Sebastienne Grant is a professor of critical psychology at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. She currently serves as the program director for a Master’s program in Critical Psychology and Human Services. Dr. Grant received her PhD in Psychology: Consciousness and Society from the University of West Georgia.
Grounded in the traditions of Buddhism, critical psychology, existential-humanistic psychology, and transpersonal psychology, Dr. Grant is concerned with questions of wellbeing—both individual and societal.
She has written on transhumanism from Buddhist and existential perspectives, as well as the tensions of social justice under neoliberalism. Her most recent publication is a chapter titled “Addressing the Empty Self: Toward Socially Just Subjectivities” in the book Subjectivity in Psychology in the Era of Social Justice.
This book was co-written with several colleagues, including previous MIA podcast guest Dr. Bethany Morris.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Micah Ingle: Could you tell us about how you came to psychology, particularly the integrative and critical kind of psychology you do?
Sebastienne Grant: Like many people, I came to psychology because I had personal experiences with the suffering caused by psychological struggles. I grew up with a single mom who had bipolar disorder and chronic depression. I was super close to her and loved her very much, and I saw the impact on her life and my own life.
I think that was what made me interested in going into psychology as an undergrad student. I went to Warren Wilson College, which looked at psychology from more alternative lenses. I got a good foundation there.
After graduating with my undergrad degree, I got a job at a shelter serving people experiencing homelessness in Asheville, North Carolina. That’s where I started to think about critical psychology, even though, at the time, I had no idea what that was. I didn’t have the language for it. But I was planning to go into a Master’s program the following year for counseling, and I was thinking—what would my work look like with these people, with the people I was serving at the shelter, in a counseling role.
I just started to be so frustrated by so many of their struggles and how I saw those struggles embedded in these larger systems of oppression and injustice. So that was causing a lot of these struggles.
I thought, as a counselor, what am I going to have to offer these people? Yes, you’re experiencing depression and anxiety and maybe self-medicating through substances, and these all seem like very natural reactions to this situation that you’re in that’s not your fault.
I also started to think about my mom and how she had been a single mom experiencing poverty and had tried numerous times to get support through government aid—support to go back to college, childcare support, all of these things—and wasn’t able to receive any help. I thought about how much that contributed to her struggles.
So, I was looking for alternative orientations to therapy, and I found the University of West Georgia, which had a great humanistic-existential program. So, I went there, and while doing the Master’s in counseling, I was exposed to critical social theory and critical psychology.
By the time I finished my Master’s program, my focus had shifted toward the more macro level, looking at these systems that humans are embedded in and how we can work to alter those systems. So I shifted and did my PhD more in critical psychology, but still blending in existentialism, Buddhist psychology, transpersonal psychology, humanistic psychology.
Ingle: Thank you. You did your work at West Georgia, which is also where I’m doing my PhD, for those who don’t know. Since then, you’ve established a Master’s degree program in Critical Psychology and Human Services at Prescott College. Can you tell us why you wanted to start this program?
Grant: First of all, I was hired at Prescott College to be a critical psychologist and teach in their undergraduate program, which is also very critically focused. The existing program was very much aligned. I have been aware that very few graduate programs focus on critical psychology in the United States. At the time of developing this program, there were none specifically in critical psychology at the Master’s level that we could find.
For me, there’s a huge need for this. I believe that all psychology should be critical psychology, and eventually, I would love to see critical psychology cease to be a separate field and just be integrated. For now, it’s not, and a lot of people still don’t know what it is, but I think that there’s a craving for it—that there’s an attunement to wanting to do psychology from a perspective of understanding conditions of oppression and social justice.
We wanted it to be a practical degree. I am more of a theoretical psychologist, that’s where I hang out, but I also really believe that we have to find places for this theory to meet the world and impact people through practice. This is one of the places human services and social services are closely aligned. So this is mostly designed for people who will be working in the nonprofit sector, supporting individuals in community-based capacities through that nonprofit work.
We wanted people to be able to do that work from a critically informed place that would allow them to understand—I mean, a lot of this came from my own experience of working in this homeless shelter, right?—so we wanted people to have this perspective and be able to work with clients from a place of understanding how their struggles are embedded in these larger systems, not placing so much of the blame and the responsibility on the individual so that hopefully they can be more compassionate.
Hopefully, they can be more respectful, more validating of people’s experiences, and more creative as they look for solutions to help address their struggles.
Ingle: You’ve said a couple of times that nobody really knows what critical psychology is. I don’t want to put you on the spot as the voice who has to define it, but my next question is about what you teach in this program, so maybe we could get at it through that lens.
Grant: The way I understand critical psychology is that it has two branches or areas of focus.
The first one is applying critical theory and critical social theory lenses to the field of psychology, looking at the ways that psychology as a field, as a very powerful force, absorbs different social values and ideologies, interacts with them, perpetuates them, and contributes to wellbeing or contributes to greater suffering. Additionally, it asks how we can do psychology in a more effective way for facilitating wellbeing?
The other branch, where I focus more, is using critical theories and psychological theories to critique societies and think about how they are contributing to human flourishing or hindering human flourishing and contributing to suffering—thinking about how we could envision societal changes that would better support the flourishing of humans.
For me, if psychologists care about supporting the wellbeing of humans, we have to look at the societies that those humans live in. We also have to get involved in creating more just and equitable and healthy societies. Otherwise, we end up putting duct tape on people—which they often need because we can’t fix the world overnight—but then sending people back into these harmful systems. That’s my understanding of critical psychology.
Ingle: So what goes on in this program? What kind of classes do you teach there? How does it look like when you bring these things into the classroom?
Grant: We try to provide students with a strong theoretical orientation to critical psychology. Also, we provide them with skills in human services, things like grant writing and fundraising, program development, transformative leadership, helping skills, things like that. Students have to take a certain number of professional skills courses and choose which ones they want to focus on.
As far as the theory classes go, we focus on providing a good foundation. Students take Concepts of Critical Psychology, which covers the field of critical psychology specifically. They also take a class called Critical, Theoretical, and Historical Foundations of Psychology, which is a history of psychology class from a critical perspective.
We investigate psychology as a field and the historical development of psychology from a critical perspective—how has it developed along with other societal trends?
Ingle: When we talk about things like critical social theory, the developments that psychology has had historically, and how it’s maybe lined up with certain social values—are we talking about things like racism? Are we talking about things like sexism?
Grant: Well, certainly we talk about racism and sexism and homophobia. Those are all embedded in larger systems of power and oppression and hierarchy. We’re always thinking about who is being served, who is being harmed, who has the power, who’s getting to decide what’s normal and abnormal, what’s pathological, who’s deciding what health is.
And what are those definitions and practices? How are those supporting the status quo? How are those harming different populations? We look at all the ways that it plays out. One of the new courses being offered at Prescott College that I’m excited about is a Critical Disability Studies course, which is again looking at how these issues of power, oppression, and colonization play out when we’re looking at people who are differently-abled.
Ingle: How do your students receive this training, these kinds of ideas? Do you see them carrying it forward in their work?
Grant: One of the things I’ve been struck by when I speak to incoming students is that almost all of them say some version of “this is what I’ve been intuiting. This is what I’ve been looking for, but I didn’t know it existed as a field.”
We are getting a lot of students right now who are already doing some work in the human services or social services sector, and they’re working with clients. I think they’re feeling like I did when I initially started working with clients, seeing how these struggles are embedded in these larger systems of power, oppression, and injustice.
We have a student who just graduated, who has worked as a sign language interpreter in the deaf community for a long time. Through integrating the theory from this program, she’s gotten interested in the ways that the deaf community—she defines the deaf community as people who are hearing impaired and also use sign language—has had limited access to mental health services, and also how skewed those services tend to be.
She wrote an amazing article about how few mental health providers can use sign language to communicate with clients, how few interpreters have a mental health language background, and how this leads to a huge overdiagnosis of pathology for people in the deaf community because there are cultural differences. They often have to express themselves either through writing or reading lips and speaking, but that’s like a second language.
In many cases, they often don’t acquire language until they start elementary school, which I had no idea about before she shared it with me. They have a late acquisition of language, which changes how they use language. That’s often seen as symptoms of schizophrenia because they’ll use language in ways that seem fragmented to mental health providers.
She’s focused on bringing forward this critical work, this kind of decolonized mental health work with the deaf community, and sensitizing people to these specific cultural issues and challenges of working with that community. That’s one example.
I also have a student who’s a labor union president. He works in the public school system as an educator. He has been doing this for many years, and now he’s in the Master’s program, and he’s looking at labor union organizing. But, unfortunately, psychology has failed to look at labor unions at all, even though industrial and organizational psychology has done a lot of work on the other side—supporting employers to get what they want and need from their employees.
But in terms of how to do that in a way that is more beneficial and less damaging to the employees, psychology has done very little work on how to support labor unions and to look at the positive benefits that people who participate in labor unions receive, both financially but also in terms of mental health and enjoyment of their work.
He’s trying to do a research project to apply psychological theories to labor union organizing. But we started to dig into this, and it’s like, who pays for psychological research on things relating to career and occupation? It’s usually employers.
So all of that research ends up being skewed toward benefiting employers rather than employees. Even though it’s often looking at how to make work conditions better for employees, it’s still looking at how to do that in a way that increases the bottom line, that doesn’t challenge what employers do or how they do it. He’s carrying that work forward through his research and his actual labor union organizing work.
Ingle: You recently wrote a book chapter—“Addressing the Empty Self: Toward Socially Just Subjectivities.” In the chapter, you wrote that there’s a contradiction in how we’re living, particularly in western societies, with the aims of social justice and wellbeing. Can you talk about what that contradiction is?
Grant: In the chapter, I take it a little bit farther than being a contradiction with how we’re living, to a contradiction really in the construction of our subjectivities, which of course influences how we’re living, but it’s deeper than that.
One of the things that I focus on in this chapter is that even when we envision living in more ethical and just ways, even when that’s what we want, and that’s what we believe in, and that’s what aligns with our values, we have a very hard time actually living that way.
I argue that that’s because our subjectivity is constructed under capitalism and neoliberalism in a very individualistic, competitive, and narcissistic way that is in tension with social justice. So even when we want to be more equitable, for instance, we have these reactions.
Because they’re constructions, I believe we can deconstruct and reconstruct them. So I’m interested in what kinds of constructions would better support individual and societal wellbeing and what psychology can do to support those.
Ingle: When you say construction of subjectivity, can you explain just briefly what you mean by that, how it gets constructed?
Grant: Many theories play around with the construction of subjectivity. One of the ways that I understand it is that humans have a multitude of capacities available to them. Those are all part of our nature. Different societies that we live in, different languages that we acquire, even different families that we are a part of, and different systems affect what gets highlighted and what gets minimized of our array of capacities.
I believe that under capitalism, neoliberalism, consumerism, materialism, this kind of water that we’re all swimming in these days, the capacities in us that get nurtured are individualism, selfishness, competitiveness, greed. And then we mistake those as our human nature.
We also have capacities for compassion and collaboration and care and generosity, and courageous altruism. Those could also be nurtured and supported, and I think those are being minimized in our society to the point that we don’t even sometimes believe that those are capacities that come as naturally to us as the other ones.
We see this false dichotomy between what’s good for the individual and good for society. I’m getting a little on a little bit of a tangent now, but for instance, within capitalism, we overemphasize what we believe will contribute to the individual good.
In other political-economic systems, maybe like communism or socialism, sometimes we overemphasize what’s good for the social good. For me, these are completely false dichotomies.
If we realize deep interconnectedness, we can’t think about it that way. While on the surface, it may seem that we can act in ways that are only good for the individual or society, eventually, those things will be bad for both the individual and society. If they’re not good for both, then they’re really bad for both.
Ingle: You talk about how there is a need for a top-down approach, which I assume would mean changing social, political, and economic structures, which would then change people’s subjectivities. But you said that it’s equally necessary for us to have a bottom-up approach. Could you explain what you mean by these two things?
Grant: I often see different fields work on very different levels, not looking at the holistic picture. Fields like sociology, political science, and economics look at how these larger systems in which we’re embedded create or shape our subjectivities. And how, if we want different kinds of humans, we need to change the systems that they live in.
I certainly think that that is part of the picture, as I’ve just explained. I believe that we are largely constructed in relation to the societies that we’re in. But again, we bring a lot to the societies we find ourselves in. We are constructed in particular ways.
If we don’t address that and do work at the individual and personal level, then even if we change these larger systems, we end up recreating what we knew before.
I talk in the chapter about David Loy, who’s one of my favorite Buddhist philosophers. He does a lot with Buddhist critical theory. For example, he talks about the three poisons, a Buddhist concept. The misidentification of the self as separate leads to the three poisons: greed, ignorance, and aggression.
Greed is our inherent competitiveness and fear—thinking that there aren’t enough resources to go around and that I have to make sure that I have mine so that I’m safe. Ignorance is the ignorance of our true interconnected self, seeing ourselves as separate, which makes us feel empty, insecure, and lonely. Aggression plays out through greed, but it’s also things that we’re resistant to, things that scare us, things that we have an aversion to, which creates a lot of tension.
David Loy argues that if we don’t address these within ourselves, then it doesn’t matter which systems we create, we will bring these into it, and we’ll end up corrupting even the most beautiful, well thought out, compassionate systems with these underlying struggles.
Ingle: You call psychology out for being complicit and encouraging some of these tendencies, like narcissism, individualism, and greed, that makes it more difficult to live out a lot of these social justice ideals. I’m curious if you could say more about how you see psychology contributing negatively in that way.
Grant: These critiques start as far back as Eric Fromm, who was looking at how society had absorbed capitalistic values and how those were negatively impacting the wellbeing of the people who lived within them.
This is certainly not a new critique, but there’s a couple of different ways that I see this as being harmful. The first is that this hyper-individualistic notion of the self antagonizes our feelings of emptiness and lack. Many branches of psychology, thinkers, and people from different wisdom traditions and philosophies have identified as the source of our suffering.
The way psychology understands the self and understands health to be this reification and bolstering up of the separation of the ego antagonizes some of those underlying feelings of emptiness that lead to suffering.
Psychology is such a broad field. We often think so much about psychology in terms of therapy and psychopathology, and it’s much bigger than that. But in that realm, mainstream psychology tends to identify struggles as being located within the individual and assumes that that’s where the transformation or healing needs to happen.
If you have depression, it’s your depression. This is how certain things influence you. If you want to get over your depression, you need to seek support.
You’ve had all of these experiences in life, and now you’re struggling, but you have the potential within you to overcome these challenges, be resilient, and figure out how to orient yourself in a way that’s going to be healthier.
That’s a great thing on the surface, but when we don’t look at how those struggles are embedded in larger systems, we end up creating these impossible demands on people to be healthy and happy.
There’s a lot of stigma and shame around the failure to do that. Even with positive psychology, we’ve started to pathologize normalcy. There’s a moral imperative to be as happy and successful and as authentically unique as you can.
That’s harmful to individuals because it sets us up for feeling like failures and for not getting the support that we need.
I have a grad student working with resiliency literature on African American women and looking at this intersectional oppression of sexism and racism. So much of the literature praises African American women for being so incredibly resilient, which is great. It also looks at ways to help African American women be more resilient in the face of these intersectional challenges.
None of the articles that I’ve reviewed with this student talk about the need for psychology to get involved in addressing and eradicating racism. “How can we help women of color better deal with racism” is where psychology locates the challenge or the task, rather than “how do we get rid of racism so that people aren’t having to work so incredibly hard just to survive in these unjust systems.”
So again, I think this is where psychology misrecognizes the location of the problem. I don’t think that there’s anyone behind the curtains intentionally misleading people, but it certainly does support the status quo in this way.
Ingle: You’re also interested in a positive vision for who we can be and what psychology can be. You talk about alternative forms of ethics and subjectivity, ways of living with compassion, and interconnectivity. Can you explain a little bit about your approach there?
Grant: I think that re-envisioning psychology and subjectivity and ethics must be a collaborative process. I am trying to promote more dialogue, getting more people talking about it. I certainly don’t think that there is one answer. We need so many visions for living better lives and how to have better societies. I come to this work from a foundation heavily influenced by Buddhism and wisdom traditions.
One of the things that I see that could be helpful is incorporating compassion and interconnectivity practices. Buddhism has a very well-developed, long theoretical and practical tradition specifically for reconstructing the self to be less individualistic. This is what it’s been doing for thousands of years.
This requires that we do the work, not just with our brains, which is hard for me because I’m such a theory person, and I’m the worst meditator.
There’s a lot of different ways to practice. There are meditations on compassion and interconnectivity that you can do, but I also really love the idea of service as a transformational process.
Getting involved in doing volunteering and doing service work, getting involved in your community, for some people getting involved in spiritual or religious communities, getting involved in prayer, thinking about the ways that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
When we can find contact points or transcendence, awe, I think that that has the power to get in there and do some reconstruction work. But we have to believe that this is even a worthy project. We must convince others that this is a worthy project even to take up these practices.
I think we can do that through the head. We can do that by highlighting research that shows, for instance, that compassion practices increase activity in areas related to joy in the brain and decrease activity in regions of the brain related to depression. So we can use that kind of research to convince people that this is a worthy cause. But then we’re going to have to actually do the work.
I’ve been teaching this class called Doing Good: Compassion and Sustainable Caring, which is really about how we can participate in work—social justice work, advocacy work, counseling, anything where we’re confronted with the suffering of others, the suffering of the world—without being overcome by despair, anger, and hopelessness. One of the things that we do is start every class by watching a video of someone doing some act of kindness.
Even really simple practices like that, I think, can help attune us to how good it feels to be compassionate and to be of service to others in the world.
Ingle: You’ve also done quite a bit of work on transhumanism. Could you explain what transhumanism is, how you’re coming to it, and what you think about it?
Grant: Transhumanism refers to theories and technologies that aim to transcend or evolve the human beyond what would be possible without the aid of science and technology. Things like radical life extension through either ending the aging process or uploading our consciousness onto a non-biologic substrate; things like morphological freedom, which is the idea that we should be able to embody any physical form that we want; we shouldn’t be limited to the human form.
I am critical of transhumanism. I see it as really an extension of consumerism, capitalism, and this idea that we should direct our development of the self and technology based on our desire and our fear.
We have a fear of death. So rather than working with death, rather than thinking about how to create meaningful lives, we try to figure out how to get rid of death.
In that way, it’s an exaggeration of desire, of desire-driven endeavors. The problem is that we don’t desire things that make us happy. Often desire is not a good guide to happiness. When we think of desire, it’s usually hedonic, base pleasures or getting away from things we’re afraid of.
I think that transhumanism ends up doing what positive psychology does, but to a greater degree—now it makes things like mortality an insult and a tragedy. We shouldn’t need to die. This is insulting. This is horrible. We have to figure out how to get rid of this.
Then we get even more afraid because we’re not accepting that it’s a natural part of the human experience. So rather than figuring out how we can live the best lives that we can, all of the energy and thought goes into how we can live impossible lives.
But psychology hasn’t been involved in the conversation. It’s being used, but it’s not intentionally contributing anything. One of the great examples, when we’re thinking about genetic modification of the human—this is another thing that people do, right? Designer babies.
If we wanted to design a perfect person that would be happy and healthy, introversion is often on the chopping block in the transhumanist literature. A surface-level reading of psychological research often identifies introversion as being connected to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and isolation.
There are other societies where that’s not the case. For instance, introversion tends to be more valued in Japan and Sweden, and extroversion is sometimes not as valued. But because psychology is not involved in these conversations, it can’t add that kind of nuance.
We’re talking about potentially permanently impacting the genetic makeup of humans based on this misunderstood and noncritical psychological research, which I think is really important and also really scary.
Ingle: So what’s next for you?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been focusing most of my energy on getting the Master’s program established and running, but I’ve got kind of a slew of things on the back burner that I would like to bring forward.
They’re all related to everything that we’ve been talking about today, but I’m interested in how compassion practices can support social justice work, particularly what’s often called compassion fatigue, but I believe it is more of empathy fatigue.
I’ve also been reading this book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He argues that humans don’t make rational decisions, and he doesn’t have a lot of hope that we can get better at that.
My understanding of what he says is, we make decisions based on all kinds of things—on intuition, on what we grew up believing with our families, on knee-jerk fears, all sorts of things, but not so much on what we have really thought about.
I’ve been reading this book, and I’m like, well, what can we do? He says we can try to make better rational decisions, but we’ve only got a tiny bit of wiggle room there because it’s not what we do.
So I’ve been interested in is how we can make better irrational or a-rational decisions. This is again tied to reconstructing our subjectivities to be more compassionate and interconnected so that when we make decisions without thinking them through, without relying on all of that rationality, we’ll make better decisions for holistic wellbeing.
A final thing that I’ve been thinking about is how psychology has taken up the role in American society of religion, I think. I’m not the first one to identify that. People look to it for guidance on how to live a good life, how to live the best life that they can.
I think that it’s playing an incredibly powerful role in people’s lives and decisions about how to parent, how to relate to their partners, how to govern, how to manage what we do when people transgress against society, how we deal with crime and things like this.
But psychologists haven’t taken that responsibility on with a lot of intention and thought. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking about too—how can we take up this position that we’re in? How can we be leaders of the cultivation of the good? How can we be moral and ethical leaders based on what I see as more humanistic and scientific understandings of what’s good for individuals in societies?
That’s a big project, so we’ll see how far that one gets.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations