Power, Privilege, and Oppression in Counseling and Family Therapy
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
“Oppression is defined in dictionaries as an unjust, harsh, or cruel exercise of power over another or others. From a psychosocial perspective, the term can be viewed more specifically in the context of abuse or similar mistreatment that leads to psychological distress or emotional pain and suffering.” (Hanna, 2000, p.431). I see oppression as the direct result of a pathological human tendency to see others as a danger, resulting in the complicated act of creating and maintaining social-psychological-political structures that deny resources and possibilities from one or more oppressed groups by other privileged groups.
The understanding of power, privilege, and oppression as a family therapist is crucial. It is impossible to think about a situation where at least one of the family members is not affected by oppression and is not at least at one privileged position. Marginalization and power and privilege are forces that shape and perpetuated by cultures, and since a family is affected by the larger systems that they are a part of, these powers necessarily have at least some influence on the family members, especially if we are looking at three generations. Acknowledging and working with the effects that oppression and privilege have on the family members is essential for many reasons. Both on individual and collective levels, marginalized and privileged positions in life define the possibilities of many: Starting with basic survival needs such as food, shelter, and access to health care, to education, geography, income and more.
What complicates the dynamics in the family is the fact that different positions for the different family members, will most likely contribute to power differentials, which might not be a result of an agreement, but of what communities in the families’ lives assign power to. For example, men in the family might be earning more than the women or the trans family members, and as a result, hold more power. In a gay or lesbian couple, the person who is out usually holds more power. When one of the family members is disabled, there are some areas in life where they might need to rely on other family members. Some marginalized populations, literally live in constant life danger, which shapes their everyday experience. For example, black trans women are the most marginalized population in the US and are in constant life danger from hate crimes. It is important to remember, that probably every family member holds some privilege as well being oppressed in different ways and that this complicated experience of intersectionality is important to understand and to work with in therapy:
As a white, middle-class, Christian, nondisabled, North American, lesbian female, I experience both privilege and oppression. I experience privilege as a function of my race, socioeconomic class, Christian identity, nationality, absence of disabilities, and presentation as the gender with which I identify. However, I also experience oppression as a female and lesbian. My privilege and oppression intersect with each other and influence each other. (Crisp, 2018. P. 106).
When a family therapist enters the system, the therapist becomes a part of that system. There might be a definite power differential in that as well, that might be useful to acknowledge and dismantle the danger of that from the get-go. An example of positive action in that regard might be inviting the family members to share feedback with the therapist about what is working and what is not working for them during the therapy course. As with every privilege, it is easy not to be aware of it, and even more is hard to let go of it. Mental health practitioners are no different:
Unlike traditional research, in which power is regarded as a variable existing ‘‘out there,’’ affecting the behavior of the people we study or treat, I contend that power suffuses our very own actions as psychologists. We use our power to study power! Furthermore, we sometimes use our power to define power in such a way that we are not affected by it! (Prilleltensky, 2008, p. 117).
Knowing that someone is being oppressed can sometimes be a challenge, since oppression can show up also as an internalized oppression, and the person and the family might not directly be aware of how it plays in their everyday life. That is why it is the therapist’s responsibility to do their homework and educate themselves about the experience of marginalized and privileged populations, not assume and act as if they understand if they do not, ask questions while also not putting the responsibility to educate them on their clients. It is the therapist's responsibility to explore with the clients how much their current family situation in regards to power distribution is aligned with how they want it to be. When there is oppression in forms of withholding of resources, for example, a psycho-education might be helpful, such as sharing, possibly individually, the power and control wheel and discussing that. However, the safety of the oppressed must always be considered, especially if there is a suspicion for domestic violence.
Sasha Raskin, MA, is an international #1 bestselling co-author , the founder and CEO of Go New , a transformational education program, a life, and business coach and a psychotherapist in Boulder, CO. He is working on a P.h.D in Counseling Education and Supervision and is an adjunct faculty at the Contemplative Counseling master’s program at Naropa University, from which he also graduated. Sasha has been in the mental health field for more than 10 years, worked with youth at risk, recovery, mental health hospitals, and coached individuals, couples, families, startups, and groups. He has created mindfulness stress reduction and music therapy programs within different organizations. Whether it’s in person or via phone/video calls, Sasha uses cutting-edge, research-based techniques to help his clients around the world to thrive.
As a coach Sasha Raskin provides individual and group coaching in Boulder, Colorado, and worldwide via video and phone calls. His services include: life coaching, business coaching, career coaching, ADD / ADHD coaching, leadership coaching, and executive coaching. Schedule your free 20-minute coaching phone consultation with Sasha Raskin
As a counselor in Boulder, CO, Sasha provides individual counseling in Boulder, CO , family therapy in Boulder, CO, and couples therapy in Boulder, CO, marriage counseling in Boulder, Colorado, and couples intensives / couples retreats, drawing from over ten years of clinical experience. Schedule your free 20-minute psychotherapy phone consultation with Sasha Raskin
Crisp C. White and lesbian: Intersections of privilege and oppression. Journal Of Lesbian Studies [serial online]. April 2014;18(2):106-117. Available from: PsycINFO, Ipswich, MA. Accessed June 17, 2018.
Hanna, F. J., Talley, W. B., & Guindon, M. H. (2000). The power of perception: Toward a model of cultural oppression and liberation. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 78(4), 430-441. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.2000.tb01926.x
Prilleltensky, I. (2008). The role of power in wellness, oppression, and liberation: The promise of psychopolitical validity. Journal Of Community Psychology, 36(2), 116-136. doi:10.1002/jcop.20225