The Dangers of the Therapeutic Relationship
I had my first therapist at the age of 6 after my parents’ divorce. My mom says she did it as a kind of preventive measure. She wanted to make sure I wasn’t scarred. Yeah, we got to play with toys, but we had different agendas. My therapist wasn’t a playmate. She was the observer, and I was the observed. Like the male gaze, this is the therapeutic gaze.
I’ve said a lot about psychiatric power, and anyone who has had both psychiatrists and therapists can tell you, therapeutic relationships can be healing and beneficial. In my experience, psychiatrists at worst are traumatizing pill-pushers, and at best have unexamined control issues of their own.
But the therapeutic relationship is flawed. Any relationship based on professionalization, where there is a helper and the helped, where one person is perceived as having a problem, and the other is perceived as being capable of fixing that problem….well, this can lead to more problems.
Don’t get me wrong. I greatly appreciate my therapist. She has helped me tremendously. It’s kind of like capitalism though. It’s not that I don’t like working (although we could all stand for some more leisure time), it’s that I don’t like the system that alienates and exploits.
Similarly, I love the healing work that happens in therapy. But the money does taint it—does render the therapist more powerful, somehow–and we can’t pretend that it doesn’t.
Peer Support and Mutual Aid
In peer support or mutual aid, both parties look at their stuff. It seems like a no-brainer that this would promote deeper, more radical growth. We all know the best intimate relationships of our lives, be it with dear friends, romantic partners, or family, can make or break us—and at best can lead to profound spiritual growth.
bell hooks defines love as the conscious decision to aid in the spiritual development of another human being.
When we are in a relationship of mutual respect and equality, when the connection is between two peers struggling along the same road together, working to love one another, we can become powerful and beautiful beyond measure.
When mental health care recognizes this, “patients” are transformed into people, and health is restored beyond expectation. And more than this. As people come into wellness and self-love, society is transformed.
As Shery Mead, founder of Intentional Peer Support says, “As peer support in mental health proliferates, we must be mindful of our intention: social change. It is not about developing more effective services, but rather about creating dialogues that have influence on all of our understandings, conversations, and relationships.”
My experience of peer support have come in both The Icarus Project and in 12 step community. Both have been critical for my mental health and well-being.
Mutual Aid is Emotional Labor
I can’t finish this article for weeks because I started a new job that is consuming me. It pays me better, so I can be a better consumer. It is asking me to labor, and with this labor means I have fewer spoons to be of service to my friends, to be in the mutual aid society.
Because mutual aid is labor. Emotional labor. And I do get uplifted by it. I do believe in being of service. But work obligations take me away from this work, this heart work, and my art work. I try to carve out time, but it is incidental, a hobby, not the place where my soul sparks. It is an afterthought.
Emotional labor is gendered. It’s stereotypically feminine work. It is devalued. It is expected that femme or female bodied people do this work for free.
The mutual aid society is anti-capitalist, it is anti-patriarchal. It encourages all genders to participate. It is gender non-binary. We can use these principles of self-reflection and support to deprogram all of our oppressive impulses. It could be, but is often not, anti-racist.
And now I enter the world of professionalization. I am a full-time community college professor now. No longer a marginal adjunct. With this, I am able to be of more service to my students—offering academic coaching, instruction, and often the “soft” support of what the industry calls “managing the affective domain.”
And I manage it to the best of my ability, but sometimes I slip. Because, I, like professional therapists, am imbued with too much power in the relationship.
Yesterday, I witnessed, and was unconsciously complicit with, bullying in my classroom. I am not as accustomed to the younger age group. These students are 17 and 18. I have taught college for eight years, but have never encountered bullying in such a bold and insidious way. I was proud of how I handled the bully; I pulled her aside and emphasized that she is a good person and needs to get it together—I didn’t shame, I praised, and it called on her best impulses and she turned her behavior around. I was not as sensitive with the victim, largely because I can relate to her and I have plenty of self-hate. I am afraid I may have hurt her, and I don’t know how to repair the damage.
Mutual Aid as a Path to Radical Self Love
I am not her peer. I am older. I have degrees that validate my authority. I can try to relate, but there will always be a boundary—a boundary that does allow her to be mad at me.
Which may be exactly what she needs.
The only advantage I can see to the professional relationship is having a safe space to project anger, fear, and other socially unsanctioned emotions onto the professional helper. They are being paid to hold what can often be too painful to hold on your own.
But what if we were smart enough to see that need, and made agreements to hold each other’s projections? To create boundaried, ritualed space and time to let each other do what we need to do? Co-counseling does this. BDSM communities and relationships sometimes do this. Peer support does this.
Sponsors in 12 step put up with a lot of this, knowing that it’s part of being of service.
This is not permission to act out and treat people like crap. This is acknowledging that we all have a need to exorcise our demons, that we have to put them somewhere, lest we take it out on loved ones in a way that is not boundaried, not conscious, and thus abusive.
Because there are plenty of people who can’t afford therapy. And moreover, being put into the therapeutic gaze can be dehumanizing.
When I told my therapist yesterday that I was mad at her—because I had self-hate I was projecting outward—I told her gently, I told her with awareness. She said “Okay,” and I was relieved. Then I said, “Thank you for going over time.” What I was really saying was, “Thank you for letting me be mad at you, and still being here.”
But there’s something weird about paying someone to be okay with you being mad at them. It heightens the sense that maybe this is abuse.
What if no money were exchanged? What if safe expression of anger were accepted as a gift of mutual aid? What if absorbing the person in need’s anger released a need for the person listening? And what if we did something with that anger besides hold it with the chains of capital? What if we related?
I just got off a mutual aid phone call with a program friend. I saw in her patterns my patterns. Seeing her survival strategies helped me see mine. I said, “You know that’s just a story, right?” And I remembered my stories, and in that moment, was able to let them go.
We’ve Been Too Patient: Sanctuaries, Mutual Aid, Peer Support and Other Radical Models for Mental Health Care
We are in conversation with North Atlantic Books about publishing this. First, we need to put together a list of contributors. That’s where you come in.
Much has been written about the problems with the mental health care system in this country. In this book, we want to give voice to those who have struggled with various aspects of psychiatric “care” and have experienced some form of mutual aid. By hearing from alternative practitioners, we also want to provide a roadmap from the relatively recent reform movement of peer-support to a more radical vision of a cultural shift from the bio-medical model which leads to stigma and unnecessary (often involuntary) hospitalization. How can people with lived experience with mental health issues have agency of their recovery? How can we provide better spaces for people in crisis? What is missing from Crisis Residential Treatment Centers that makes them feel so different from sanctuaries like Diabisis House? How can we take small steps in trauma-informed care that will lead to systemic change?
Have you had experience with mental health challenges?
Have you had experience with psychiatric institutions and are also involved with:
12 step recovery
The Icarus Project
Peer support agencies
Are you a mental health professional with lived experience of mental health issues?
Are you a holistic health care practitioner who aids in the process of mental health recovery?
If so, we would love to hear from you.
Please send a 300-500 word abstract for a potential personal story and/or research-based article inspired by one or more of the ideas listed here.
Please send as .doc, .docx, .pdf or .rtf
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[Feature Image: A sepia-tone photo of a person’s face. The face is at 3/4 turned toward the camera. They have short dark, curly hair and a black turtle neck. Source: Alessandro Valli]