Being Seen is More Than Self-Work

As a person with a lot of privilege, to say that I struggle with how to embody my political analysis in my work is an understatement. This post is written for white therapists like myself.

We all envision people being seen for who they are. Being seen means that not only is it okay for people to be who they are, they’re celebrated as unique and beautiful. It’s true that if you know who you are and are confident, you’re able to see yourself. This self-work makes how you’re seen by others insignificant. When validation comes from where it really counts -within- it opens up people’s potential to thrive.

By all means I’m a huge proponent of self-work. Supporting people in their self-work is fundamental to my role as a therapist. I love my profession because I believe in it. With the help of therapy I have experienced feeling seen by knowing who I am. Coming into my femme identity has rooted me and it fuels my work within queer community.

It is through queer community that I have learned about identity politics and social justice issues in our white supremacist and capitalist country. From this continually developing analysis, I have become more critical of the predominance of self-work as a method of addressing a lack of feeling seen.

The problem with this current approach to being seen is that it neglects the impacts of larger systemic oppression on people’s ability to achieve its desired outcomes.

Lack of representation, disproportionate negative representation, and political, legal, economic, healthcare, and infrastructure systems’ harm are all preventative factors in someone being able to thrive as who they are. How is a sex worker supposed to feel seen if their work is criminalized? How is a trans person supposed to feel seen if they’re at risk of being assaulted or fired? How are black and indigenous people supposed to feel seen after generations of genocide? How are people with disabilities and fat people supposed to feel seen if transportation, buildings, and seating aren’t accessible to them? How is an incarcerated person supposed to feel seen if they can’t vote?

I don’t mean to trivialize the powerful influence of self-work in peoples struggles to be seen. What I’m saying is that it isn’t the whole remedy. To truly support everyone’s right to be seen for who they are our approach needs to expand.

We must acknowledge that these systemic issues are not resolved through self-work but through collective activism. Therefore we must look at activism as part of treating mental wellness and in turn part of our work as therapists. We must understand that mental health is political.

The focus on self-work as a means to being seen is a reflection of whiteness. Whiteness positions itself as the standard of normal experience through social constructs including racism, classism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, fatphobia, and xenophobia. Whiteness emphasizes the individual over community. Whiteness enforces that prosperity is only achieved through the individual working harder. My own ability to access feeling seen through self-work is a reflection of my whiteness.

If we understand that our self-work approach perpetuates that being seen can be achieved through individual hard work and that self-work doesn’t address systemic oppression that prevents people from being seen then we must acknowledge the short-comings in our approach. We must reconcile that our approach causes harm by erasing how systemic oppression keeps people from thriving and by isolating people from accessing the holistic mental healthcare that they need. Further, we must acknowledge that much of psychology frames mental health and its treatment through the lens of whiteness. Lastly, we must work to change systemic oppression within our own field.

These thoughts connect back to queer activists of color (trauma therapist Sonalee Rashatwar, sex educator Ericka Hart, trans of color writers and editors Rest for Resistance, and many more) and their influential efforts. This post is my attempt to have more conversation between white therapists in order to increase our awareness and accountability. Until we broaden our sense of activism within mental healthcare we’re not actually going to make the meaningful progress that we’re trying to.