.e. sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or racist), and our only options are to educate, fight or shun them. Shouting down or publicly shaming people who refuse to see how wrong they are is virtuous.
EBT: People are complicated, misunderstanding is easy, and reality is rarely a forced choice between two all-or-nothing options. Instead of mindreading (assuming I know what another person thinks), I should ask enough questions to test my initial assumptions. Decent people won’t always agree with me. It’s OK to lean into the areas where our values and goals do align.
- WSJ: Compromise is weakness or moral failure. “Agreeing to disagree is for things like what kind of pizza tastes best.”–Facebook
EBT: “Remember, you can only be influential if you accept influence. Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something.” —John Gottman, father of evidence-based marital therapy
- WSJ: We should surround ourselves with like-minded people. “Viewpoint diversity” is just a right-wing excuse letting people with dangerous ideas get airtime.
EBT: Each of us carries only partial truths; other people represent different parts of reality. I can learn something from almost anyone. Listening carefully in the presence of disagreement is key to deepening my knowledge—and key to effecting change in my friendships and partnerships.
On Relating to Other People and Outside Tribes
- WSJ: We can assume the worst interpretation in what people from certain groups say if it relates to race, gender, etc.
EBT: I should give people the benefit of the doubt, start with an assumption of good intentions, and not engage in mindreading.
- WSJ: The ugliest things people say or do represent how they REALLY feel.
EBT: People are complicated and multidimensional. People say and do things all the time that are contradictory and what someone says or does in a worst moment may not represent how they think, feel and operate most of the time.
- WSJ: The people and tribes around me are either good or bad, allies or enemies, for or against me. If they are on my side, they will support me no matter what.
EBT: Nobody can be counted on never to hurt or harm me, but many people can be counted on most of the time. It’s healthy to start with an assumption that I am wanted and cared for.
- WSJ: If people want to understand me and my tribe, they need to figure things out for themselves. I shouldn’t have to tell them. That is doing their emotional labor.
EBT: If I want other people to understand my experiences, feelings and preferences, I need to take the risk of putting these into words.
Social activism and psychotherapy are two very different endeavors.
Liberal and progressive approaches to social activism differ in important ways, as I have discussed elsewhere, and not all promote the thought patterns described above. Woke theory creates more challenges than most when it seeps into the therapy office because the worldview it prescribes is all-encompassing and evangelistic, akin to some religions. This worldview encourages harm inflation and promotes habits of mind that can run counter to psychological and relationship health.
To learn more about these patterns, check out the now-iconic list developed by the father of cognitive psychotherapy—Aaron Beck’s list of Cognitive Distortions. Beck’s list includes all-or-nothing thinking, discounting the positive, emotional reasoning, labeling, overgeneralization, and more. Decades of research confirm the mental health benefits of challenging these patterns. If a therapist can’t help you to do that, or—worse—if their own beliefs and passions lead them to actually implant or reinforce cognitive distortions or solidify a victim identity, your therapy may do more harm than good.
As a therapy client, you put yourself in a vulnerable position. Healing requires trust that the therapist is knowledgeable and prudent, and that during your sessions they have only your objectives at heart. You trust that your objectives will guide their questions, observations and suggestions. That is what makes therapy a safe place to open up about feelings and experiences that you keep under wraps elsewhere. Before entering a therapeutic contract, it’s worth exploring whether your therapist can carve out this kind of space for your work together. And if they can’t, it may be worth looking elsewhere.
(adapted for CTA from An Excess of Woke Thinking May Harm Mental Health or Relationships at Valerietarico.com)
By Valerie Tarico, Ph.D. a psychologist in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light. Her articles can be found at ValerieTarico.com.