A Psychosocial Wellness Therapy
Indigenous and nonindigenous perspectives of “truth”
Should counselors abandon the idea of truth? Or shall I contest how this question is framed? Being raised with Native American attitudes, I never quite thought in terms of an idealized absolute truth to be mediated by intellectual experts. The very idea seems paternalistic—anathema to the Native spirit.
“It’s not about being right or wrong,” the Native elder wisdom explained, “but about being in right relationship.” The more responsive to the needs of one another, in our close knit community, the less dependent we would we on generalized rules for conduct. We would personally know one another’s specific needs from living in such close proximity to each other. Our psychosocial development was carefully watched by our clan mothers. Rumors and the threat of ostracization kept us in line, not impersonal police or adversarial courts.
Modern society is based on what Weber (1958) called legal-rational authority. Truth becomes a necessary remote authority. It provides some absolutes as basis for submitting to the will of the state (i.e., rule of law). Without intimate connections to inform us of one another’s current needs, greater utility is made of personal beliefs for proper conduct, rational cognition to reason appropriate actions, independent thinking for social cooperation, and legal codes to curb any anomie from such individualization. Metaphysical reality, whether existent or not, served the cultural need for solid, enforceable referents in a very dynamic psychosocial environment.
By contrast, many other cultures—like pre-acculturated Native American tribal societies—were based on what Weber called traditional authority. Truth was what helped the community adapt to nature, resulting in many parochial myths centered on narratives of how to relate holistically with all of nature. The “witchdoctor” healer would see someone’s problem as a break in this relationship with nature, and would know what do with these narratives for reconnection. By contrast in Western culture, “traditional counseling theories have used the same epistemological strategy as the rest of Western culture: First, discover the truth and then you will know what to do” (Hanson, 2007). This depersonalizing approach appears to have triggered increasing emphasis on empowering the individual person.
Inward and outward perspectives of need
When observing the progression of therapeutic orientations—starting with descriptive psychiatry to psychoanalysis to behaviorism to humanism to CBT—I see each one increasing individual human agency than the one before. The brevity of CBT feeds our modernist pace for our busy individualities. So we can get to being “social” online. I see this as part of a larger trend in Western culture to reify individuality. The less privileged appear to benefit less social cohesion. For them, problems in living will unlikely be fixed by individually changing.
This adds to the postmodern critique by questioning how each counseling orientation could be the objective truth about the human condition if each is relatively responsive to what the culture deems as being the human condition (i.e., personal responsibility for one’s problems). It begs the question: If the culture remains on this Western trajectory of individualism, would not the next most popular counseling orientation boost this role of human agency?
Political strands within Western culture have countered this privileging of the individual with greater emphases upon a communal front. The more recent counseling orientations take these into account, such as family systems therapy and feminist therapy. Rather than an appeal to some absolute truth, a pragmatic approach appears to redress that which is routinely experienced as most wanting—inward resourcefulness (ego needs) or outward resourcefulness (social needs). This differential can find expression in one’s political views.
Impact of psychosocial needs on political leanings
When access to internal resources (e.g., self-efficacy, autonomy) is routinely more available than external resources (e.g., belongingness, social supports), one tends to be predisposed toward liberal values. They often enjoy a stronger sense of who they uniquely are, resulting in strained cohesion in their various group identities. For example, they can accept their sexual feelings as different from the cultural norm, while feeling there are few if any groups where they can adequately fit in or fully belong. Often, liberal ideologies provide context for responding to their resulting need experiences.
When access to external resources is routinely more available than internal resources, one tends to be predisposed toward conservative values. They often enjoy a stronger sense of group cohesion, resulting in a diminished sense of self in their group identities. For example, they are reliably supported by their faith group, while feeling guilty for masturbating in private as potentially undermining this highly valued group cohesion. Often, conservative ideologies provide context for responding to resulting need experiences.
What does politics have to do with counseling?
Conventional wisdom to avoid discussing politics and religion cannot be rigidly applied in a counseling session. Despite posing an ethical landmine when the more privileged express their prejudices (MacLeod, 2014), their expressed political sentiments and how they express it can provide valuable insight into their salient needs. While the counselor can keep their personal politics removed from the therapeutic relation, lest they risk countertransference or imposing their political values, there is benefit to encouraging the client to share theirs.
By politics, I mean the art of generalizing how to agreeably relieve needs in a shared environment. I would want to know if my client experiences herself as a unique but vulnerable individual. I may pick this up when she generalizes how society should protect her diverse people like her. And I would want to know if my other client experiences himself in a supportive, cohesive group while encroached upon by others. I may pick this up when he generalizes about government intrusions. It is not about agreeing or disagreeing with their political views but hearing the needs those views expressed.
Each generalization makes an appeal for access to some essential public resource. The former may express it in familiar liberal rhetoric, the latter in familiar conservative rhetoric. They utilize truth claims to legitimize their access to publically available resources for both their immediate need and for relieving their psychosocial disequilibrium. Political leanings can make visible the less visible psychosocial tension which our clients suffer.
Rorty (1989) echoes this tension when speaking of a private/public split. His characterization of liberalism remains within the bounds of language and historically relative. His listed political aspirations are generally shared by Republicans, albeit they differ on how to achieve such lofty aims. Both sides, however, experience its underlying psychosocial tension as pre-constructed. A client’s uneven access to internal and external resources initially occur independent of language. Perhaps a reification of its pre-construct etiology gives rise to medical model diagnoses.
Implications for counseling
Diagnosis in the Western tradition typically posits problems within the poorly functioning individual. Groups or societies do not receive a diagnosis for being unfit for its less privileged members. At least not yet. The implicit if not explicit assumption is that all the sociocultural contributors to one’s wellness are presumed adequate. The toxic implication is stigmatizing. If clients are ultimately responsible for their own conditions then only the client must change.
“Under the banner of social justice and advocacy, counselors must also address the societal, historical and political issues that continue to oppress others” (MacLeod, 2014). One way to help reach this goal is to brand counseling as less about individual change and more equitably about psychosocial empowerment.
To this end I contribute my previous training in computer sciences, anthropology, sociology and public administration. For example, I am trying to develop an app I call Saybackr that empowers the powerless to speak truth to power. Instead of acquiescing helplessly to each microaggression and privileged rejection, the platform is to make it easier to understand and respond to one another's needs. The positive impact upon their psychosocial needs and development is expected to soften their truth claims, as value shifts from what they think about one another and claim as true toward what they can truly provide for one another.
Should counselors abandon its exclusive focus upon the individual? I suspect if it does, and utilizes the truth claims of a client’s political or other expressions as a guide, we would become more responsive to the etiology of many problems in living we diagnose for reimbursement. The more our basic needs are met and our psychosocial needs are resolved, the less motivated to cling to generalized absolutes.
The felt need for some unshakeable truth appears to have some of its roots in unmet needs. The more painful one’s unresolved needs the more inclined they are to cling to their familiar beliefs, no matter how errant they appear to others or the counselor. “For most people, the pain they feel is preferable to the pain they fear” (Paul and Paul, 1983, p. 49). Instead of the talking cure trying to talk some sense into her, her psychosocial condition can speak some sense to us.
Besides, the therapeutic relationship is far more than talk. The very act of focused listening, regardless of comprehension, conveys the client is worthy of such attention. Body language conveys positive regard, without a cognitive processed word. The emotional tone in their voice expresses the urgency of their reported need, even if just a grunt. An involuntary smile conveys the pleasure of a need resolved. Right relationships are less dependent on right answers.
We as counselors could be distracting ourselves with Western individuation norms. We may be missing how we are providing in microcosm to their need for proactive social support. As Cortney Warren characterized psychotherapy in her TED Talk (2014), “It is probably the only relationship that you will ever have in your entire life that exists solely to benefit you.” With this up front substance of dynamic interactive change, influencing oneself equally with others, I think we can leave behind our Western privileged notions of “truth.” Then find ways to be truer to one another, resulting in greater interpersonal and intrapersonal wellness.
Ted Talk: Honest Liars (see footnote below)
Hansen, J. T. (2007). Counseling without truth: Toward a neopragmatic foundation for counseling practice. Journal of Counseling & Development, 85, 423-430.
MacLeod, B. P. (2014). Addressing clients’ prejudices in counseling. Counseling Today. A Publication of the American Counseling Association. Retrieved at http://ct.counseling.org/2014/01/addressing-clients-prejudices-in-counseling
Paul, J. & Paul, M. (1983). Do I have to give up me to be loved by you?. Minneapolis, MN: CompCare Publishers.
Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Chapter Four: Private irony and liberal hope (pp. 73-95).