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  • Writer's pictureMichele

Social Justice and Power in the Counselling Room

I'm interested in actively not replicating systemic oppression in the counselling room and a social justice approach to therapy is a way I feel I can do this.

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across an article [1] that talked about many of the thoughts I was already having, and it was exciting to see them in writing. So, connecting social justice to therapy isn’t a new thing; I’m definitely not the first person, and hopefully won’t be the last, to write about it. But these are my thoughts.

What does social justice have to do with counselling?

Wait, back up. Firstly, before musing on why I think it does have to do with counselling and why it’s important, what even is ‘social justice’? I really appreciate this definition from Cutts:

“ justice is both a goal of action and the process of action itself, which involves an emphasis on equity or equality for individuals in society in terms of access to a number of different resources and opportunities, the right to self-determination or autonomy and participation in decision-making, freedom from oppression, and a balancing of power across society.” [2]

A lot of the things named in this description appear in one way or another in the BACP’s ethical framework. Though I imagine some might say that social justice sounds political and politics doesn’t have a place in the counselling room. Well, I think that politics is in the room whether someone wants it to be or not.

So, how does social justice impact how I think about therapy?

ONE. We’re linked to the wider world

This one’s straightforward and I don’t have much to say about it, though it’s nevertheless important to bear in mind. As individuals, we exist in a wider context than just ourselves and the issues that come up in counselling are inextricably linked to this wider political, social and cultural environment.

TWO. Having a systemic, multicultural view

Actively acknowledging that sometimes the solution to a problem isn’t within the person but is systemic. As therapists, it’s essential to acknowledge this, to affirm that something can be a crappy situation that’s out of a client’s control, and to make space for clients to be angry about it and experience the powerlessness and grief of it. An awareness of the systemic nature of oppression and that the client might be experiencing this, as opposed to a wholly internal focus on the mind and psyche, is also crucial. By failing to recognise the external, systemic factors, therapists may add to the client’s feeling that something is their fault and they’re not good enough or strong enough to get past it, when actually the issue is systemically rooted.

Individual responsibility has its place for certain things (e.g., how you treat others or move forward from life events and experiences). However, placing an emphasis on the individual client to solve their own problems not only extracts them from a wider socio-political system that affects them, but in and of itself emphasises the importance of the individual, which is quite a Western notion. In non-Western cultures, the notion of oneself as a single person rarely exist – one exists as part of the wider family or community.

THREE. Power

Oof power. This one’s a pretty hefty point and needs more unpacking. Power dynamics exist in every relationship, including between the therapist and client. It’s important to acknowledge this because not doing so will just embed them further. So instead of ignoring it or trying to erase the dynamic completely (which I personally think is impossible to do but am open to be challenged on this!), it’s more about how we navigate this power difference. What can we do as therapists to try and make the relationship more equitable, even if it can never fully be so? How can we reduce the negative effects of power within the counselling relationship in a way that doesn’t ignore its existence? And how can we not replicate the oppressive power dynamics that exist in wider society?

There’s already an inherent power dynamic from before we even meet a client – one person coming to another for help elevates the person who is helping to a more powerful position. There will of course also be dynamics that exist between the counsellor and client based on wider socio-cultural identities and experiences.

Here are just a few other ways that power might show itself in the therapy room.

1. If we try to improve client’s wellbeing from our frame of reference not theirs.

2. Clients trying to make their therapist like them.

3. Something relatively ‘innocent’, like the therapist’s choice to use silence can actually be harmful as silence might be scary or make clients feel undermined or rejected. Additionally, silence has often been weaponised against marginalised communities. Most therapists will discuss the silence if clients seem uncomfortable with it or react to it in any way, but in terms of power, the therapist is still the one choosing when to use silence in the first place and discussing with the client after the fact.

4. Clients don’t know that much about the therapist, but we know intimate details of a client’s life, thoughts and experiences.

A large part of our training as therapists is about self-reflection and ‘working through our stuff’. It should also be about reflecting on what privileges we hold that affect the power dynamics in different contexts and relationships. If our training doesn’t include that, we should take it upon ourselves to do that work.

So what are some of the ways therapists address power in the client-counsellor relationship?

1. Through collaboration, shared decision making and discussion of preferences. Discussing preferences at the outset of therapy around how we work together can avoid a lot of pain and frustration for the client (for example, with the point above about use of silence). Also, checking in with clients during the course of therapy about whether their preferences have changed.

2. Think about the different types of power we each might hold in relationships and what impact this might have on the client.

3. Reinforce that I am not the expert (I am knowledgeable about therapy, but the client is the expert in themself).

4. See the client as a whole person, not just one aspect of their identity that we choose to focus on as the therapist – embrace intersectionality. As Audre Lorde aptly said, "there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives".

5. Consider self-disclosure. I’ll be ‘passively’ sharing things about myself through, for example, what I wear, my skin colour, my accent. When considered carefully, some more active self-disclosure can help lessen the power differential and create trust between the client and counsellor.

6. Share responsibility for the outcome, or don't. I hear therapists claim at least some responsibility when therapy has been ‘successful’ for a client but don’t often take responsibility when it hasn’t been. Instead, when it hasn’t been ‘successful’ (however this is defined), the tendency is to shift the responsibility to the client (‘they weren’t ready to be in therapy’, ‘they weren’t committed to the process’, ‘they weren’t open to change’, etc.) We should either not claim a hand in the success or also be accountable when it hasn’t achieved what the client wanted. We can’t have it both ways.

So, those are a few elements of social justice in relation to counselling and psychotherapy. A social justice approach very much informs my understanding of wellbeing and those I work with. It’s about ­–

  • Acknowledging the importance of equity in terms of division of and access to resources and in terms of our relationships

  • Acknowledging societal power structures and how power imbalances might reduce a client’s agency and autonomy, while working towards ways that they might be able to gain this autonomy and agency in their lives

  • Validating, believing and listening to client’s experiences of oppression, making sure to centre their needs around these issues, not mine

  • Actively working towards increasing equity, minimising power imbalances and challenging discrimination or oppression in my professional roles (and outside them).


[1] Laura Anne Winter - Social justice and remembering “the personal is political” in counselling and psychotherapy: So, what can therapists do?

[2] Cutts, L. A. (2013). Considering a social justice agenda for counselling psychology in the United Kingdom. Counselling Psychology Review, 28 (2), 8–16.

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