It’s no real surprise that therapists tend to be politically liberal in overwhelming numbers (therapist-bloggers notwithstanding). I can’t find a poll to back up my statement, but I don’t think too many people would seriously question it, and my own personal observations support it.
It’s funny, but until my own “conversion” and self-outing, I never really thought much about this fact. After all, most of my friends and family were also politically liberal. One thing about moving through life in a bubble is that you don’t tend to notice it that much until the bubble bursts. And then you wonder what it was that sustained that fragile, self-contained world.
So I’ve been thinking about what it is that accounts for the overwhelming liberality of therapists. It’s true, of course, that those in the social sciences, literature, and the arts generally tend to be of the liberal persuasion more often than those in the hard sciences or business; and therapy—despite assertions to the contrary—resembles an art far more than a science, I’m afraid. (It is also a business, but some therapists are in a certain amount of denial about that fact.)
In addition, there are elements within the training and belief system of most therapists that reinforce liberalism in students already predisposed to it anyway. In general, therapists—particularly those who specialize in treating individuals through talk therapy—are taught that they cannot be effective with clients if they start off with a judgmental approach. So they learn to exercise a certain suspension of judgment, a tolerance that even amounts at times to moral relativism, in order to gain the trust of clients and be able to work effectively with them.
It isn’t always easy to do this, because every person we meet triggers some reaction in us. Therapists try to understand these reactions and be aware of them in themselves (traditionally, these reactions are called “counter-transference”), and to block expressing them in a way that would hinder the therapeutic relationship. Imposing the therapist’s own ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong in the moral sense can be too directive and disruptive, and could easily trigger resistance to therapy in the client. Besides, the task of therapy is not usually seen as guidance towards some objective standard of “right” behavior; it’s seen as guidance towards self-actualization and self-expression.
Naturally, though, there are some basic and global notions of right and wrong that therapists adhere to, and that can’t help but influence the way they talk to clients and try to subtly shape behavior. To use an extreme example, no client would be encouraged to murder someone, and in fact at times the therapist would need to inform the proper authorities if the intent to murder were deemed serious.
There are so many schools of therapy–almost as many as there are sects and divisions within the major religions–that this generalization most definitely does not hold true across the board. For example, there are pastoral counselors whose “guidance” is most definitely couched in terms of traditional religious concepts of right and wrong. And over the years therapist/client confidentiality has become less absolute than it once was, since all therapists have come under the force of certain rules and regulations governing their duty to disclose or report to the proper authorities situations of abuse or threats to harm. But still, in general, I believe that I’m describing the basic attitudinal stance in which the majority of therapists are trained.
So therapists are specifically taught to practice non-judgmental openmindedness, as well as to exercise the obviously necessary skill of putting themselves imaginatively into the heart and mind of another person. This emphasis on empathy further extends the idea of openminded and nonjudgmental acceptance of the other person’s point of view.
For talk therapists, this practice is not only recommended, it’s actually required in order to effectively do the work they do. It’s one of the main things that distinguishes a therapist from a friend, a relative, a hairdresser, a bartender, a teacher, a member of the clergy, or anyone else to whom a person might turn when in need of an ear in a crisis.
Advice is easy to come by; anyone can give it. But the special thing a therapist offers is ordinarily quite different from advice. It’s an oversimplification, but ideally a therapist guides the client to see the patterns and connections in his/her own life and then to make choices that lead to a better life. But a therapist only rarely gives direct advice or makes judgments, because that thwarts the ultimate aim of therapy, which is not to tell people what to do, but to foster autonomy in clients. The goal is that clients will graduate from therapy able to solve future problems with the skills they’ve learned there.
But the nonjudgmental stance is an artificial one, adopted by therapists as a tool to be used during the therapeutic hour for the purpose of therapy. I believe some therapists make the mistake of overgeneralizing, and elevate this tool to a way of life and a generalized goal. Originally, the tool was meant to be a corrective for what was ordinarily found “out there”–harsh and punitive judgments galore from family and friends. Originally, therapy was an oasis from all that, a place where, in the absence of harsh judgment, a person could feel free to explore that which could not be explored elsewhere, and to tell truths that could not otherwise be told.
But over the years, as therapy has gone from a relatively obscure activity to a fairly common one, and therapists have become ubiquitous on television, radio, and in the self-help book business, what originally was a limited and circumscribed tool seems to have seeped into our culture and become a prescribed and generalized value. Many people have come to believe that making judgments or expressing any opinions at all about the behavior of others is a form of intolerance, almost as bad as bigotry or racism. Or they think, since negative judgments from others could harm a person’s self-esteem, and self-esteem is considered all-important—that anything that harms self-esteem (even a corrective dose of reality, or of warranted self-doubt or self-questioning) is prohibited. In a sense, the culture has become “therapized.”
I’m not saying this is all bad. But it’s an overcorrection. Opinions and judgments have their place, and without them, self-esteem can become runaway narcissism, and society can become anarchy.
In addition, in order to do the work they do, therapists have to maintain certain general beliefs. They need to maintain an attitude of hopefulness about the human condition, an ability to believe that there is good in almost everyone and that it is not so hard to create the proper conditions to activate that goodness. Once again, it’s not the attitude itself that is at fault, or its application to the therapeutic relationship; it’s the overgeneralizing that causes problems. Sometimes people are too far gone to be helped by such an approach; life, and the world, does not mimic the conditions of the therapeutic hour.
Depending on the school of therapy, some therapists (so-called “insight therapists,” for example) believe that human behavior and feelings can be understood, and, once understood, can be changed for the better by dint of that understanding. So “understanding” can be elevated to much more than an exercise in intellectual curiosity—it is sometimes considered a solution in and of itself, even to something as multifaceted and political as terrorism.
As all therapists are well aware, not everyone is what is known as a “good candidate” for therapy. Even in the very controlled situation of the one-on-one session, some people don’t respond and don’t change. There are sociopaths and psychopaths out there, to name just a few of the many who don’t do well in therapy. Even most therapists acknowledge that jails have to be built to house them and protect society from them. But the dream—of talking, leading to understanding, leading to change—dies hard.