“I want to serve those in real need, not the worried well.”
I’ve heard many statements from my colleagues, professors, and other professionals in the field of psychology that demonizes working with individuals with socioeconomic privilege. I’ve also been on the other side and intuited a subtle a sense of entitlement that looks down upon working with clients suffering from severe and debilitating mental illness in clinics that are typically underfunded and understaffed.
This division within the field of psychology, which also intersects along racial, gender, and sexual identities, is unnecessary and harmful.
Suffering is relative. Existentialist thinkers like Frankl remind us that suffering is like a gas that fills whatever container is available. We all are subject to various limitations due to our embodiment. While one may take a step back and recognize that there are certainly some individuals that have it worse than others, all humans have room for improvement, including clinicians themselves. We all need to grow if systemic change is going to occur.
The oppressors externalize their suffering. It is through their intolerance for differences in perspective, and their ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination that oppressors create their own restricted existence, resulting in a desire displace these feelings onto others. For example, in addition to systemic factors, it’s quite simple to see that members of the KKK project their own internalized hate, shame, and fear onto the African American community. The thoughts, feelings, and desires that are banished from the conscious of the supremacists are then placed and found upon others, resulting in the desire to cause harm and thus destroy their own unacceptable impulses.
The privileged oppressors need help. They need to deconstruct their identities, work through their layers of subtler traumatic experiences, and transcend their self-imposed limitations. This work not only improves their wellbeing—when done appropriately, psychology can expands one’s mindset and create systemic change. Ultimately, as more individuals with power and privilege become aligned with their true selves, their need and desire to harm others will decrease. Therefore, working with this population will support healthy social movements for those who experience oppression.
The oppressed internalize their suffering. Being raised in a world of multiple barriers that makes you feel othered, tells you you’re ugly, forces you to conform to other cultural standards that are considered the default while your own culture is re-appropriated and made illegal, silences you due to your cultural and personal identities, and impedes upon your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial health is wrong and unjustified. All of these challenges (and many more) are ingrained into the psyche of the oppressed.
The oppressed and those with less systemic privileges also need help. They need to externalize the lies and negative messages that have been forced into their psychophysical structures so that they can carve out a meaningful existence and healthy identity within the systems in which they’re embedded. They have their own significant traumas that need to be processed.
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Traumatic experiences don’t discriminate. Existential givens do not discriminate. Internalization of oppression is real. Projection, transference, and displacement of one’s own problems is real. Intersectionality is real. Blind privilege is real.
No matter how you slice it, both groups need transformation and excellent clinicians to guide them towards wholeness.
Only in working from both directions will significant progress be made.