It was a long time ago. The first time that I strongly expressed my opinion about how human behavior varies depending on social class was in a job interview at a car manufacturer in the marketing department. I vividly recall suggesting that the company’s advertisements reflect upper-middle class father figure stereotypes. You know the type, a successful male with a decent job, enjoying his privilege, oh, and he’s having a pleasant, relaxing evening with his kids at home. All of this status and happiness mirrored in the polished exterior of the vehicle.
My motivation for the marketing concept at the time was to sell social class. How people perceive others’ social class leads to how they infer the ways of living, the ways of buying, the ways of thinking, even the ways of looking happy. Many people, including myself, seemed to buy into these forms of class stereotypes. However, at that time, I did not really know what it meant to me.
Since having started in the field of mental health many years ago, I have come to the realization that social class has actually been influencing me in more meaningful ways than I was aware of in the past. For instance, from the time that I entered the therapy room to see the first client of my entire life, I was thinking how, and how not to, advertise and convey my social class. As a young graduate student, I struggled with providing for myself. My money went to supporting my basic needs. Yet, I considered what a therapist “should” look like. I did not want to be perceived as overly wealthy or poor, but still wanted to look qualified in my profession. My confusion on how to present myself came from a familiar class-related social message that I internalized from my – highly educated, but middle class – family: “Don’t show off your social class. That’s pretty unsophisticated.” Well, looking back, I tried to behave as if no social class existed.
In reality, there are no class-free people: both clients and psychotherapists. We just don’t talk about social class. However, we all are unknowingly or knowingly exposed to social class environments and culture. For example, people from lower social classes sometimes experience feeling isolated and feeling disconnected from community, and have mixed feelings about success. Class can influence a client’s values, and clients from working-class backgrounds may place a higher emphasis on certain values, such as familial responsibility, harmony, interdependence, and empathy toward others due to their upbringings. Sometimes, these values contrast with common American middle-class values like independence and individualism. Therapists should not overlook clients’ social class cultural values. Instead, by considering clients’ social class environment, therapists can understand clients even better.
So, how can therapists grasp a meaningful experience from these clients? In understanding clients’ experiences, therapists may benefit from exploring clients’ narratives about their own social class. From my past experience, one of my clients majoring in law, whose parents did not go to college, struggled with passing the bar exam. Her experience with failure was more likely related to her frustration and feeling hopeless about the disadvantages of her family’s social class than her ability and work ethic. Psychotherapists can link clients’ social class narratives to their presenting concerns. This can help therapists understand the underlying meaning of clients’ psychological difficulties.
For therapists, it is important to become aware of our own social class experiences, such as social class bias, economic privilege or disadvantage, even perception of social inequality. For instance, therapists who have never been in disadvantaged social class environments may have difficulty in being empathetic to clients who grew up in poverty. Conscious thoughts and feelings about our own social class might be the first step for therapists to eliminate unneeded barriers in the therapy process.
There is no class-free system. For instance, in terms of accessibility and affordability, some people believe that those who are privileged have more access to psychological services. Going back to the time when psychotherapy was born in Europe, Freud or Jung’s clients were described as mostly middle-class, and they regarded psychotherapy as an element of upper-class culture. Up until now, those in a higher social class have tended to have more resources and access to private psychotherapy services than those in a lower social class. Nevertheless, I have to appreciate that psychotherapists have begun striving for providing equal service opportunities and resources with social class minority groups such as the homeless, unemployed, poor, and people in rural communities.
At first, when I expressed my opinions on social class for the car company, I perpetuated stereotypes unwittingly. However, now as I am aware that experiences with social class shapes one’s unique worldview, I have become interested in how clients struggle with class stereotypes and how they develop their social class identity. Everyone has a different social class story behind his or her issues. Now, I guess I am ready to hear more about it.