Brexit and psychotherapy

The political field is not often a subject that is directly talked about in therapy sessions. There may be remarks and comments, but it is rarely the figure that therapist and client focus on. In this article I would like to talk about politics.

Since Theresa May took office, she ruled out giving the 3.2 million EU nationals living in the UK any guarantees about their future. On 18th October, Theresa May wrote to EU citizens to reassure them that they can stay in the country post Brexit. No details are given. This still leaves EU nationals living in the UK in an ambiguous situation and exposes them to forthcoming change that they can’t influence. I am one of those EU nationals and so are a third of my clients. Our right to remain in the country, our right to still access health services, pensions, benefits (should we need to) and to generally feel wanted has been in question for 17 months now.

Brexit is publicly talked about as a divorce. If we stay with this imagery for a moment then what does this make of the EU nationals that don’t have a right to vote, don’t have a voice in the negotiations, don’t have a choice about the outcome of decisions that fundamentally affect their lives? As hard as I tried not to go down this road, there seems to be something infantilising about the position that EU nationals have been placed in. Like children in acrimonious divorce proceedings, we have become bargaining chips. Even those of us who try and take a proactive stance don’t always know where to direct the energy.

A couple of my clients wrote to their local MPs, including the Green MP Caroline Lucas, and asked how they were going to represent the rights of EU nationals living and working in Brighton. The answer they got was astonishing. My clients were told not to worry about it because a decision was only going to be taken in two years’ time at the earliest. In an era when even mattresses come with a 10 year guarantee, is it unreasonable to want to know where this mattress is going to be housed in 24 months

This insecure situation is difficult for all concerned, but can be highly triggering for clients who experienced separations, losses, existential fears and insecurities in the past. Many clients’ support network is made up of Britons who are not affected in the same way and family members in their respective country of origin that will also not be affected in the same way. This means that many people in the support network struggle to fully relate to the sense of insecurity that suddenly permeates all aspects of life. Previous scars of separation, loss and ambiguity are likely to be amplified by the current political situation as much as existential fears of homelessness and statelessness. 

Political issues in the consulting room don’t often show up as a direct need to discuss the political landscape. Politics shows up in our fears, our projections about others and the future, our sense of who we are, in what is said, but also in what is not acknowledged and not felt. In this case, doubts about being wanted or unwanted, feelings of general insecurity, fears about not having a voice, numbness, disinterest, blind trust or anger about a lack of attunement may become figural because of what goes on in the political field. As therapists, we can view these expressions within an individualistic context and keep our focus rigidly on the person in front of us, or we can explore how these feelings relate to the wider context that we live in and share. A story about remembered abandonment, for instance, can be expanded by making the field figural by saying “I can’t help but see a connection between your memory of back then and the insecurity that Brexit has brought into your life”.

New questions become relevant, like “Did my therapist vote for Brexit?” and “Do they think I matter less?”, etc. With therapists who are EU nationals there are questions of a different kind, like “Does she feel as disempowered as me? What is her situation?” Many clients decide to switch off completely and don’t take an interest in a political situation that can impact deeply on their personal life.

Our psychotherapeutic interventions will differ depending on our framing of the issue. What becomes figural in the therapeutic relationship depends on whether we view our client’s concerns within an individualistic or a systemic, historic and political field. We can explore what childhood experiences trigger or inform the client’s current responses. We can focus on the fantasies the client may have about the political affiliation of the therapist and draw useful conclusions from that. We can offer information about ourselves, sympathise with the client, explore their responses phenomenologically, encourage self-support, etc. All of this safely frames the problem as the client’s issue.

Hillman (1993), on the other hand, views forms of psychotherapy that invite introspection with a view to repair early developmental processes as a way to pacify individuals and to keep them in their place. He suggests that therapy is involved in maintaining the status quo of a dysfunctional society. He advocates a different way of approaching therapeutic work, namely for outrage expressed in the therapy room not to be talked away, not to be appeased, but for the client to be encouraged to take this rage out into the world in an effort to change the world as part of the therapeutic process. This means that anger would not be directed at cushions, but be translated into political action.

This tumultuous time we live in offers plenty of opportunities for us to develop ways to bring politics into the consulting room. After all, it shapes and affects all of our lives. It should not be the elephant in the room.

Reference: Hillman, J and Ventura, M (1993). We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse. San Francisco, Harper.

Written by Steffi Bednarek | header photo by Neil Cooper on Unsplash

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Author: Steffi Bednarek

Steffi is a gestalt psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice in Brighton and Hove. She has been Head of Counselling and Mental Health within a university setting, as well as for a large mental health charity in Brighton. She has also worked as a consultant and trainer for the Council of Europe, several government ministries, county councils and large NGOs. She is currently setting up The Red Thread, a website for women on their journey through menopause, a rite of passage into greater self-directed power. Read more articles by Steffi on her website


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Comments 2

  1. Dear Adam,
    many thanks for your comment and your thoughts. I totally share your view and am so glad you expressed this here. I wrote a short article for Therapy Today last year where I asked what the role of the therapist is supposed to be in a world and an economy that suffers from depression. Personally I see us as gatekeepers between the comfort loving parts that want to numb and forget and the Life force that is able to turn up at the contact boundary fully awake and alive and face whatever emerges. I see our role in supporting clients to tolerate the inner terror that is inevitable if we undo the pull into amnesia and anaesthesia and engage with the suffering and the sickness of the world. Sadly even Gestalt therapy has become a largely introspective practice that risks keeping people away from fruitful darkness and instead is concerned with returning individuals back into the dysfunction of their time. We have all the theory that makes our modality cutting edge.

    I came to Gestalt in the 90s when I was a research assistant to a Professor in Germany that worked with Gestalt in a depressed community and turned this community around in terms of economics, neighbourhood and social cohesion. His approach left the therapy room and activated a community that the city had given up upon. I was so moved and impressed, that this is what I wanted to study…. and when I qualified some years later I was trained solely to work with individuals in 50 minute intervals addressing issues in isolation with a rather individualistic frame of reference. Our theory and ancestory is bigger than that and I believe that these times are calling for different approaches. Sorry…. a long winded way to say that I agree with you and that I think it is important to address the question who needs therapy- the individual client or the field.

  2. Such an important voice Steffi. I am completing now my doctorate on culture, masculinity and sexuality and will quote you in my conclusions. One of the Hillman’s questions that we keep on discussing now at Re-Vision is how could one not be depressed in the world we are living now. Perhaps the lack of depression is something that we should cure but not the depression itself? Anyway I share your opinion not understanding how Gestalt Therapy could move from a social movement in 1950s to the avoidance of collective responce-ability today. Many Thanks!

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