Tag Archives: self-acceptance

My One Problem

Arch reflected in waterby Cindy Trawinski

It is always foolish to oversimplify complex problems. Nonetheless from the viewpoint of the Dreaming, regardless of the complexity of your life, you can have only one problem – ignoring the Dreaming background to reality. Ignoring the Dreaming means marginalizing the deepest unformulated experiences that create your actions in everyday life. Every time you ignore the sentient, that is, generally unrecognized dreamlike perceptions, something inside of you goes into a mild form of shock because you have overlooked the spirit of life, your greatest potential power.

Arnold Mindell, Ph.D., Dreaming While Awake

I love this quote from Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psychology also know as process work. .

It reminds me of the importance of awareness. It nudges me to be more curious and to open to the subtle disturbances I sometimes overlook. It helps me remember that, underneath my emotions, thoughts and beliefs, is an exquisitely responsive inner ecosystem. It reminds me that I too am an animal, a part of nature and that nature is moving through me. When I lose my connection to the deeper nature, when I step over my reactions or am lulled into the rhythm of my everyday experiences or identities, there may be a part of me that goes into a kind of altered state.

Learning how this happens specifically for me means, in part, learning what kinds of experiences I tend to marginalize, ignore or avoid. Discovering what kinds of events tend to pull me away from my awareness and what awareness I pull away from is a lifetime’s practice that I am only just beginning. But it is one that calls me forward.

Deep Democracy: Coming to Understand My Polyamory

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

This is the first in a series of articles about the intersections of polyamorous identities and psychotherapy, adapted from my article in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients” (Henrich & Trawinski 2016).  In this installment, I explore the ways in Process Work influenced my understanding of polyamory and drove my research into the topic.

What Is Process Work?
In the late 1970’s, Arnold Mindell founded Process Work (otherwise known as Process-Oriented Psychology), which has its roots in Jungian psychology, physics, and Taoism. In very general terms, the practice of Process Work is one of understanding people’s “processes,” or said another way, the flow of experience as it unfolds in oneself and in the environment. “The Taoist view of life assumes that the way things are unfolding contains the basic elements necessary for solving human problems.” 1 In order to stay close to this “unfolding,” Process Work is focused on expanding personal awareness and “paying attention both to events that support your identity and to the disavowed aspects of life—to which you do not usually pay attention—that disturb.”2

As an awareness paradigm, Process Work has a wide range of applications including individual work, relationship work, and group conflict facilitation work. In the sections that follow, I discuss some of the Process Work theories and methods that have been most helpful to me as a person involved in a polyamorous relationship, as a clinician and as a support group facilitator for people who identify as or are exploring polyamory and consensual non-monogamy (CNM).

Believing in My Path of Heart
One of the greatest gifts that Process Work has given me is the ability to accept my wild, adventurous, intense, and outrageous nature with greater ease. As much as I knew I could never really deviate from my deepest self and path of heart, I was nonetheless intermittently conflicted about my relationship scene and wondered if something might be wrong with me, wrong with us. I had a tendency to pathologize my curiosity, my intensity, my sexual explorations, my counter-culture relationship, and my general out-of- the-boxness, but Process Work helped me to see the value in my own inner diversity. It offered a perspective that emphasized “the belief that inherent within even the most difficult problem lays the seed of its solution.” 3 In other words, Process Work suggests that what you doubt about yourself or what you think is wrong with you may in fact be the seed of something beautiful and useful that wants to unfold and be lived more completely. For me, the idea that my family’s polyamorous relationship might somehow be perfect and hold exactly what is needed was a radical and deeply relieving perspective.

Process Work does not rely on preconceived notions of what is right or wrong, “it follows experiences rather than holding fast to any culturally determined standards.” 4 According to Julie Diamond and Lee Spark Jones, “following the flow of process involves caring for the absurd and impossible and going against conventional beliefs and ways of seeing things. … [it] also involves going with what is happening in a given moment, rather than resisting it.” 5 This lack of judgment, attention to personal experience, and respect for the unconventional was liberating. As I began to unfold and follow the flow of my individual and relationship experiences, my internalized judgments and resistance began to slowly dissolve. This cleared the way for me to embrace my path of heart more fully.

In the words of Arnold Mindell:

The path of heart makes you feel strong and happy about your life because it follows your dreams, your dreaming body, your mythical task. … If you view the world from the path of heart, you understand it to be the place … that you need in order to grow. The world is awful and awesome; from the viewpoint of the path of heart, what happens is meant to be used, completely and fully … to find our entire selves. 6

By bringing forth awareness of how polyamory is an aspect of my life myth (or the path of my life), Process Work has helped me to de-pathologize my view of myself and my relationships. It has kept me close to the dreaming and meaning that flows through this path, and it has paved the way for greater self-development and relationship growth.

Becoming Aware of Marginalization and Internalized Oppression
Cindy, Tom, and I have always been aware that our non-monogamous relationship meant that we were outside the mainstream, but Process Work provided me with the additional framing of marginalization, which has helped tremendously. To realize that non-mainstream people are marginalized by the dominant culture in such a way that it leads to internalized oppression confirmed my experience and provided some relief. As Mindell points out, in addition to external forms of oppression, discrimination and bias, “many people from minority groups are plagued by self-doubt, self-hatred or hopelessness and think these feelings are only their own problems” 7, when in reality these people “suffer from different forms of internalized oppression picked up from the mainstream.” 8

It is often difficult to recognize internalized oppression because it can take on the form of an inner critic, a relationship argument, or some other personal manifestation, but Process Work helped me to de-personalize it and wake up to the ways in which our family’s difficulties and feelings of self-doubt were not entirely our own. Such pervasive forces can creep into a polyamorous relationship and have a huge impact on the interactions and atmosphere of the relationship. “You can exhaust yourself dealing with your personal pain and fighting, not only the mainstream, but members in your [relationship] who are unconscious of oppression’s effects.” 9 In addition, internalized oppression and inner criticism can enhance and reinforce marginalization that occurs within the relationship and between the members. Having some awareness of the internalized oppression goes a long way towards minimizing these effects, because “every time you free yourself from a sense of internal oppression, you begin to transform the cultures [and relationships] you live in.” 10

 

Read the remainder of this article and learn more about deep democracy and polyamory at the KPACT website.

Healing from Affairs — Cheating is not Polyamory

Photo Credit: Paper by Steven Guzzardi via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Affairs can surface in a long-term relationship.  Can healing occur when the affairs have been covert, repeated and ongoing?

Several years ago a couple, Peter and Sherri (not their real names), a married, het/cisgender couple, came to see me. They had been married for approximately 25 years. As are my usual questions when I first meet folks for psychotherapy, I asked, “So what brings you here today? How do you think I can be of assistance?”

“Well,” Sherri said, “My husband thinks he’s poly amorphous.”

Hmmm, I thought, and I asked her: “Do you mean polyamorous?”

“Yeah, that!” she said.

“And what makes the two of you think that Peter is polyamorous?”

Peter responded: “I’ve been with about 25 women during our marriage—even the day after we got married.”

“And did you and your wife agree to an open relationship?”

“Not exactly!” Sherri piped in. “I didn’t know anything about all this until last week when Peter told me that he is poly amorphous! Is he?!”

This was the beginning of a course of therapy to both understand the distinctions of an open marriage; to delve deeply into feelings of betrayal and decimation of trust; and to explore the possibilities of healing and forgiveness, staying together, or ending the marriage.

It was a long process, but the couple rolled up their sleeves to embark on the endeavor and were determined work on themselves as individuals and the relationship they shared.  A breakthrough came when Sherri discovered the ways in which she had been “cheating” on the relationship. Although it was not sexual in nature, she recognized that she secreted away parts of herself from Peter. She had hid important aspects of her inner and outer worlds from him. Seeing for themselves that the cheater and cheated one lived in both of them, and that each of them had been “cheating” on the other,  healing began.

This couple eventually decided to separate, but considered their work a success. Each found what was most accurate for themselves in terms of lifestyle, values, drives, preferences, and so on.  They took the high road to healing, making forgiveness a priority. It was not a simple task by any means but, in this case, it was a worthwhile one.

Returning to Therapy — A Profound Act of Self-care

returning to therapy
“Spiral” by Khairul Nizam, licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D., Dipl. PW & Rami Henrich, LCSW, Dipl. PW

“I can’t believe I’m here… again.”

Some people returning to therapy for the second, third, or fifth time often wonder “why do I need to go back to therapy?” “was there something I should have handled the last time around?” “maybe I am not really getting to my issues…is it me, my therapist, the approach, or the entire endeavor?”  

Some clients say they feel as though they’ve “failed,” that they weren’t “strong enough” to take care of themselves on their own.  Sinking into self-reproach, they feel wonder if they are somehow fated to repeat a cycle of false or temporary solutions to a problems that seem intractable. Maybe a previous, positive experience in therapy imparted a sense of resilience or well-being that now seems shockingly absent. “Didn’t I already go through this?” They ask themselves. “Isn’t that part of my life over?” 

For others, returning to therapy is a natural part of their self care and personal growth regiment as getting a haircut, going to the dentist or eating three meals a day.

Clients come back to therapy for many different reasons. Recent trauma, loss, or significant life events—such as a change of relationship, job, move, or other transition—can create inner disturbance or bring up patterns that have not been fully resolved.  Questions about one’s identity, sexuality, or spiritual beliefs can prompt deep-seated uncertainty. Relationship conflicts or disappointments can leave us feeling in need of support.  Ongoing issues like depression, anxiety, addiction, and self-harm can interfere with daily life and relationships. All of these difficulties, worries and questions can motivate a person to make a change and seek help.

This brings me to my main point: returning to therapy is a profound act of self-care—even if you don’t realize it at the time. If you are thinking of returning to therapy, consider the possibility that you are responding to a deep awareness that you want or would benefit from help, support or guidance to find or create a new sense of yourself.

In her article “Starting therapy, again…” San Francisco therapist, Carly Earnshaw, MFT, explains that “[r]egardless of whether your last therapy went great or awful, you have an advantage over the first time you tried therapy.” Here are the some of the reasons she gives for why:

  • You have a better idea of what therapy is about
  • You have a clearer understanding of what works and doesn’t work for you in therapy
  • You’re aware of the investment and the payoff

I encourage you to read her article in full, as it speaks to the different mindsets and assuages the fears I often see in clients who are returning to therapy.

Considering seeing a mental health professional again? Below are a few quick ways you can prepare to make the most out of your next time in therapy:

  1. Understand that you are not alone. It is not uncommon for clients to return to counseling when it has worked for them in the past, or out of a desire to find something that will work. Countless people come back to therapy throughout their lives, building on each experience. In fact, your therapist is likely one of those people!
  1. Take your time. If you have decided to seek help, you do not have to book an appointment immediately or stick with the first therapist you find. Allow yourself the time to research and explore your options—remember, you now have a stronger sense of what you’re looking for.
  1. Be mindful of your therapist’s responses and attitude. Whether calling to get in touch or engaging in your first session, pay attention to your intuition and comfort level, as well as how your therapist reacts to you. Listen to how she interprets your words and recognize that, while she intends to help, she doesn’t have all the answers. Again, take your time and be patient until you find someone who you feel hears and appreciates you on your terms.
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If a certain approach works best for you, or you need to speak to someone who understands specific issues—such as PTSD, polyamory, kink/BDSM, the experiences of racial and/or gender minorities, or religious convictions—speak up. Your therapist may not be qualified to provide what you need, but chances are she can refer you to a colleague who can.

If you have been there before, what do you look for in a new therapeutic relationship? We would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and stories. Feel free to leave a comment below, or reach out to us on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or LinkedIn.

Building Trust

building trust

by Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

Julie Diamond, Ph.D. is a colleague and former therapist, who has turned her attention to the issues facing organizations.  In the blog below she talks about a human dilemma that is not limited to work life – trust. As you read it, consider where in your life trust is missing and what you might do to build it or break it.

Last month, The World Summit on Organizational Development met here in Portland, Oregon, my home town. Among other things, I had the pleasure of attending this plenary session byAdam Kahane“Doing Organizational Development Beyond the Organization: What It Takes to Solve Today’s Toughest Problems.” 

I loved his talk. It was insightful and practical. And funny. Speaking of collaboration, Kahane put up a slide listing requirements for effective collaboration among diverse and even antagonistic stakeholders. The usual suspects were there: common vision, agreement on goals, trust, etc. And then one by one, he debunked them. The reality of what it means to collaborate in the 21st century is this: knowing how to have conflict, working without trust, and foregoing the luxury of shared goals and visions.

And then Kahane said this, a phrase I’ve used many times: trust is not a precondition to working together, it’s the result. Let me say it again: trust is not a precondition, it’s an outcome.

The assumption that we begin with trust, is not just naïve, it’s also not possible.

And yet, I hear it all the time with the teams and organizations I work in and with. When I ask what the problem is, people often say “We don’t trust each other,” or “we need more trust on this team.” I don’t get it. The lack of trust is the result, not the cause. How can there to be trust before teamwork?

When people speak about trust in this way, they’re not talking about building teamwork but guaranteeing it: “First create the conditions for perfect success by demonstrating you will never disappoint me, thus proving to me you are 100% trustworthy, and then we can work together.”

Life doesn’t work like that. We cannot place our capacity to act and succeed in the actions of another. We cannot mitigate risk. We cannot guarantee success at the outset. Not in the workplace, and not in relationships. We get involved with untested people. We commit, marry, sign a mortgage and have children with people who have not been vetted. Why? Because it takes a long time to really know someone.

And what about us? We’re also unproven. We don’t know ourselves fully either. We cannot know who we will be in five years. Life changes us. Loss, grief, financial and family struggles change our value systems and our outlook. Even moment to moment, we cannot be fully honest about our motivations and feelings. We have limits, conflicts, and stresses of which we know nothing.

And this brings me to the second problem with trust. If we do make the conceptual leap I’m describing, and see that trust has to be earned, the next misconception involves how to earn it.

How do we earn trust? By proving ourselves trustworthy of course.

But that’s impossible. No one is ever fully trustworthy. The dirty little secret behind the billion dollar “trust and teamwork” industry is that being fully trustworthy is not possible.

We’re going to disappoint people. We are going to prove ourselves untrustworthy. As long as there is some part of us of which we’re not fully aware, as long as we are growing beings, we will have blind spots. We will say one thing, feel another, and do yet another, without being cognizant of it.

  • We say yes, and override our exhaustion, because we don’t want to disappoint people, but we don’t have the energy to follow through.
  • We agree to help because we’re driven by a need to be useful, but we’re over-committed and drop the ball.
  • We are desperate for recognition so we join a team with a high profile but feel out of our depths and can’t really deliver what we’ve said we would.
  • We get hurt when our idea is rejected, and then become unconsciously obstructionist and difficult to work with

There are a million reasons why, in any given moment, our behavior undermines our trustworthiness.

So, how do we build trust? Whom do I trust, if no one is fully trustworthy?

I trust people who make mistakes, fail to meet their goals, let me down, and can admit it, apologize, and be honest about their shortcomings.

Trust is developed not by avoiding mistakes and conflicts, but by making and repairing them. Trust is not developed by making good on your word, but on what you do after you break it.

Here’s what builds trust, in my experience:

  1. Stop measuring trust as an all or nothing deal. I can be trusted for some things, but not others. Know what you can’t be trusted on, and make sure people know that. Befriend the fact that people are inherently unreliable, and learn to work with it, instead of pretending you can prevent it.
  2. Learn how to identify and admit your shortcomings. The more we know our limits, and can discuss them with others, the more forewarned and thus forearmed everyone is. Our desire to be perfect makes us hide our shortcomings, and this makes us untrustworthy.
  3. Master the art of apology. People who cannot apologize are protecting themselves at the expense of the teamwork. Apologies are not just admitting wrongdoing, and saying you’re sorry. Apologies must also include understanding, and expressing your empathy over the discomfort or difficulty that the other person experienced as the result of your actions. Unless you know and feel what your actions resulted in, you’re not really apologizing.

We will disappoint each other. But it’s what happens afterwards that builds trust. If you can have an honest conversation about your own and the others’ limitations and issues, the things that make you both untrustworthy, then you have just put into place the foundation for trust.

A Primer on Growth and Change

PIC-0020-225x300What is growth? What kinds of changes do face?  How does growth and change occur?  How long does it take to change?  Trainer, consultant and author, Julie Diamond, Ph.D., offers insights into change that should resonate with therapists and clients alike.  Julie is author of Power: A User’s Guide and A Path Made by Walking (with Lee Spark Jones).

by Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

The older I get the more I realize that many of the things I found insurmountable when I was younger changed when I wasn’t looking. In my early twenties I struggled with intense jealousy. It was crazy. If two of my friends even just talked on the phone I would feel insanely left out. And I hated being alone, to the point where the thought of having to be alone for extended period of times sent me into a panic. I spent 99% of my energy working on those two things.  They felt permanent and overwhelming, and seemed to define me. I look back on them now and not only are they gone, but I don’t even remember when they left. It’s as if, one day, they just packed their bags and left.

But now I know they didn’t just leave. I got bigger. As I explored myself to find why spending time alone was so bad, I grew in self-awareness. As I wrestled with a nasty inner critic (that fanned the flames of jealousy) I grew in confidence. My sense of self grew bigger in relationship to my fears and anxieties.

When I work with people on their personal and professional development now, I think in terms of this distinction: What kind of change process is this? What needs to change, the behavior or the attitude towards it? Will this change of its own accord, and if not, what kind of efforts are needed? I find it helpful in working with people to parse their problems into types of issues and types of change.

So here’s my little Primer on Personal Growth and Change, and it starts with the question: What is the nature of the thing we’re tackling?

Is it a complex, trigger, or edge?

We all have scars forged in life’s battles and sometimes they get aggravated under the right conditions. These “triggers” or complexes create zones of non-navigability, and in some situations, they make us insecure and ineffective. These things rob us of our freedom. They are fears that inhibit us, triggers or emotional reactions that hijack our behavior, and moods that makes us feel dejected or dispirited.

These things can and do change, but only with sustained effort and awareness. Their roots are often tangled in past experiences. And sometimes the process of working on it is its own solution. Like me in my twenties, working on jealousy and phobias, unpacking, examining, and working through my fears and complexes changed me.   While you’re distracting yourself by focusing on these triggers, you’re also growing a solid sense of self. In fact, these things take hold only to the degree that your sense of self (Big “S” Self) is small. Working on these old patterns and stories increases your self-awareness, and helps you carve out a deep and abiding center, capable of facing of life’s challenges.

Am I struggling with my nature?

Sometimes we struggle not with a complex or fear, but with our own nature. We don’t like ourselves, or some part of ourselves. We all grow up in a context that prizes some behaviors and disavows others. And so we grow up wanting to fit in, and be like others. We think we’re too loud and try to be quieter. We struggle being an introvert in an extroverted family. We’re called hyperactive, so we try to chill out. It’s in the nature of a culture to prize some behaviors over others in order to socialize its members to adapt and survive.

Yet some things won’t, and can’t change. They belong to us, like white on rice, part and parcel of our incarnation. These are our unique traits, and like them or not, they are the raw material from which you form yourself. Your traits are the hand you are dealt in the poker game of life, and learning to play that hand is the only option you have.

Traits become a great source of strength and wonderful talents, once we grow comfortable with them and use them to their fullest. If we are comfortable in our introversion, others will be too. If we come to appreciate our bossiness and see it as potential leadership, it will be a great ally for us. If we can discover what’s good about being easy going and conflict avoidant, we can make it work to great advantage.

So, changing, in this regard, means acceptance, changing our attitude towards ourselves, or maybe changing what we do or who we socialize with, so that our traits more naturally fit in, and are better appreciated and put to use.

Do I need to learn something new?

Learning isn’t for the faint of heart. The more I work with people on their personal and professional growth, the more I appreciate the complexity of learning.

Learning is a behavior we have to learn! But we aren’t taught how to learn. In fact, many of us were taught how not to learn by focusing on being right and avoid making mistakes. And then we make it worse by trying to compensate  against that, and defensively embracing ourselves as we are, seeing doubts or challenges as a threat or injury to our self-esteem.

When change means learning something new, it can be straightforward, but often it’s not. Because to learn, and learn well, we need a loving ability to hold ourselves at the edge of discomfort. Learning requires a good mix of muscle, self-love, and endurance. And we need to set ourselves up for success by breaking things down into manageable bites so we don’t get overwhelmed. We need the freedom to make mistakes, but also the discipline to examine them and learn from them.

Change and growth isn’t just a straight path from A to B. It’s a process. Thankfully. There’s a lot to discover along that path, as long as we take time to discover what kind of change process we’re in.

Julie will be in Chicago in April!

On Friday, April 1, Julie will be talking about power and reading from her new book, Power: A User’s Guide, at the KPACT event, 6-8 pm, at Tribe Healing Arts Center. 2 APA-approved CEs available.  

On Sunday, April 3, LifeWorks will host a day-long workshop with Julie for psychotherapists, entitled Beyond Ethics: Power in the Helping Relationship. 4.5 APA-approved CEs available.

How To Be a LGBT Ally

images

by Hayley Miller

This post originally appeared on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) blog on October 5, 2015,  in advance of National Coming Out Day.  It was written by Hayley Miller, Senior Digital Media Associate.  We think it contains valuable information for anyone wanting to become more affirming and supportive to LGBT friends and family members.

For a lot of people, learning that someone they know and care about is LGBT can open a range of emotions, from confused to concerned, awkward to honored. It may be hard to know how to react, leaving you with questions about what to say, how to talk about being LGBT and wanting to know what you can do to be supportive.

An “ally” is a term used to describe someone who is supportive of LGBT people. It encompasses non-LGBT allies as well as those within the LGBT community who support each other, e.g. a lesbian who is an ally to the bisexual community.

Here are five ways you can be an LGBT ally:

  1. Be honest:  It’s important to be honest with yourself — acknowledging your feelings and coming to terms with them. And it means being honest with the person who came out in your life — acknowledging you aren’t an expert, asking them what’s important to them, seeking resources to better understand the realities of being an LGBT individual so that you can be truly informed and supportive.
  2. Send gentle signals: Showing and sharing your acceptance and support can be very easy. Many people often don’t realize that LGBT people keep watch for signs from their friends, family and acquaintances about whether it is safe to be open with them. It can be as subtle as having an LGBT-themed book on your coffee table.
  3. Have courage: Just as it takes courage for LGBT people to be open and honest about who they are, it also takes courage to support your LGBT friends or loved ones. We live in a society where prejudice still exists and where discrimination is still far too common. Recognizing these facts and giving your support to that person will take your relationship to a higher level and is a small step toward a better and more accepting world.
  4. Be reassuring: Explain to a someone who came out to you that their sexual orientation or gender identity has not changed how you feel about them, but it might take a little while for you to digest what they have told you. You still care for and respect them as much as you ever have or more. And that you want to do right by them and that you welcome them telling you if anything you say or do is upsetting.
  5. Let your support inform your decisions: It’s about working to develop a true understanding of what it means to be LGBT in America and trying to do your part to help break down the walls of prejudice and discrimination that still exist — for example, by supporting businesses with appropriate anti-discrimination policies, saying you don’t appreciate “humor” that demeans LGBT people when it happens or learning about where political candidates stand on issues that have an impact on the LGBT community.

HRC’s Coming Out as a Supporter resource, made in partnership with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) National, is intended to be a welcoming guide for supporters to build bridges of understanding when someone they know comes out to them as LGBT. The guide answers initial questions and shares facts, strategies, and ways to show your support as an ally in the fight for LGBT equality.

Read the guide in full here.

Everyone Has Bias

therapist bias

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

No one is immune from bias, not even us therapists! Everyone has bias.

Therapist bias takes many forms, especially with regards to clients’ sexuality, gender, erotic orientation, etc… 

Bias ranges from misinformed opinions about BDSM to confusing polyamory with infidelity to other subtle perceptions, beliefs and attitudes.  Bias is a part of us all and we need ways to work with it, learn from it and transform ourselves. 

Where Does Therapist Bias Begin?

How does bias impact clients? What can be done to mitigate its effects? Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. and I attended the 2015 Alternative Sexualities Conference* (or ASC), where I presented “Uncovering Therapist Bias – A Lifelong Approach,” a talk about these questions and more.

*Produced by the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS) and Projects Advancing Sexual Diversity (PASD), the ASC brings together leading researchers, clinicians, and educators for a one-day series of seminars and discussions about cultural concerns, clinical issues, and the latest research in the field of sex-positive therapy.

I wanted to share a few of the highlights from the ASC conference.

Why Talk About Therapist Bias?

The topic of therapist bias is especially interesting to us in our work as psychotherapists, educators and clinical supervisors. Our goal is to help the therapists we train and educate learn to recognize bias in themselves. By acknowledging that each of us holds onto certain biases, we can begin to discover and work with unknown or unexamined perceptions, beliefs and attitudes to enhance our ability to understand the diverse experiences that clients bring.  We believe this is best accomplished by deepening experience and awareness toward ourselves as well as others.

Keep reading for a summary of our ASC presentation:

Therapist Bias as a Clinical Issue

At LifeWorks, our clients identify across a variety of religious and spiritual practices, genders, sexualities, erotic orientations and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, non-monogamous and polyamorous, and kink and/or BDSM-identified. Many hold more than one of these identities. Being able to identify, transform and understand therapist bias when it occurs is critical to our work.

In a recent informal sampling, a significant number of clients explicitly indicated that they had had experiences where a previous therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care or hindered their experience in therapy. In an unpublished study (Henrich, 2011), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous reported that they had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased. Participants in the study reported that therapists who were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy lead to them avoiding certain topics or leaving therapy.

Further, a 2006 study by Drs. Keely Kolmes, Wendy Stock, and Charles Moser found 67% of therapeutic relationships with kink/BDSM-identified clients reported instances of biased care, including:

  1. considering BDSM to be unhealthy,
  2. requiring a client to give up BDSM activity in order to continue treatment,
  3. confusing BDSM with abuse,
  4. the client having to educate the therapist about BDSM,
  5. assuming that BDSM interests are indicative of past family/spousal abuse, and
  6. therapists misrepresenting their expertise by stating that they are BDSM-positive when they are not actually knowledgeable about BDSM practices.

Therapist bias can be devastating for clients. It can undermine the therapeutic relationship and prevent clients from getting the help they seek.

New Perspectives on Therapist Bias

Therapist bias, as we define it, is a perception, attitude, emotion, belief or idea that limits the therapist’s capacity to relate to their client as whole, or that creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of that person’s experience. If left unexamined, therapeutic bias can wound the client by replicating (in the therapy) the stigma and bias they face in the outside world or triggering internalized oppression and further damaging the sense of self.  At the same time, we have seen bias be an important looking glass into the therapist’s and the client’s experience that can enlighten, deepen, and transform the connection and relationship between the client and the therapist.

In our work, we begin with the premise that every therapist—and in fact everyone—has bias. Bias comes from our experiences and the information we gather in life, which are filtered through our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us and some are unknown or hidden.

Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way—for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous, or polyamorous—may have biases about the groups with which they identify. Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or any other). In our experience and anecdotal research, we find that bias is in all of us and affects us all.

Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods, developed by Arnold Mindell and others, known as process-oriented psychology or process work. Process work is an approach to working with human problems that emphasizes awareness, the flow of experience, and embracing disturbance.

Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists to detect and identify bias, to unfold its meaning and to learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of themselves or their clients that they may find difficult, disturbing or troubling. In our experience, therapist bias is often a reflection or expression of some quality or trait that the therapist has a tendency to marginalize in themselves or has a tendency to have too much of. Something important, and often subtle, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at our reactions and perceptions.

From our perspective, getting rid of bias is probably impossible, but we have found that it is possible to embrace and transform therapist bias into something that enhances the capacity to experience and support clients’ wholeness. In our experience, however, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is a lifelong endeavor.

During the ASC presentation, we demonstrated an inner work technique that we developed for discovering the meaning and value of bias. We guided participants through an experiential exercise, which offered participants an opportunity to learn to detect and work with their experience of bias first hand. After the exercise, participants shared their experience and learning in small groups and we then facilitated a guided debrief where participants shared what they noticed, where they got stuck in the inner work and what might be useful about what they discovered.

If you are interested in the topic of therapist bias or have had personal experiences of it, we would love to hear from you. If you have any questions about our presentation, would like to see the list of references we used, or simply want to say hello, contact us.

LifeWorks also facilitates monthly Poly & Kink Support Groups in Chicago at the Center on Halsted. For more information about these and other upcoming events, visit www.lifeworkspsychotherapy.com/events.

Longing for Belonging

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by Rami Henrich, LCSW

The Chicago Polyamory Support Group is now into its 6th year. The group has welcomed hundreds of people through its doors. Being an open support group, anyone can come at any time. Each month a topic is selected and each time the discussion flows — both on and off topic as the group process unfolds.

A recent topic was “Telling Our Stories,” — sharing ourselves and listening with hearts open and attentive minds. Thirty people gathered and each person had the opportunity (if they so chose) to tell their story — embracing an in-the-moment, impromptu telling. Nothing prepackaged or prepared ahead of time. What happened was moving, touching, inspiring, brought tears to my eyes and smiles to my lips for 2 hours.

Whether 30 seconds or 3 minutes in duration, each story spoke to the depths of each person who shared…stories of sadness, endurance, strength, tenderness, upbringings filled with love and caring, pain and sorrow. One theme that echoed throughout the room was that of feeling “weird, an outsider, of not belonging” both in families of origin and over the course of time in the world. The feeling of not belonging mirrored the experiences I have written about in a paper on the concerns and issues unique to polyamorous clients who seek psychotherapy. Interesting!

The Chicago Poly Support Group has grown into a community of people who provide a home where those of us who feel on the fringes of mainstream society can bring our “outsiderness” in and feel inside, where we, who feel weird, can feel normal in our weirdness, where those of us who feel like we don’t belong, do belong.

Longing for belonging, so personal, and so universal — especially for those of us who may feel that we don’t.