Psychotherapy as Social Justice

When clients come into my office for psychotherapy, they are usually focused inward, potentially seeking a diagnosis, and often asking “what’s wrong with me?” Yes, the majority of my clients are working through gender dysphoria or pursuing recovery from an eating disorder, and while these are indeed conditions I can diagnose, much of the work I do with folks is about exploring the ways in which structural oppression related to their sexual orientation, gender expression or race is causing distress, both directly and in its internalized forms. In other words, we shift from asking “what’s wrong with me?” to “why do I think something’s wrong with me?”


From a social justice perspective, one of the most insidious ways oppression in the form of patriarchy, misogyny, class bias and racism (among others) does its work is through internalization. When people internalize these structures of power and disempowerment, the self hatred and self doubt that ensue wreak all kinds of havoc in terms of beliefs that impact behavior and emotional experience, which then often leads to the development of some form of psychopathology. I vividly recall a professor at the Smith College School for Social Work stating: “The greater the oppression, the greater the depression” and I have seen this to be true over and over again in the lives of the people who walk through my office doors.


There was a time (and in some cases, that time is now) when people in my chosen profession, social work, were largely tools of oppressive structures. In the words of Michel Foucault: “The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge.” For example, as the majority of my clients are transgender or gender non-conforming people, many of whom require authorization from me for their insurance companies that they are “trans enough” to receive gender affirming hormone therapies or surgeries. Many of these folks also experience profound depression and/or anxiety: how would you feel if your fate, your ability to live a life as yourself, was in the hands of an ostensible expert, deemed more expert than you about your own self-hood by virtue of their social position and capital?


My work, as a social justice oriented feminist relational psychotherapist, is kaleidoscopic. I work to support my clients in identifying the ways in which they’ve internalized oppressive structures. We work together to identify the ways they’re policing themselves and warping their sense of self through these lenses, and then we work to dismantle the problematic internalized beliefs that are setting them up for emotional distress and behavioral dysregulation. In other words, I sincerely look forward to a day when I become obsolete. 
  • Katharine Waggoner, LICSW, June 5th, 2017