Very few clients will attend therapy with a view to overcoming their personal prejudice. Most people don’t believe they are prejudice and instead believe their views are justified based on their experiences.
While prejudice may not be the presenting issue, it is an issue that may arise in a session. Most therapists are taught about cultural differences and how this may impact a client’s perceptions, however, the focus is typically on how therapists can be inclusive of different cultural values, and not specifically how to work with clients who hold views that are culturally prejudicial.
A THERAPIST’S DILEMMA TO ADDRESS PREJUDICE
It can be difficult for therapists to know how to address these issues of prejudice especially when it is not the primary reason for the client attending therapy.
For many therapists, the foundation of therapy, counseling, and positive mental wellbeing embraces social acceptance of all cultures. When a client presents views that reject social acceptance, it can become a difficult position for the therapist.
On one hand, the therapist understands that clients can hold many personal views that may reject social norms and for the most part, this is based on what the client has been taught to understand about their environment. On the other hand, therapists feel a moral responsibility to uphold the views of cultural acceptance. The question then becomes whether to address the issue of held prejudices with the client or only work with the issues that the client brings to the session.
The therapist is presented with a dilemma and can decide to follow one course over another, however, there may be room to support both points of view where your client is supported, yet you are able to maintain your moral responsibility to your personal and professional ethics .
RESPONDING TO PREJUDICE
The way in which therapists should address prejudice with their clients is rarely a prescriptive exercise as each client will respond differently. Furthermore, each issue of prejudice may require a different approach. For example, you may not address issues of racism the same way you address issues of ageism.
ing to prejudicial statements Responding in session can often be done in a reactionary way. This is a good reason why therapists may want to consider their approach to how they want to react in session if this occurs. A plan can help therapists take a more considered approach that will result in more effective communication instead of emotional reactions.
WHAT TO DO IN A THERAPY SESSION
- Develop an overall goal of how you want to react. Do you want to explore, discuss, effect change, condemn, or end your therapeutic relationship? These are serious questions to consider. Understand your own motivation when addressing issues of prejudice.
- Take a breath. What you hear from your client may create an immediate reaction of disgust or contempt. To move forward, it will help that you remain calm and focused on your goal of personal growth vs condemnation.
- Consider your own client’s goals for this session. Is your client emotionally stressed or open for discussion?
- Consider your client’s own cultural background and how this might contribute to their held views.
- Consider what function these prejudices are giving your client. Eg. Boosting self-esteem above other classes (classicism), justifying not being in a relationship (sexism).
- Consider the client’s motivation to change held views. Recall past experiences where the client changed their held view.
- Engage with your client based on the concept of motivational interviewing. It is more beneficial to have the client explore their held views through internal questioning as opposed to hearing statements that appear judgment-based. Help the client explore the origins of their beliefs and what purpose it serves for them to maintain these held views.
- Engage in discussion with your client to introduce the concept of empathy and understanding towards other groups of people that are different from your client.
Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination all fall within the same process, however, there are subtle differences in each label. Typically one label leads to the next as the belief system becomes more entrenched.
Stereotypes (thoughts) refer to what we think about people (eg. old people are slow), prejudice (emotions) refers to how we feel about people (eg. slow old people make me feel impatient by wasting my time), and discrimination (behaviours) refers to how we act (eg. not hiring older people to work in a retail store based on the belief they are too slow). Stereotypes lead to our prejudices which in turn leads to the behavior of discrimination.
It’s important to remember the different processes that are involved when you witness an act of discrimination compared to when you witness someone expressing a stereotype or prejudice. A behavioral act is something that might require you to take immediate and reactionary action. Examples include if a client is vilifying a staff member due to their race. This behavioral act may require an immediate intercept by you. Conversely, if a client is expressing an attitude of prejudice through conversation in session, then this cognitive and emotional belief held by the client can be challenged in a less immediate manner.
TYPES OF PREJUDICE
Below are some of the commonly held prejudices that are prevalent in society: