When I notice the content of what much of our world suggests for self care, we don’t usually discuss either the political self or the possible therapeutic benefits of political action. These topics often include exercise, nutrition, unplugging from technology, engaging in spirituality, and spending time with loved ones.
Often, self-care can involve disengaging from politics and news in order to minimize the distress of thinking about the world’s problems. So, disengaging from our political self and news can be effective in therapy because we tend to feel better when we believe we have control. Or at least impact. And when it comes to some of the big issues in politics and news, we can lose that sense of control. Especially because we feel like we can’t make a difference. So how could engaging in a process that is hard for you to influence be therapeutic? Particularly when it can give us existential concerns that we just don’t matter?
Take Control Of Your Political Self
I remember a time when I was feeling profoundly defeated by politics, and really asking, do I matter in this process? What is one more or one less vote out of millions? Despite that feeling, I hoped to regain a sense of control. I made an effort to try and be involved a few years ago. I participated in all sorts of activities during a presidential election cycle, from knocking on doors in New Hampshire, to cold calling and texting voters. Then, I sent letters to infrequent voters, as well as attended and ran events where we discussed the issues.
I remember when I took my political self to my first event. It was a speed-dating type set-up and I had policy conversations with other voters. I was with about 20 people, in a city of hundreds of thousands, in a state of millions, in a country of hundreds of millions. I felt small. Obviously, I did not have the power to swing an election on my own. So I felt that this could be a deeply dispiriting experience. But if I shifted my expectations from changing the final outcome to making an impact on some hearts and minds. In that space with those people, I could find a sense of control.
Therefore, by making that change in my goals and expectations, I was able to have a very powerful and hopeful experience. Whether in the voting booth or simply in life, I knew that some of those conversations would lead to people responding differently to situations in their own lives. Hopefully, it could ripple to make someone else’s life better.
From Spectator To Protagonist
Some research indicates that it’s possible to benefit psychologically from political engagement. Paulo Freire originated the concept of conscientização, or critical consciousness. It means that the individual becomes aware of how social context drives oppression, and heals their self through taking action to undermine that oppression (1970).
Two key academic studies indicated the major impact conscientização can have on self-belief, motivation, and performance. It increases achievement for students through better high school grade performance, high school and extracurricular engagement, postsecondary expectations, and vocational outcome expectations among Latinx high school students (Mcwhirter & Mcwhirter, 2015; Luginbuhl, et al., 2016).
Moreover, professional counselors are recommended to understand and use this framework of conscientização when they support their clients. This is endorsed by the American Counseling Association. They say that a multiculturally competent counselor assists clients to develop a critical consciousness.
Lastly, how and why this works was expressed beautifully by psychologist Lillian Comas-Días. She wrote that with Liberation Psychotherapy, the therapist is helping clients “become protagonists, instead of spectators, in their lives” (2020).
The Political Self And Making Meaning
But what it means to take action depends on your own self. I was able to do an activity like knock on doors in New Hampshire because of privileges I held as a white man. I could feel reasonably safe walking around New Hampshire. Moreover, I didn’t need to be working for those hours in order to survive, and I had the physical ability to walk around after a snowstorm.
What it means for you to act, depends on you. What’s safe for you, what’s practical and what’s meaningful?
For example, some traditional forms of volunteering can include knocking on doors, making calls, sending texts, or writing letters. Some of these are social and some are solitary. Additionally, some of these require events at a particular time while others can be on your own time. And it doesn’t stop there,. These are simply common tactics which are built to support specific campaigns or issue efforts.
As Audre Lorde conveyed through her perspective as a black woman, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
What matters to you, and how your political self can take action to make things a little better, is something you can reflect on and explore. You have to assess what you wish to act on and change. For example, that could be changing the spaces you occupy by thriving within them. Or, perhaps spending your power and privilege to make space for someone else.
From a therapeutic perspective, what’s most important is that you understand the reason why what you’re doing is helpful, and that you have achievable goals. They must show you’re making a difference towards the outcome, even if you can’t completely control that outcome at the highest level. You need to feel the difference for yourself, and in that, lies therapeutic growth.
Comas-Días, L. (2020). Liberation Psychotherapy. In Liberation Psychology: Theory, Method, Practice, and Social Justice (pp. 283-294). American Psychological Association.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Seabury Press.
Mcwhirter, E. H., & Mcwhirter, B. T. (2015). Critical Consciousness and Vocational Development Among Latina/o High School Youth. Journal of Career Assessment, 24(3), 543–558. doi: 10.1177/1069072715599535
Luginbuhl, P. J., Mcwhirter, E. H., & Mcwhirter, B. T. (2016). Sociopolitical development, autonomous motivation, and education outcomes: Implications for low-income Latina/o adolescents. Journal of Latina/o Psychology, 4(1), 43–59. doi: 10.1037/lat0000041
Ratts, M. J., Singh, A. A., Nassar-McMillan, S., Butler, S. K., & McCullough, J. R. (2015).
Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies. Retrieved from https://bewelltherapygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/multicultural-and-social-justice-counseling-competencies.pdf