The second-wave feminists of the 1960’s coined the expression ‘The personal is political’. They were highlighting the fact that personal experiences can’t be separated from the wider political/social structures that we live in. Before becoming a counsellor, I was actively involved in activism – anti-war protests, climate change campaigning, campaigns against black deaths in custody (in Australia and the UK) and more. In time I became somewhat disillusioned with protest and turned to more personal ways of trying to make the world a better place through counselling. I’ve always kept one foot in the activist world but at some point I stopped thinking of myself as an ‘activist’.
As we live through growing climate chaos, wars in the Ukraine and around the world, economic uncertainty at home and a seemingly never ending pandemic it is hard not to wonder what counselling’s role is. And can counselling (the personal) be political? Is my job to stick a plaster on and send you back out into the world. Do gratitude journals simply make the zombie apocalypse easier to handle or can there be something more going on in the therapy room?
I’m (mostly) a ‘Person-Centred’ counsellor. The Person-Centred Approach was developed by Carl Rogers. Recently re-reading some of his work I came across his article, “My Politics”. It was pretty short article so I’m going to quote most of it:
To me politics involves the question of where power is located, who makes the choices and decisions, who carries out or enforces those decisions, and who has the knowledge or data regarding the consequences of those decisions. It involves the strategies involved in the taking of power, the distribution of power, the holding of power, and the sharing or relinquishing of power.
Let me summarise my own political ‘ideology,’ if you will, in a very few words. I find that for myself, I am most satisfied politically:
When every person is helped to become aware of his or her own power and strength.
When each person participates fully and responsibly in every decision which affects him or her.
When group members learn that the sharing of power is more satisfying than endeavouring to use power to control others.
When the group finds ways of making decisions which accommodate the needs and desires of each person.
When every member of the group is aware of the consequences of a decision, on its members and the external world.
When each person enforces the group decision through self control of his or her own behaviour.
When each person feels increasingly empowered, strengthened.
When each person, and the group as a whole, is flexible, open to change, and regards previous decisions as being always open for reconsideration.”
Re-reading this article reminds me of why I became a counsellor and reminds me that I didn’t make a choice between being ‘political’ and being a counsellor. When I work with clients trying to find themselves after an abusive relationship, that’s political. When I help clients find the courage to face bullies in the workplace, that’s political. When I work with clients exploring their sexuality, that’s political. It’s all political.
We probably won’t need crossbows and baseball bats in the apocalypse. We might need gratitude journals. But we will definitely need people and communities that can embrace their collective power and work together to build better futures. Hopefully some of what I do as a counsellor helps to build that future.