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  • Rebecca Esho Greenslade

Love and Liberation: the consulting room as liberatory praxis



This post is an edited version of a presentation given at the 2023 Inaugural bell hooks Symposium: Dissident Feminisms, June 16th – 18th 2023 at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The symposium was sponsored by the bell hooks center and the Department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Berea College. It was an inspiring and galvanizing gathering of feminist thought and praxis, rooted in an ethic of love. I write in deep gratitude to the organisers and fellow participants for your conversation and care.


Love and Liberation: the consulting room as liberatory praxis


Psychotherapeutic orthodoxes


Mark Fisher utilised the term ‘capitalist realism’ to refer to how neo-liberalism has circumscribed our social and political possibilities to a reality entirely dominated by capitalism (2009). What Fisher termed ‘post-capitalist desires’ are rendered unimaginable, impossible to conceive and to actualise (2021). Neo-liberalism, has in Fisher’s terms, operated a programme of ‘consciousness deflation’ – a squashing of the expanding collective consciousnesses of 1970’s counterculture and suppression of imagining an otherwise. The psy-disciplines have not escaped this consciousness deflation; by contrast, they have become a site of reproduction of neoliberal capitalist ideology (Rose 1990, Smail 2005, Parker 2014, Rustin 2015, LeMarre et al 2019). The dominant practice model of mainstream psychotherapy is entrenched within, and operates from, notions of individualism, commodification, privatization, depoliticisation and maintaining the status quo. From a UK perspective, we see this in the multiple crises of care that are the result of slashed public funds on care services, we see this in the increasingly manualised treatments of the National Health Service’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies where there are long waiting lists for inflexible short term behavioural therapies, we see this in the utilisation of therapists in job centres to psychologically coerce people back to work, in the pathologisation of distress and ever expanding categorisation of ‘mental illness’. We see this in polypharmacy and unmonitored psychotropic prescriptions. We see this when first year psychotherapy students talk about social change and final year students talk about how much to charge in private practice.


As a psychotherapist, I am painfully aware of how my therapeutic work can be conduit for the types of neo-liberal subjectification that is rooted in figurations of consumerism and extraction. Here, I wish to consider how psychotherapy can resist the mechanisms of privatisation that keep our inner lives secret, that keep us away from each other and that maintain neo-liberal narratives of personal responsibility and self-blame as the cause of our suffering To do so, I consider the potential relationship between liberation psychology (an emancipatory therapeutic approach that emerged out of Latin America in the 1970’s) and bell hooks’ loving, critical and engaged feminist praxis.


Liberation Psychology


Liberation psychologies trace their origin to many social movements, including the work of Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi who identified the links between colonial patterns of domination and psychological patterns of distress. Here, I will specifically discuss the thinking and practice of Ignacio Martín-Baró, a Spanish-born Jesuit priest and social psychologist, who drew on liberation theology in order to conceive of what he termed ‘liberation psychology’ – a form of liberatory psychological analysis and praxis which aimed to: “…create a new psychological practice in order to transform both people and societies, acknowledging their denied potential” (Martín-Baró 1994, p. 22).


To do this, psychology itself needed to be liberated from the myth of neutrality; that through not taking a stand on the social issues from which many people suffer, therapists are in fact acting in service of the ruling class (Watkins, 2019). Martín-Baró was critical of the individualistic Eurocentric psychologies he had trained in, which operated within – many still do - ahistorical systems of understanding and a “homeostatic vision of reality that fails to question and transform oppressive social structures” (Watkins, 2019, p. 93). For Martín-Baró, psychology needed a new epistemology and praxis, one based upon the interdependent relationship between “an unalienated personal existence and an unalienated social existence … between the liberation of each person and the liberation of a whole people” (1994, p. 27). For Martín-Baró, psychological understanding can only come about through acknowledging the social conditions in which people live their lives and how these conditions generate oppressive psychological patterns, such as fear, submission, alienation, dependence, fatalism and mystification.


Martín-Baró used his work as a psychologist to draw attention to the violent repression of the El Salvadorians in the 1980s. As a psychologist and priest, he undertook research and teaching alongside his pastoral responsibilities during the civil war in El Salvador. He was assassinated in 1989, alongside five other Jesuit fathers, by members of the Atlácati Battalion an elite unit of the Salvadorian military created by the US government. In his last essay before his assassination he challenged psychologists “to critically confront the social system within which their work is embedded” (Watkins 2019, p. 95).


Like hooks, Martín-Baró was influenced by the work of educator Paulo Friere, particularly his work on ‘conscientization’ which emphasises how transformation is initiated when one “begins to think critically about the self and identity in relation to one’s political circumstances” (hooks 1994 p.45). Conscientization refers to the ways in which individuals and communities develop their understanding of social conditions and realities. For Friere, conscientization is a pedagogical tool that places critical, reflexive dialogue in recipriocity with collective, socially engaged actions. Not an end to itself but an ongoing praxis, conscientization is essential to uncovering and dismantling what Friere refers to as dominant social myths. (One such contemporary dominant myth might be what Mark Fisher refers to as ‘capitalist realism’, the myth there is no alternative to capitalism.) Martín-Baró argued that psychologists need to be engaged with the process of conscientization, and, through liberatory dialogue, generate a critical consciousness that enables people to understand the mechanisms of oppression and dehumanization that affect their lives. This systemic understanding is the beginning of the process of transforming their reality alongside, and in solidarity with, others.


Whilst most systemically developed in Central and South America, liberation psychologies “have expanded to combine perspectives from around the globe from contexts concerned with social justice, such as poverty, violence, migration and homelessness” (Moane 2014, p. 1079). Feminist liberation psychologist Geraldine Moane describes how many of these contexts involve “the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of oppression, a theme that has been developed in feminist psychology” (2014, p.1079). Feminist commitments, such as linking the personal and political, critical consciousness, empowerment and standpoint epistemology are relevant to liberation psychology, utlising the process of consciousness-raising as a link between the personal and political.


It is clear how contrasting this is to psychotherapeutic practices which do not invite an engagement with social and political change as part of the process of self-transformation, focusing on the interior self, which so often require therapeutic compliance, which refuse to examine the politicisation of experience within the therapeutic relationship. For example, in a recent new publication, Cynical Therapies: Perspectives on the Antitherapeutic Nature of Critical Social Justice (2023) (the title riffs off the 2020 publication Cynical Theories that criticises activism within academia), the contributing authors argue that social justice warriors are reframing the narrative of therapy, that therapy has succumbed to ‘wokeness’, that psychotherapeutic activism is seizing control of professional bodies and institutions and is teaching future therapists to view their main role as changing society, urgently calling for psychotherapy to return to concerns of political neutrality and the individual psyche.


Compare their claims on the necessity of therapeutic neutrality with Paulo Friere’s fundamental assumption that liberation requires praxis – both a reflection on reality and action to alter that reality. Much of mainstream psychotherapy focuses on the reflection – but individual, self-reflection – and is less concerned with its role in acting upon reality. Freire writes:


"Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection. But while to say the true word— which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world … If it is in speaking their world that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance of human beings. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity” (Friere 1970, p. 61).


Friere also teaches us that dialogue cannot exist without a love for the world and for each other. He writes: “the naming of the world, which is act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself … love is commitment to others. ” (Friere 1970, p. 62). Here, we can see the liberatory potential(s) of psychotherapeutic dialogue, an existential necessity, a relational invitation for clients to practice naming their world - posing questions, broadening perspectives - and through doing so, changing it. I have always loved the question Jungian analyst James Hillman posed thirty years ago when he asked if psychotherapy could “have new fantasies of itself, so that the consulting room is a cell in which revolution is prepared?’ (1992, p. 38). I come back to it often. bell hooks nudged me towards Toni Cade Cambara in The Black Woman when she said: “the revolution begins in the self, in the self.” This question also reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of moving from “inner work to public acts” (2002). For Anzaldúa this inner work connects us to the larger whole and compels us to act. But, this inner work is not the inner work of an adaptive or subservient psyche. It is the inner work of actualizing our revolutionary interdependence.


Fear, Love and Liberation


Like Martín-Baró, hooks understands marginality as a position and location of resistance, she is committed to imagining a community of individuals drawing upon and developing a feminist ethos in order to change the material conditions that will generate social transformation. hooks’ emphasis on the importance of self-actualisation as a means towards building effective movements for social change offers an important bridging between what can often be treated as oppositional within psychotherapy: individual or social change. She says: “many of us have longed to see the union of our political efforts to change society and our efforts to be individually self-actualised” (2014, p. 5). Yet, hooks, like Martín-Baró, suggests that therapy – whether self help or by a ‘professional’ – can be, must be, a location for political praxis. hooks’ work is a reminder to psychotherapists trying to practice through a feminist lens of our place within social justice work and of cultivating and centering an ethics and politics of love at the heart of our therapeutic practices. When we do this, psychotherapeutic practice widens its berth, it becomes part of, to coin a term from Sara Ahmed, “a world-making project” (2017, p. 261). And a world-making project is a feminist project.


Like Martín-Baró, hooks teaches us about the psychological mechanisms that uphold the structures of domination that feed and promote the desire for separation and to remain hidden from each other, such as the mechanism of fear. She shows us how structures of domination are institutionalized. And, any liberatory psychotherapeutics must include examining the structures of domination within the psy-disciplines. There’s a lot of fearful therapists our there – fearful that their professional bodies will punish them for their personal ethics, or therapeutic transgresions. I am reminded of when I ran a workshop called Manifesto Writing for Therapists which considered how manifesto writing might be utilised as a critical and resistant therapeutic intervention for our times. Using discussion of various feminist manifestos as our starting point, participants were invited to identify the aspects of therapeutic practice that we find intolerable, to consider the parts that resist integration and require active refusal. Everyone wrote their own manifesto and shared it with the group. After doing so, one group member said, I love this manifesto, but what shall I do with it now? I can’t put it on my website. Such is the gate keeping of our profession where our personal ethics are kept hidden, our public profiles sanitized and edited to comply with the organisations that approve us.


For hooks, the antidote to fear is love. It is when we “choose to love we choose to move against fear - against alienation and separation. The choice to love is the choice to connect - to find ourselves in the other”. Feminist love takes form and expression through political resistance. I founded the Feminist Therapy Network because I believe that psychotherapy needs feminism more than ever. It needs a feminism that is expansive, that builds from relations of care and that recognizes that feminist work is justice work. Part of the FTN’s feminist ethos is Fierce Love. At the launch, we decided not to do the usual format of presentations on feminist psychotherapies. Instead, we tried to create a culture of love, of shared reflection and conversation, which felt so important to do in a time where therapeutic practices are increasingly privatized and commodified, when those trying to create more affordable and accessible means to resourcing our work are sold a myth of scarcity, pitted against each other to compete for what meager resources might be available to us, and then, under what conditions of compliance? How can we actively love fellow therapists’ whose bodies are under daily attack and scrutiny, being weaponised by an outrage economy that distracts us from the urgent concerns we must all collectively face? Therapists need to choose love, we need to learn to love each other, to be in solidarity with each other. We need to cultivate loving spaces of collaborative care where we imagine together, we imagine how to resist and break from the dominator thinking of our profession. Maybe this means taking therapeutic trainings out of the academy. Maybe we need to find more ways to creatively subvert and disrupt the risk-averse mechanisms of professionalism that so often seek to separate and protect us from our clients. But, it definitely means we need each other. I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s reflection on the ‘our’ of feminism: “I think of that our as the promise of feminism, ours not as a possession but as an invitation to combine forces” (2023, p. 246). The Feminist Therapy Network is a loving effort to combine forces.


In the same way that both hooks and Freire asserted that teachers must be learners, who are willing to be changed by what unfolds in the classroom, so must psychotherapists always be learners willing to be changed by what unfolds between them and their clients. So, like the classroom, the feminist consulting room, with all its limitations, also remains a “location of possibility” (hooks 1994, p.201). A liberatory feminist consulting room also labours for freedom, it poses questions of ourselves and of others and cultivates a openness of heart and mind that enables clients to transgress the restrictions of normativity and step fully into their lives, in service of not only themselves, but for everyone. And, if, as hooks tells us, “a culture of domination is anti-love” (2006, p.246), a liberatory feminist psychotherapeutic praxis must be one that leads with love.


Rebecca Esho Greenslade


References:


Ahmed, S. (2017) Living A Feminist Life. Duke University Press: Durham and London

Ahmed, S. (2023) The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. Penguin Random House: London.

Anzaldúa, G. (2002) ‘now let us shift – the path of conocimiento - inner work, public acts’. In this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. Ed. Anzaldúa, G. & Keating, A. pp: 540 – 578. New York: Routledge.

Bambara, T. C., (2005) The Black Woman: An Anthology. Washington Square Press: New York.

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.

Fisher, M. (2021) Post Capitalist Desire (edited by Coloquhon, M.) London: Repeater Books.

Friere, P. (1970) Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic: London.

Hillman, J. & Ventura, M. (1992) We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse. New York: HarperCollins.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Trangress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York.

hooks, b. (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge: London and New York.

hooks, b. (2006) Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. Routledge: New York.

hooks, b. (2014) Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. Taylor & Francis: Oxford.

LaMarre, A., Smoliak, O., Cool, C., Kinavey, H. & Hardt, L. (2019). The Normal, Improving, and Productive Self: Unpacking Neoliberal Governmentality in Therapeutic Interactions. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, Vol: 32(3), pp: 236–253.

Martín-Baró, I. (1994) Writings for a Liberation Psychology. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Moane, G. (2014). ‘Liberation Psychology’. In: Teo, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology. pp: 1079-1084. Springer: New York.

Parker, I. (2014). Psychotherapy under capitalism: The production, circulation and management of value and subjectivity. Psychotherapy and Politics International, Vol: 12(3) pp:166–175.

Rose, N. (1990). Governing the soul: The shaping of the private self. New York, Routledge.

Rustin, M. (2015). Psychotherapy in a neoliberal world. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 17(3) pp:225–239.

Smail, D. (2005) Power, Interest and Psychology: Elements of a Social Materialist Understanding of Distress. PCCS Books: Monmouth

Watkins, M. (2019) Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons. Yale University Press: New Haven & London.

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