Can Phenomenology Help Clinicians Stop Objectifying Clients?

Svetlana Sholokhova suggests that incorporating “phenomenological psychology” could open up possibilities for radical transformation within the field of psychiatry.


In a new article, Svetlana Sholokhova explores the tradition of “objectivity” in the training of mental health clinicians. She suggests that incorporating the lived, embodied experience of both clinician and client (“phenomenology”) could lead away from objectifying clients as a set of disorders to be treated, and toward experiencing them as human beings.

“In order to dismantle the view of the patient as the object of examination and treatment, and to see her as a subject, it is necessary to deny the psychiatrist (the subject of study) the position of the invisible and omnipotent eye. Phenomenology offers psychiatrists the tools to reach this awareness and actively engage in the transformation of the psychiatric theory and practice,” writes Sholokhova.

photo of tangled branches
“Mighty Old Trees” by Rosipaw (Creative Commons)

Sholokhova is a teaching associate in the department of Psychology and Educational Sciences at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. The article was published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology.

Throughout the years, advocates have worked toward person-centered approaches in psychiatry (in which the client is considered the expert of their own experiences). However, the status quo in mainstream psychiatry still regards the psychiatrist as an expert who dictates the care of the client. Even within a person-centered perspective, the subjectivity of the medical professional is mistrusted out of fear of malpractice or undue influence. Although such concerns may be valid in some circumstances, ignorance of clinician subjectivity is problematic as it continues to maintain the idea that knowledge can only be gained through a subject-less, detached observer.

From the perspective of phenomenological psychology, the therapist is not a detached expert, but rather an active participant in the therapeutic process. From this perspective, attending to the therapist’s emotional experiences is also an essential part of therapy.

Key to phenomenological practice is a task called “performing the epoché.” To do this, the therapist must attempt to suspend prior assumptions, beliefs, and prejudices about themselves, others, and the world, in the service of more completely understanding the experience of the client. This task is a dynamic, aspirational process that is never fully completed. This continuous process allows for the therapist to keep learning more about themselves, others, and the world, which is crucial to the process of psychotherapy. When applied to the clinical encounter, such a stance is theorized to enable the clinician to suspend their prior beliefs and allow them to pay more attention to the lived experience of the client.

Sholokhova argues that coupling phenomenology with psychiatry could allow for a more comprehensive understanding of mental illness. The phenomenological perspective could serve as a critical lens, both challenging and helping to balance the objectifying view of psychiatry. She suggests that phenomenology could allow for a more relational experience of the therapeutic encounter, rather than one that is grounded in seeing client as object. According to Sholokhova, this could open up possibilities for profound transformation in the field of psychiatry.


Sholokhova, S. (2019). Benefits and challenges of the phenomenological approach to the psychiatrist’s subjective experience: Impassivity, neutrality, and embodied awareness in the clinical encounter. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 26(4), p. E-83-E-96. (Abstract)


  1. Thank you for speaking common sense.

    “She suggests that incorporating the lived, embodied experience of both clinician and client (“phenomenology”) could lead away from objectifying clients as a set of disorders to be treated, and toward experiencing them as human beings.”

    I couldn’t agree more, viewing living human beings as disorders, is an insanely, ungodly, disrespectful manner in which to behave. I had to leave my psychiatrist, once some of his medical records had been handed over, and I realized he had delusions that I, as a human being, was a disorder, who had a “fictional” life.

    How insane can a person be, as to believe a living human being is a disorder? How delusions of grandeur filled can a “mental health” worker be, to believe that another human being will allow you declare their entire life to be “fictional”? It is these ungodly disrespectful “mental health” workers who are insane and delusions of grandeur filled people.

    Another one of these insane “mental health” workers recently had delusions of grandeur I’d want my work and money to be “managed” by him, a stranger. No thanks, I like my freedom, delusions of grandeur filled, misogynistic, systemic child abuse covering up, nut case, Lutheran psychologist.

    All the scientifically “invalid,” psychologists and psychiatrists, and the religious leaders, need to get out of the child abuse and rape covering up business. Because the psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ systemic, child abuse and rape covering up crimes, have also been functioning to aid, abet, and empower the pedophiles and child sex traffickers, which is destroying our country.

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  2. Yes Ashley,
    I like this perspective. We cannot deny that people want to talk about their confusions,
    their angst.
    But this can only work if indeed the therapist is able to detach yet remain engaged.
    Emotionally it is healthier for both client and therapist, considering
    that hopefully we are all in constant change, learning and relearning.
    The most satisfying relationships are about sharing, no matter how small someone’s
    contribution to a relationship.
    Psychiatry actually never learns, never relearns, does not receive any lessons
    itself and in this way is not even logical when it comes to the mind/brain. When it comes to
    the brain, the vastness of it all, it makes no sense to have one approach. To see everything as pathology
    does not allow for the psychiatrist to be interested, to grow. It is the most unsatisfying paradigm for
    client and psychiatrist, unless both are happy with this narrow construct.
    Science teaches us about neuroplasticity of the brain. Psychiatry denies this by throwing
    random chemicals to the brain, simply confusing the chemicals and most likely
    preventing any real change other than damage to various parts of the brain.
    The DSM is the number one problem, the meds follow close behind and work in tandem.

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  3. I appreciate the effort, but don’t see this as a reality.

    Objective behavior is difficult if not impossible in any setting. People are driven by a lot of innate biology from birth into adulthood that contains bias, etc.. However, objectivity may be more obtainable in a diverse group of people. Perhaps?

    Psychiatry needs to go back to school to study the brain some more. They do not know the CAUSE of the illnesses they are trying to treat.

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    • I agree they have no idea of the cause, but I highly doubt further study of the brain per se is going to yield any more information. It is their primary error to believe that the brain is the causal factor in these “disorders,” in the same sense that solving a software bug or issue can not be resolved by studying the hardware. The mind runs the brain, not the other way around.

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      • We are saying to people.
        The world you live in, the mind and the suffering is an illness. Seeing the “negatives”, thinking “negatively”, is the “illness”, especially if it makes you miss work or sleep.
        Our alternative is not to be affected by what is around us, not in any passionate manner.
        If we don’t react, it is referred to as “resilience”. Within this resilience we can look at others and name their suffering as illness/neurosis.
        In this way, we never need make changes for suffering, but direct all attention to fixing the sufferer.
        When a child or teen experience results of sensitivities, we want to fix them.

        Much easier to name them MI.

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        • Yeah exactly. Don’t worry though. If you are already viewed as “MI” by people with bigoted beliefs it won’t matter too much if you are super positive and showing up to work. If I smile, I am showing teeth so it’s probably a sign of aggression. If I am kind to you it is probably because I am the “charming type of dangerous”. If you view me as educated or articulate it’s probably the whole “dangerous genius” thing. If I’m not as educated or I make mistakes, clearly it’s a sign that I am “not all there” and you should run away.

          Anyway that’s of course not to dismiss that people behaving in ways that are misunderstood, or “presenting as MI per the DSM” for instance have it FAR worse than me when it comes to people with bigoted beliefs. So often subjected to an over-policing, overblown fear/hate response, completely punitive responses, lacking in accommodations I consider reasonable, behaviors totally taken out of context. No forgiveness. No love. No understanding. But since I am viewed as dangerous I can just be discriminated against more covertly so they have plausible deniability on their side, OR overtly since I am just “bad”. Since I am viewed as disabled feel free to take my story from me. Steal it. Feel free to treat me like trash. It’s not bigotry because I deserve this. Okay rant over.

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    • Studying the brain has resulted in so much abuse/experimenting on people and on top of it, is actually part of causing much harm on a psychological plane for society.
      Studying the brain is saying that some of us are normal and some are not. All mind suffering and it’s intensity variations has a time constraint, WHICH the duration or intensity parameters are set by the people who study. Anything beyond their guidelines is to be treated.

      What we need to do is study why some folks set the rules, and how we determine who is qualified to be the rule makers.
      We have to look at why a few people are allowed into the DSM room to make up standards for billions of people who will ALL be greatly affected by these rules and who through these rules have great harm come to them.

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