Tag Archives: Wholeness

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.

Eating Meditations: A Practice of Equanimity, Gratitude and Blessing

Photo Credit: “Street Eats” by satanoid via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D. and Rami Henrich, LCSW

Can mindfulness be useful for difficulties with food and eating habits?  Many think so. Here is an exercise I came across years ago that may help you slow down, name your experience, start to tune into your body and be thoughtful about how you nourish yourself.

For this approach, at first, try using a small portion of food, like a piece of fruit, or a small bite-size piece of bread or chocolate.  It is also lovely to savor a morning beverage in this way. Whole fruits, like oranges or apples, work well as your practice of mindfulness related to food advances.

Try this practice at a time when you are not feeling super hungry. Take your time with each step and use this exercise as an experiment.  Taking a simple breath between steps can help you stay focused and present. See if you can learn something new about yourself and eating.

  1. Become aware of looking at the food — you may mentally note “seeing, seeing,” as you look at it. Use a few moments to notice your experience of looking at the food. If other thoughts come or something disturbs you, pause, take a simple breath and release it slowly, letting any thoughts rise and fall. Return your attention to your breath or the experience of looking.
  2. After noticing your process of looking,  you can observe your state of mind — what is your state mind?  You may notice the desire to reach for the food, the craving perhaps for pleasant taste, or something else.  Note or name your state of mind.  For example,  “wanting.”
  3. Then, wait or look for an impulse to move toward the food you are looking at.  For example, note the intention to reach out your hand and move it out mindfully.  Use your awareness to follow the sensations, thoughts and feelings that are arising and passing away in the stretching of that hand. You may mentally note “reaching.”
  4. Continue in this way. Noticing and then naming your state of mind or action to yourself.  You may note “touching” and “lifting” up a piece of food. You may note “smelling” and then “placing” the bit of food in your mouth, then “tasting” and “chewing”.  You may also be aware of more discreet sensations of biting, or of texture and temperature.
  5. As you note “smelling” , “tasting” and “chewing,” you may become aware of the food as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Again if thoughts come return to the breath and the physical act of chewing or tasting.
  6. Take note of subtle mental reactions, associations or experiences towards the smell, texture or taste. These are more marginalized senses than vision and hearing. We tend to glide over them but they offer important ways to enrich our experience of food.
  7. You may note the desire or “wanting” for the more pleasant taste or aversion to unpleasant taste. Accept this and focus on the sensation you are having in your body versus your evaluation of it as good or bad.  For example, if you are taste something bitter, get curious and see if you can detect more subtlety in the bitterness. Where do you taste the bitterness in your mouth? Is there an after taste that is different than the initial impression you had? Is there a pungent or stringent quality? Try to deepen your experience of what you taste by using your awareness more.
  8. You may also broaden the lens of attention and consider your state of mind while eating: are you aware of  craving or greediness? Am I thinking, planning, re-living conversations, critiquing the food? What am I doing with my mind other than experiencing the food?  Can I shift my attention to focus more completely on the food?  Don’t force your awareness but try gently to expand or focus it on  the taste, smell, texture, temperature, consistency, etc…
  9. If you like, make some written notes of what you experienced and learned. Did you find something new in your experience? Did you learn something?  If so, reflect on that new learning or experience and express a simple gratitude for that awareness.

Finding Possibility

1-wX6WAQfE4nrzvhK4pzIUcQ-1024x640

by Umair Haque

Umair Haque wrote this piece entitled “Finding Possibility.” Umair is a thought leader, consultant and author whose personal journey from the achievement and trappings of success to a devastating fatal diagnosis and beyond helped him find peace, happiness and a passion to give to others. Here is an excerpt from one of  his reflections called The Sky in Us: Holding Possibility, an argument for transcending rationality and seeing the world and ourselves as possibility.

We do not really try bold things anymore, do we? Our ambitions are limited to staving off further decline. This is a lack of spirit, isn’t it?

Holding mind too close always breaks the spirit. The mind only believes in what is probable. It is limited by what has been.

Would the seed ever break the soil that way? Would the river ever reach the ocean? Would the rain ever burst the cloud?

So in this age of mind, this age of little delusions and big thoughts, if we are really to change anything at all, let us begin with us. And just discover that we are not only mind desperately clinging to self, like the clouds trying to contain the sky. How can they?


We are heart longing for possibility, and spirit containing impossibility. That is the sky in us.

The seed contains the tree, the tree contains the forest, the forest contains the rain, the rain contains the river, the river contains the ocean, the ocean contains the sky.

There is everything in that one seed. The sky is born right there in it.

Let us see the world that way.

Pull the Next One Up

summit
JONATHON RELD Shot at Maiden Dam, near King Williams Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa

by Marc Kelly Smith

When you get to the top of the mountain
Pull the next one up.
Then there’ll be two of you
Roped together at the waist
Tired and proud, knowing the mountain,
Knowing the human force it took
To bring both of you there.

And when the second one has finished
Taking in the view,
Satisfied by the heat and perspiration under the wool,
Let her pull the next one up;
Man or woman, climber of mountains.
Pull the next hand over
The last jagged rock
To become three.
Two showing what they’ve already seen.

And one knowing now the well-being with being
Finished with one mountain,
With being able to look out a long way
Toward other mountains.
Feeling a temptation to claim victory
As if mountains were human toys to own.

When you ask how high is this mountain
With a compulsion to know
Where you stand in relationship to other peaks,
Look down to wherefrom you came up

And see the rope that’s tied to your waist
Tied to the next man’s waist,
Tied to the next woman’s waist,
Tied to the first man’s waist,
To first woman’s waist … and pull the rope!

Never mind the flags you see flapping on conquered pinnacles.
Don’t waste time scratching inscriptions into the monolith.
You are the stone itself.
And each man, each woman up the mountain,
Each breath exhaled at the peak,
Each glad-I-made-it … here’s-my-hand,
Each heartbeat wrapped around the hot skin of the sun-bright sky,
Each noise panted or cracked with laughter,
Each embrace, each cloud that holds everyone in momentary doubt …

All these are inscriptions of a human force that can
Conquer conquering hand over hand pulling the rope
Next man up, next woman up.
Sharing a place, sharing a vision.
Room enough for all on all the mountain peaks.
Force enough for all
To hold all the hanging bodies
Dangling in the deep recesses of the mountain’s belly
Steady … until they have the courage …

Until they know the courage …
Until they understand
That the only courage there is is
To pull the next man up
Pull the next woman up
Pull the next up

Up

Up.

To read more about Marc Kelly Smith, founder of the poetry slam, go to www.marckellysmith.net

Cultural Competence and Bias

IMG_3718

by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.

As therapists, we recognize our ethical obligations to know and acknowledge the limits of our training and skills. We know that our expertise grows over time with experience and supervision, training, reading, dialogue and further training. These activities contribute to our mastery of specialized areas, methods or skills. But what about cultural competence? How do we become culturally competent? Does it just happen naturally or is there something we need to do?

I think of cultural competence as an evolving set of attitudes, knowledge, skills and awareness that supports my ability to relate to “other-ness” or the unknown in myself and those around me. Other-ness can also be thought of as experiences, ideas, practices, beliefs, and so on that I do not identify with, believe, do practice, or endorse.   In thinking about cultural competence, I focus on my connection to other-ness.  For me, it is less about achieving a level of proficiency as measured or defined by someone else and more about an ongoing process of refining the skills, attitudes and awareness practices that support my capacity to relate to and work with other-ness in myself and others.

In developing expertise in an area of practice, I might study, write and do research to deepen my knowledge base.  In mastering a particular treatment model, I study concepts, clinical vignettes and research. I also practice basic skills (or interventions), learn to identify particular patterns or signals and seek out supervision to help me perceive and respond to what I can not yet completely behold, understand and articulate.

In cultivating cultural competence, I rely heavily on my ever-changing ability to develop new attitudes and relationships as well as the capacity to use my awareness in new ways  to relate to ideas, practices, identities and other information I may not yet fully understand. I challenge myself to identify places where I am blocked from understanding or relating, instead of glossing over them and using my privilege to ignore or forget the experiences of others I do not in that moment connect to. Developing attitudes and growing awareness sometimes means exposing myself to and relating to people, practices and ideas that may feel foreign to me.  It may mean looking at deeply held beliefs and subtle biases that are not easy to identify or that are embarrassing or troubling. This can be a very difficult process!

Everyone Has Bias
One of the reasons the process of cultivating cultural competence is so difficult is bias. None of us want to have prejudices or biases but they are inevitable. In our work at LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center supervising and training therapists, we begin with the premise that every therapist, and in fact everyone, has bias. Bias starts with our experiences and the information we gather in life and gets filtered thru our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us, while others may be unknown or hidden.

Every therapist, no matter their identity or background, has bias. We define bias as anything (for example, any idea, belief, opinion, reaction or emotion) that limits one’s capacity to relate to another as whole and equal, or that which creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of another’s experience.

Therapeutic bias, if unexamined, can hinder or even endanger the therapeutic relationship but it can also be a looking glass into experience that can enlighten, deepen and transform our connections to our clients.

Observations from Our Practice
In our practice, at LifeWorks, we work with diverse clients, who identify across a variety of religions, genders, sexualities and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay & bisexual (39% of clients); trans, queer and genderqueer (13%); non-monogamous and polyamorous (40%), and clients who are kink and/or BDSM-identified (23%). And many clients endorse more than one of these identities.

A recent informal sampling of therapists in our practice revealed that approximately 25% of their clients had explicitly indicated that they had had previous therapy experiences where their therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care, or hindered their experience in therapy.  In our recently reported research (See: “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Henrich & Trawinski, 2016), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased.  Participants in that study reported that therapists were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy.

Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way – for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous or polyamorous – may have subtle or not so subtle biases about the groups with which they identify.  These biases may show up in therapists as reservations, judgments, concerns, worries about their clients or as strident beliefs, one-sidedness and even extreme positive regard.  Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or towards any other).  Our experience and research confimrs that bias affects us all.

Emphasizing Wholeness
Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods known as process-oriented psychology or processwork. Developed by Arnold Mindell and others, processwork is both a depth psychotherapy paradigm and a phenomenological approach to working with human problems that emphasizes wholeness, the flow of experience and awareness and the importance of all points of view Mindell coined the term “deep democracy” to describe the idea that all voices are important to the well-being of the whole.

Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists — and learning ourselves — to detect and identify bias, unfold its meaning, and learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of 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 or overemphasize in themselves.  Something important, and often subtle or outside of awareness, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at spontaneous or troubling reactions and perceptions.

From our perspective, it is probably impossible to get rid of bias entirely 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. It takes time and practice to develop the skills, awareness and attitudes that support the capacity to learn and grow from our bias — and in so doing, to increase our ability to understand, relate to our clients and to support their process of change.

There is no quick fix that we are aware of.  In our experience, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is more like a lifelong endeavor.

The Pain is Our Pain

IMG_2904By Brandon Haydon

The pain is our pain.
It is the wound in the world and
we are of the world.
I know that all moments,
across the whole of humanity,
are occasions of suffering and joy,
beyond my scope.

I suppose that when a blow lands
so close to heart and home,
the perimeter I hold against the tides of sorrow
breaks like a levee, and I risk such deluge.
The dark roil of Her great injury takes my breath.
Like black waves made of such gravity
that my light cannot escape.
For a moment longer than time,
in that numb, drowned dungeon, in a hole in the world,
I forget that it is not the whole of the world.

Camus inquires, “what else is there to do but live?”

And living is the celebration of the love
from which we emerge, deeper than our knowing
or our feeling because it is the love from the Source
where they are still the same.
I choose it.
My sight is bleary and my heart is pierced
and chained but I see you all stir and rise beside me.
I rise.
I remember.
I hail you, the other ships upon the roil.
Like lanterns that shatter the illusion of starless night.
Breaking the dark horizon with hope of a thousand
soul-sized suns in the fire-bled sky.

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.

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.