Listening For Change: How to explore aspects of class identity in therapy

Anyone who walks into my office is immediately searching for or noticing indicators of social identity. As a Korean therapist, I’m often tempted to think race is being centered however, it is not always clear which of my identities clients will focus on when they attend therapy. I have also had to make sense of my own experiences of viewing clients through their social locations of class, race, and gender, among other identities. And I see social class as an often overlooked identity that can be centered within therapy for clinicians and clients of all economic backgrounds.

Working on how to recognize environmental stressors for people coming through the door is monumental for initiating the joining stage of the therapeutic relationship. As a therapist, I am often tempted to think people may be seeking therapy to work on a specific problem. Sometimes, folks enter with a particular question, and other times the work is exploring what is happening in their external world. For example, someone who frames their “problem” as being defiant may actually be concerned about how they are presenting, but I’m also interested in what is happening around them that creates the defiance. I often remember a mantra within narrative therapy created by Michael White and David Epston: “The person is not the problem”.

It is imperative that we focus on the sociocultural and environmental issues at play in people’s lives. When I practice this way, I find that we are connecting people’s inner experiences with the external messages in the world. We can then start to unpack the expectations assigned to us from the places we occupy in life. By framing things in this way, people have more opportunities to explore how they arrange themselves at work, in the home, and in society. This reflective work paves the way for a broader understanding of how individuals are influenced by commonly held narratives in our society, including messages about social class. As a therapist, it is my hope that individuals who want to question these narratives can do so openly in therapy, and can construct their own subjective experience. By doing so, they can begin to navigate emotions that often exist in relation to these stories.

When clients walk into the room there are multiple things on the wall that signal aspects of my life. This ranges from the poster with a quote from Emily Dickinson to the pyramid of Nike shoe boxes that decorate my shelf. One story I tell myself is that by revealing parts of my personality, I’m creating an open and caring environment. Another story is that aspects of my identity are contributing to assumptions being made about my body. This process is also occurring for me, as the therapist, as I sit with the client and listen for content, or consider their appearance.

These assumptions or inner thoughts support progress of the work, and are also extremely endangering to the therapeutic process. Left unexplored, displaying multiple pairs of name brand sneakers sends a message about my class location. It potentially sends a message about what I value and what I might expect other people value. Clothing is one of many ways we build stories about individuals and their class background or position. By being open to talking about my decor, outfits or presentation we can bring assumptions to the foreground if clients want to explore those things.

Without curiosity or openness to our own assumptions, we may re-enact wounding experiences individuals face in the world around their class identity. If clients are resistant to the work, appear uncomfortable or we perceive them challenging us in some way, we cannot solely rely on pathology or complex theory. The tools to engaging and speaking to this material are literally inside of us.

By exploring and attempting to understand people’s experiences of damaging and traumatic systems of oppression, we begin the process of validating individuals’ experiences. I do not want to offer a prescribed model of therapy to clients. If there is resistance, it is not just the client’s responsibility for entering that into the conversation. When I am able to do my best work, I’ve often been able to reflect on what is coming up for me. I’m also considering the ways I may be recreating larger social stories that may be problematic for clients. This line of thinking and exploration allows for individuals to separate themselves from the difficult and stressful experiences that are creating challenges to their daily lives. When I have listened for experiences related to class identity, I understand the individual in a much broader context. Furthermore, this work can progress the therapy in positive ways.

When clients share stories or details of their lives that relate to class identity, I am quick to explore the meaning they have made about that. I want to validate the positive ways individuals think about their identity. I am also open to speaking about the ways that therapy, my language or how the client experiences me can feel oppressive. If a client thinks of me in those terms, I take a non-defensive stance and validate their experience around this aspect of their identity and experience. By taking this approach, therapists can start the process of deconstructing oppressive systems, and interrupt cultural beliefs around power within mental health.

Often, the pattern to view people as symptoms detracts from the clinician’s role of providing support and advocacy. Clients enter therapy with a plan for their own treatment, and this should be respected when they enter the space. Therapists who utilize supervisory, and make the effort to understand when they themselves impede this process, can better understand and illuminate what is happening in therapy. By maintaining this stance, clinicians can actively rework stigma associated with attending to mental health needs, and center support and care as the centerpiece of the therapeutic experience.

By creating more open and accepting communities within our clinics and individual practices we open ourselves up for reparative connections with others. Mental health providers benefit from building insight into their own class identity, and can make use of the implicit content in the therapeutic room to better attune and understand the difficulties faced by individuals across the class spectrum. Taking the first step to seek mental health services is a brave act, and we owe it to our clients to center their experiences of class identity in order to direct our work efficiently and effectively.

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