Decolonizing Therapy

Decolonizing Therapy

Getty/Olga Kurbatova

Traditional therapy invokes authority, judgement, and hierarchy, although new ideas are percolating. Julie Peters dives into a different approach.

The cliched image of therapy has an older male therapist sitting in an armchair, taking notes, while a patient lies down on a couch telling the therapist all her secrets. It’s no wonder this idea doesn’t appeal to everyone. Do I just close my eyes, open my mouth, and let this random stranger judge me? It doesn’t exactly feel … healing.

Sigmund Freud, who did indeed work with his patients on a special couch, is known as the father of modern psycho-therapy. And while his insights have certainly been useful in some ways, his strategies have their limitations. In her book It’s Not Always Depression, psychologist Hilary Jacobs Hendel writes that she was:

“ ... born into a family of Freudians and a culture where mind over matter was the mantra. My mother had been a guidance counselor and my father was a psychiatrist. They believed that I could and should control my feelings with intellectual insight. Emotions were rarely discussed at home and, if they were, it was the goal to master them or ‘fix’ them.”

This fixing strategy didn’t work for her, either in her life or with her clients. It was when she discovered AEDP, Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy, that she found an approach that values and encourages working with the core emotions that had been reviled in her upbringing—emotions like anger, sadness, disgust, and joy. Through AEDP, she found powerful new ways to move through emotions by listening to and learning from them. “We cannot think our way through a core emotion,” she writes. “It must be experienced viscerally to be processed.”

Hendel isn’t the first person to take issue with traditional forms of therapy. Many early therapeutic strategies were developed by privileged white men like Freud. They were revolutionary at the time, and there are undoubtedly helpful pieces in them all. But therapies are always a product of the society they come from, and they tend to reinforce the values of that society. When patients lie on a couch to be judged by a more powerful figure taking notes on them, they are experiencing authority, judgment, and hierarchy. These are all colonial values.

Colonization can be thought of as a process where someone or a group of people leads others in taking what they want. Anything or anyone in the way of that is subdued or destroyed. In North America, settlers from Europe came to not only take natural resources, but also to “civilize” the Indigenous people, which included attempting to erase their religion, culture, language, and Indigenous identities. We are still living with the fallout of this violence generations later. Reconciliation for colonization in North America isn’t merely a process of political apologies and infrastructure changes, though those can certainly help. It’s also about acknowledging how this colonial structure still lives inside of us, in our unconscious values, habits, and patterns. Whatever our background may be, we must decolonize ourselves from the inside out.

Many people think of therapy as an apolitical space where our social, racial, and historical realities fade into the background. However, when we approach therapy as if this were true, we are missing big pieces about how we interact with the culture around us and what it means to have an identity in context. Further, for many of us, the traditional therapeutic intention is colonial in its function: A domineering “self” wants something and goes to therapy to subdue or destroy whatever internal processes are in its way. There is no consideration for the internal ecosystem or the spiritual, social, or political meaning of one’s physical or psychological “symptoms.”

Indigenous ways of being are generally quite different. Many tribes in North America share the saying “all my relations,” which is an acknowledgement that we are always in relationship with everything else. As Odawa elder and teacher Jean Wasegijig said in a class I took with her, “It’s all my relations, not all my Ojibwa or all my Algonquin!” The understanding is that everything—the animals, the forest, the communities of people around us, all are related, a part of an ever-living systemic whole.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of Skywoman, who fell to the earth from the domain of the sky when the planet was nothing but ocean. In her hand, she clutched a handful of seeds and branches from the sky’s Tree of Life. As the animals noticed her falling, they rose to help. The geese caught her, slowing her descent. The turtle offered his back for her to land on.

The loon, the otter, the beaver, and the sturgeon dove deep into the water to find her some earth, all failing, until, finally, the little muskrat floated to the surface with a small handful of dirt in his hand, having given his life for this mission. Skywoman danced and sang in gratitude to her animal friends, and the magic of that spread the dirt until it became the earth, the land we live on. She released the bundle of seeds in her hand and tended them, growing all sorts of plants and fruits that could feed the animals of the earth.

Kimmerer compares this story to the Christian tale of Adam and Eve, writing that, “The mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the sweet juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast.”

In the Indigenous worldview, humans, animals, and plants are a part of a system that must work together. There is a deep awareness that every action has a resonance and a consequence. The Christian colonial worldview is quite different from that: “Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden,” Kimmerer writes. “The land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land.”

If we apply these common Indigenous ideas to our internal experience, we discover an ecosystem of selves, symptoms, body sensations, needs, and material realities that interact with each other as well as with the outside world. Every part plays an important role, and the work of therapy could be about understanding the system as a whole rather than trying to force all the parts to submit to a singular will.

Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) concept is a form of therapy that takes more of an ecological view of the self. In his book No Bad Parts, Schwartz explains what he calls the “mono-mind belief system—the idea that you have one mind out of which different thoughts and emotions and impulses and urges emanate.” There is something very colonial about this concept:

“The mono-mind paradigm has caused us to fear our parts and view them as pathological. In our attempts to control what we consider to be disturbing thoughts and emotions, we just end up fighting, ignoring, disciplining, hiding, or feeling ashamed of those impulses that keep us from doing what we want to do in our lives. And then we shame ourselves for not being able to control them. In other words, we hate what gets in our way.”

From Schwartz’s perspective, as his book’s title suggests, there is no such thing as a bad part. Even parts that make us want to hurt other people or ourselves are there for an important reason. They are often trying to protect us from something, or they are frozen in a traumatic moment from the past. When we can look at our parts with compassion, we can learn the wisdom they have been holding and what we need to do to reintegrate them and move forward in our lives.

Parts can even talk to us through our bodies. When we get sick or injured, we have physical vulnerabilities that the parts can communicate through, especially when they’ve been suppressed. Sometimes pain or illnesses become chronic simply because our parts continue to use them to get our attention when we won’t listen to them directly. When we can acknowledge and integrate these parts, they may no longer need to speak through physical symptoms.

The therapeutic community has changed a lot since Freud, and ideas like AEDP and IFS are making space for a different way of approaching mental and emotional healing. Therapists who work with mindfulness practices encourage patients to compassionately notice everything that’s happening within themselves without immediately trying to fix or change it. Somatic approaches move beneath the mind to listen to the wisdom of the body, honoring what it may be holding separate from the rational mind.

We may even be able to approach our disagreements with this multiple, compassionate view. When we can forgive ourselves for causing harm by understanding that the part of us that caused that harm was trying to protect us in some way, we may begin to understand why others cause harm, too.

When we open to the perspectives of the multiple, sometimes conflicting, parts of ourselves, it becomes much easier to be with other people we dislike or don’t understand. Rather than shame and reject our internal or external others, which only exacerbates harm, we can begin to see and feel where the system is unbalanced and work towards reintegrating, reconciling, and healing as a whole. This necessarily includes attention to our natural environment as well.

Seeing ourselves as part of the web of everything and caring for the plants and animals of this earth as well as ourselves and each other is part of Skywoman’s legacy. These are the practices that can help us begin to decolonize our minds and bodies while we work to heal the earth and our societies. And as we do, we may begin to understand that everything—every emotion, every impulse, every body sensation, every river, tree, person, and landfill is, indeed, “all my relations.”

Decolonizing Therapy

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