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Does Social Justice and Therapy Align? It’s Complicated.



“I feel like I can’t trust all these bitches in my life!”


Hearing this, I immediately clam up. A few thoughts swirled into my brain.


The social justice part of me said, “Harry, this is problematic. Address this misogyny immediately.”


I took a breath to slow my thoughts. Adjusting my sitting posture in my chair, I continued listening to my client.


Cardinal Rule, Cardinal Sin


It wasn’t too long ago that I would have beaten myself up for not addressing that misogyny. I was pretty hardline when it came to following the social justice rulebook.


And one of the cardinal rules in that rulebook is to address microaggression. And especially if the comment targets an identity group that you’re not part of. Then addressing this becomes important as an ally to that group.


I used to do it all the time. And I was super confrontational about it. I know the rule, but I was just really bad at knowing how to do it well. If I was with a group of friends, I would do the call out immediately, in front of the whole group of friends.


Sometimes, the situation really calls for it, where you do need to do it immediately, in front of everyone. But sometimes, it might be more helpful to do it the next day, by private messaging the “offender.” Person-to-person. Not a call out, but a call in. A way to build the relationship with the person, rather than to damage the relationship with the person.


And sometimes, you let it go. Yes, I know this is considered a cardinal sin within the social justice rulebook. But keep reading, I’ll explain.


The Relationship Precedes EVERYTHING


So we discussed what the general social justice rule is, when it comes to addressing microaggression.


But what’s my role as a therapist? My role is to provide mental health services. And part of that role is to build what therapists call a “therapeutic alliance” with my clients. That’s just a fancy term for building a trusting relationship with my therapy client.


The trust that we build with each other lays the foundation for several things:

  • It allows clients to feel safe to share vulnerable things about themselves. Things that they may have never shared with anyone else. Things that they may be too scared to even admit to themselves.

  • It allows me to facilitate the therapy process, by asking really tough questions that digs through their psychological defenses, into the root issues (trauma) of the client.

  • It allows the client to be honest with me, if they feel upset or annoyed at me. This helps repair our client-therapist relationship. Just like any relationship, there will be conflicts and miscommunication. The ability to repair the relationship after a conflict actually strengthens the trust.

  • It allows me to tell truth bombs to clients when needed. In essence, a gentle call-out.

  • The client-therapist relationship is a model for the client, on how to have a healthy relationship.


In my own practice as a therapist, the most important thing is my relationship with my client. A trusting client-therapist relationship is the backbone of therapy work. The relationship precedes EVERYTHING.


Aligning Social Justice Values in Therapy


With this particular client, we were only in our beginning stages of therapy. So we’re only in the beginning stages of building our therapeutic alliance. We haven’t yet developed a relationship where I can safely call him out, without doing irreparable damage to our therapeutic relationship.


If that happens, he won’t continue our work together. This is damaging for the client, because it further reinforces his belief and trauma that he can’t trust people. And this also doesn’t serve the cause of social justice, because I have ended an opportunity to support men healing from the traumas of patriarchy.


How Do YOU Follow Social Justice Rules?


While I do agree with much of the social justice rulebook, I have learned over time to use my best judgment based on the situation.


In Chinese, we have a saying: 规矩是死的, 人是活的. Translated directly, it means that “rules are dead, people are live.” What that means is that rules are rigid, while people are flexible. And sometimes, the rigidness of the rules may not fit the ever shifting contexts of real life. So as people, we need to be flexible to interpret the rules based on the context of the situation.


And there are lots of things to consider when the application of this rule comes up. How safe do you feel in the environment? Will it compromise your ability to make a living? Is the group/person receptive to have a conversation? What is your energy level? What is your mental state? How often have you been addressing these things lately, and how does the stress impact you? How much time and energy do you commit towards social justice beyond call outs?


And I've worked with clients who beat themselves up for not being the perfect activist. These are incredible people who have dedicated much of their life towards social justice. And it pains me to watch them beat themselves up for not being able to perfectly follow the social justice rulebook. There's a lot to be said about trauma, perfectionism, codependency, and following social justice rules as activists. I talk more about here in a few podcasts here, here, and here.


Setting Soft Guidelines in "Following Rules"


As I mentioned before, I see rules as a general suggestion, and my decision to follow or not follow these rules will be based on the immediate context, and also the context within my life as a whole.


When it comes to the social justice rule of calling out microaggression, I find that setting up some soft guidelines can be helpful. They're "soft" guidelines, because as mentioned, it all depends on the context. I'll offer up my own process and learnings as examples.


I've learned the hard way why it's generally not advisable to call people out online or in online group chats. And I've also learned the hard way that certain groups and individuals are not receptive to social justice conversations. I rarely call out microaggressions in these settings.


I've learned that I need to create moments in my life where my social justice brain isn't cranked up to 100. Which is huge, because as a recovering hustle&grind perfectionist, I often push myself to burning out, then shaming myself for burning out. This has really taught me to prioritize the type of social justice work that is most important to me: creating micro change by faciliating trauma healing through decolonizing therapy.


I also learned to give people the benefit of the doubt, ESPECIALLY people who I know share the same social justice values as I do. I don't want to immediately go into "teaching mode" or "call out mode," because I know where their heart is at. And I know I would also appreciate a similar trust and grace from these friends, when I inevitably slip up with my own microaggression.


These are just my own examples of setting soft guidelines. I encourage you to trust your instincts and trust your ability to reflect, to make the best and most ethical decision on how to interpret the social justice rulebook. And over time, we will continuously learn, change, and adapt. I would argue that this is the true spirit of social justice.



As always, thanks for tuning in. If you found this helpful, share with your peeps. You can also get my free ebook 4 Steps to Liberation.


Ready to change your life? Schedule a free consultation and let's get started!



Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him



I help Asians go from feeling trapped to becoming self-liberated.

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