There is an elephant in your therapist’s office, and his name is Donald Trump.
Barry Farber, TC Professor of Psychology & Education, believes so many psychotherapists and counselors, regardless of their political leanings, are talking about President Trump, that he dedicated the entire May issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, which he edits, to politics and psychology.
The edition includes papers by practicing psychotherapists and an executive coach, and one empirical study. All “suggest strongly that the political events surrounding the election of 2016 have become a significant part of psychotherapeutic discourse for many clients,” Farber writes in his introduction. They also report that many therapists have been “willing participants in such discussions,” and that discussing politics in therapy “can have important clinical benefits, facilitating the therapeutic alliance and leading to greater understanding of long-standing client problems and interpersonal functioning.”
Whatever the practitioner’s style of therapy or political opinions, “Trump is endlessly discussed and diagnosed, reviled and admired, a source of deep embarrassment and a source of pride, accused of multiple forms of bigotry and respected for his dismissal of politically correct speech – all of which renders him hard to ignore and all of which stirs up intense feelings that often spill into the therapeutic arena,” Farber writes.
“Trump is endlessly discussed and diagnosed, reviled and admired, a source of deep embarrassment and a source of pride, accused of multiple forms of bigotry and respected for his dismissal of politically correct speech – all of which renders him hard to ignore and all of which stirs up intense feelings that often spill into the therapeutic arena.”
Farber, himself a practicing psychotherapist, conceived of the special issue after noticing that his own clients were repeatedly bringing up Trump. Curious about whether the 45th president had become an invisible third party in other therapists’ offices, he solicited papers from academics and clinicians about how they are handling or studying what he believes might be the most important political development since 9/11 or even the Vietnam War.
In his own paper, “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: Politics and Psychotherapy, 2018,” Farber describes how one of his clients rages against both Republicans and Democrats, calling them “insane” and “incompetent” people who are “screwing up the country.” Farber writes that he wondered aloud whether the client’s tirades are a means of avoiding acceptance of “any real culpability” in his marital struggles or problems at work. After first resisting this analysis, the client came to see Farber’s point. Ultimately, Farber asserts, the political rants offered both of them entree to “previously unknown or barely known aspects of a client’s personality, relational patterns, and pathology.”
For contributors David Yourman, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College and Patricia Raskin, Professor Emerita at Teachers College, Trump’s election and presidency have uncovered emotional issues that patients had been unaware of or unwilling to discuss.
Yourman reports having “many political exchanges” with one of his patients, a Vietnam War veteran and ardent Trump supporter whose politics are diametrically opposed to his own. Yourman has been successful with this patient, he writes, because he has communicated his own strongly held political beliefs with a genuinely felt, “unconditional positive regard” and respect for the patient, enabling them both “to more easily navigate what could have been very difficult stretches faster and with greater ease.”
In a paper called “‘She’s Woke’: The Paradoxical Effects of the 2016 Election on an Individual Client,” Raskin writes that Hillary Clinton’s defeat inspired one client, a woman who had overcome multiple disadvantages in life, to become very politically active on behalf of women. She became conscious of “societal patterns, [and] the systematic undervaluing of women at work,” Raskin writes.
Just as Trump has broken seemingly every political norm, his presidency has prompted some therapists to challenge rules against self-disclosure that go back to Freud. In “November 8, 2016: The Day I Became a White Clinician,” Susan Bodnar, TC Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, writes that, after the election, “clients who identified as Black saw me as a White clinician, and with that that came a host of nefarious attributions.” Bodnar was “stunned” when a Black teenage client said, “‘I can’t trust you.’” Bodnar struggled before sharing her own belief that, while Trump’s presidency is “worse for people of color,” it hurts all Americans, including her.
Sidney Coren, a TC doctoral graduate and post-doctoral fellow in clinical psychology at New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center, discusses his own powerful reaction to a bisexual patient’s enthusiastic approval of Trump, and Coren’s own perceived powerlessness at being unable to share his negative opinion of Trump with the patient. As they explored the issue, the patient came to understand that his own biases against other minorities were at least partially a result of his own feelings of powerlessness.
In their empirical study, Nili Solomonov and Jacques Barber of Adelphi University find that, according to patients, most therapists explicitly or implicitly disclose their political affiliation and are willing to discuss politics. Patients who said the therapist’s political affiliation aligns with their own, as well as those who said they benefited from in-session political discussions, felt they deepened their relationships with therapists.
The Trump effect hasn’t only manifested in psychotherapy, as Laurie Thomas, a graduate of TC’s Executive Coaching program, points out in her paper. She writes about a client struggling to find a job, who wonders whether he should adopt some of Trump’s hyper-aggressive business and personal behaviors, because, as Thomas writes, “Everyone’s doing it, even the President.”
Thomas is among an increasing number of practitioners who find that discussing politics in therapy can lead to insights about previously hidden issues for the patient. It also “can continue to open up the possibility for useful self-disclosure on the part of the therapist, which has been trending anyway. It can exacerbate the potential of the therapist’s self-disclosure to be helpful,” Farber said in an interview.
Farber believes the Trump effect may have permanently reshaped what goes on in therapists’ offices. “While Trump and his politics may be less integral to psychotherapy sessions than they were six months or a year ago, they’re still more than they were two or three years ago,” he said. “The integration of politics in psychotherapy is more commonplace and acceptable among a greater number of patients.”
Adapting a feminist saying from the 1970s, he observed: “As the personal is political, so may the political be intensely personal.” – Patricia Lamiell