In a new article, Australian psychotherapist Zoë Krupka reflects how experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted therapy and what it reveals about the connection between psychotherapy and social change. She argues that the million-plus deaths from the virus, job losses, and the stark realities of rising inequality and despair have made it clear that the historically apolitical stance of psychology does not meet many clients’ needs.
As a therapist, Krupka explains that she has seen the positive transformations clients have gone through both in their inner world and in their relation to the world around them. However, she is doubtful she can claim that psychotherapy has improved the world overall. Such a realization got her wondering about how psychotherapy might influence more permanent changes in society, especially as more people are coming to therapists during the pandemic. She asks:
“Who is given a right to their feelings, to express them? Who can be emotionally loud, and who must tread softly? Who is afraid, who is angry and who is resigned? How am I working politically with this pandemic of emotions in my psychotherapy space?”
Krupka acknowledges that the social issues and existential threats humanity faces, such as climate change, impact people’s lives. Many mental health professionals are reporting that these issues are showing up more often in virtual therapy sessions worldwide.
Reflecting on her work as a psychotherapist during the pandemic, Krupka found that traditional psychotherapy approaches felt somewhat removed from the real, material conditions of life. Krupka laments not only the lack of routine and variety the outside world offers but the ever-present feeling of threat that has become part of many people’s reality during the pandemic.
Like many others, she worried about whether she would continue working as a therapist when the pandemic began. Assuming that people would be spending their time and energy on ensuring their more basic needs and those around them, she was surprised to find that psychotherapists saw an increasing demand for their services. She also reports that applications to counseling and psychotherapy master’s programs have doubled. In her experience, clients are coming to her because they struggle with the anxiety of feeling trapped and isolated during the lockdown. She shares that she has faced similar struggles during the pandemic:
“I sit in my home for long hours in front of my computer, while the world outside walks at a distance—masked, fearful, and increasingly policed. My back hurts despite long walks and Zoom yoga. I then hurt it even more by over‐zealous gardening. I cry for no reason and for many reasons all at once. I miss my grown‐up kid like crazy. I look at myself more than ever before as my relationships almost all move online, and I wonder who that old woman looking back at me could be. My cats become badly behaved, yowling outside my office door, not used to being shut out and missing their afternoon worship from the returning school children who are now locked in their homes like me, in front of their backlit screens. In other words, I am white, lucky, rich, and safe.”
In many of her psychotherapy sessions with clients, she mentions how much emotion is directed at political leaders charged with managing states with increasing infection rates. She is struck by how differently people feel about him. Some see leaders as a protective father making difficult decisions, which engenders compassion. Others see their leaders as tyrannical, evoking feelings of intense anger, rebelliousness, humiliation, and powerlessness.
“Some people complain about their masks; their uselessness, oppressiveness, and the terrible obligation of seeing the reality of contagion and vulnerability in the masked faces of passers‐by. But when I hear these angry and fearful protests in my work, do I ask, please wear it, I am worried about the people that I love? Do I say your anger scares me, and it hurts people far more vulnerable than you? I do not. I could, but I do not. This is not how I was trained. It is not currently in my job description.”
Krupka reflects that her training as an emotion-focused psychotherapist taught her to trust in the wisdom of emotions that could be interpreted by client and therapist together to lead to effective responses. Though she was led to believe that this therapeutic process could ‘change the world,’ she admits it hasn’t done anything to help mitigate the pandemic and that such emotional expressions, no matter how well-managed in therapy, just go in circles.
“The rising numbers of those dead, dying and disabled; the homeless; jobless; and soon to be stateless. Women, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are suffering at far greater rates and will continue to do so long into the future. The racial and gender pay gaps are widening as the time frame for their closure disappears further and further into the future. Despite the wild animals that have returned to our quieter cities, the pandemic has barely made a blip in the climate crisis. I feel despair and struggle to make more than a tiny pixel for it on the Zoom screen.”
Yet she recognizes the political power of emotions, especially negative ones (e.g., fear, anger, shame) that she likens to a ‘deadly contagion’ in their own way. The suspicion she sees in those wearing masks towards those that go without a mask, and the fear felt by privileged people who are seeing the direct effects of globalization for the first time, happens between people and continues to grow and spread throughout society. She notes how easily identifiable these feelings are in her therapy room/on screen, and she is curious to learn more about where they are coming from and who is expressing which emotions.
In posing these questions, Krupka argues that psychotherapists can critically question ‘the politics of emotional expression’ that are largely absent in the politics of psychotherapy. As a therapist, she wonders how to be present with such emotional expressions to make connections between the therapeutic relationships she has with her clients and the larger world outside.
Krupka, Z. (2020). We are not in this together: Psychotherapy and pandemic emotions. Psychotherapy and Politics International, ppi.1561. (Link)