The Politics of Emotion in Psychotherapy During a Global Pandemic

A therapist reflects on feelings evoked by the pandemic, their political meanings, and how psychotherapy might facilitate social change.

Javier Rizo
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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?”
Photo credit: Flickr, Anthony Quintano

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.

 

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Krupka, Z. (2020). We are not in this together: Psychotherapy and pandemic emotions. Psychotherapy and Politics International, ppi.1561. (Link)

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Javier Rizo
Javier Rizo is a graduate student-trainee in the Clinical Psychology PhD program at UMass Boston. His current area of research is qualitative psychotherapy research, with a primary interest in promoting human rights-based framework in psychiatry through the education and training of mental health clinicians and researchers. Javier is committed to building a social justice psychiatry, working to incorporate humanistic, interdisciplinary and critical perspectives on mental health, with particular interest in the role of healers and common factors models of psychotherapy.

11 COMMENTS

  1. “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’ ” – I guess I’m not understanding what is meant by those phrases in this context – could you or someone explain?

    • Perhaps the author will answer.
      I don’t think his language here is very exact.
      If someone says, “I hate being locked down!” that’s politics in emotional expression.
      If the therapist says, “OK, let’s deal with that hatred,” that is psychotherapy ignoring the politics of the situation, which is in fact the dominant suppressor.
      If the therapist says, “OK, let’s see what we can do to got out from under this suppression,” that’s psychotherapy embracing the politics of the situation.

      We see here that the subject is limited in how it expresses itself by its own knowledge limitations!

      “Suppression” or “oppression” are considered by most psychologists to be “political” phenomena. But they are in fact at the core of what triggers misemotion in many people. Psychology thus ignores the central role of the sociopath and his allies in the psychological – not just political – life of people. They thus ignore their own role in this – to the extent that their profession includes some sociopaths, if it is not in fact dominated by them.

  2. This therapist should study what I have studied. It’s really not that difficult.

    When you realize that spiritual memory stretches back for billions of years, and that we have all been through times like this before (often not ending well, by the way – a contributor to the current sense of dread) you begin to see the way forward more clearly.

    Mental states and emotions are intimately tied to real interactions between people – most of them in the past. And real interactions between people always involve politics.

    Just as the struggle between our desire for freedom and for the sense of “security” that comes from being dependent manifests itself in politics, so does it in our personal worlds. The discovery of a true psychology results in many unexpected benefits. Better ways to study, better ways to help others, better ways to organize, better ways to stay productive, better ways to govern, better ways to control crime. True psychology is at the core of all human thought and action. We should expect great things from it that would apply to every aspect of life. And that is what a true psychology offers, but not the psychology we have now. Nor, of course, its psychotherapies.

    This therapist is wise to dream; she is unwise to confine herself to the current academic habits. They have led us nowhere. It is time we strayed further from the nest!

  3. A Global pandemic, you say? If the author really believes that is the case without question, so be it. As far as psychotherapy goes, it’s just a way of boosting someone’s ego. An other way of saying it, is to believe a lie someone else (with a degree) convinces you of. It gets you nowhere.

    • Actually psychotherapy often has the effect of not boosting anything. You feel shitty, you dial a therapist. You tell her what. Soon we find ourselves possible pressured to report negative stuff. I mean we are not here to just have fun.
      By the time you leave, you feel like shit.

      Perfect.

  4. “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.”

    No doubt. Perhaps it would be really kind and honest to tell callers that being emotionally distraught is a sign of normalcy. The worst outcome would be for a therapist to suggest someone see a shrink. “managing emotions” never has a good outcome.

  5. Politics inherently bring out emotions. In fact, we can get emotional about politics, which is why, in the past, in addition to religion and sex, we have mostly kept it out of polite conversation, including family gatherings, etc. Sometimes, especially, in the highly political election years, I have seem ministers plead with their congregations to keep political discussions away from the church grounds and away from the communion tables. But, that seems to be changing. But, when it is phrased as the politics of emotion, I am distressed. Why? This makes emotions, a natural human response to life itself, a political act. Politics may bring out our emotions, but, they should not be a political act and when it gets mixed in psychotherapy as this article purports it to be, well I can say “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” to quote Shakespeare; A Veritable Witches Brew. To this analogy to a related story of witches, I also am reminded of Hansel and Gretel writhing in the witch’s cauldron at the Witch’s Gingerbread House—“My Dinner!”, exclaims the witch, as she sees the children about ready to be boiled in hot oil like scruffy little potatoes for her stew! Thank you.

    • If we use a perhaps somewhat limited definition of “politics” as “an attempt to get someone to do something that they didn’t themselves think of doing or might actually prefer not to do,” then we do see that emotions, even using your interpretation, may involve politics.

      One who is honestly experiencing an emotion has little attention on the political aspects of his emotional behavior. But the people on the receiving end of that behavior may see it differently! A crying fit or a tantrum at the wrong time can seem highly manipulative to the person who has to “keep it together” and deal with it. And so with anger, fear, apathy, even enthusiasm. They can all be seen as manipulative in some way, and may even be used that way on purpose.

      But when it’s an honest reaction to a real situation, the first thought of the therapist should be to find out what’s going on, or if it’s obvious, to just let the person get through it. “Give them some space” as the saying goes.

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