President’s Message: Intentions, Citizen Therapists, and Five Truly Essential Questions

Randi Gottlieb
Randi Gottlieb
President, LA-CAMFT

Greetings Friends and Colleagues,

At our first LA-CAMFT Board meeting of 2017, board members shared their intentions and priorities for the coming year. I want to reach out to all of you reading this message and invite you to join the conversation. What are your intentions for the coming year as individuals and members of this therapy community? What priorities would you like to see at the top of the LA-CAMFT agenda?

I believe there has never been a more critical time for asking important questions of ourselves as therapists and citizens. I do not claim to have the answers, so I have looked to others for guidance – to scholars and leading therapists in our field who are far wiser than I.

University of Minnesota Psychologist, William J. Doherty, with the support of many nationally and internationally prominent therapists including Julie and John Gottman, Michelle Weiner-Davis, Salvador Minuchin, Terry Real, Sue Johnson and Jeff Zeig, wrote a therapist manifesto that addresses the critical issues of our current state of the union and offers recommendations worthy of our consideration, (http://citizentherapists.com/manifesto/). The manifesto explains how the political shift in our nation “has stoked feelings of anxiety, fear, shame and helplessness” across the nation, and are most keenly felt by the populations that are being targeted. Further, that this shift “makes it harder for therapists to do their jobs by legitimizing, even celebrating, a set of personal behaviors that psychotherapists work to reverse every day”; specifically: “the tendency to blame ‘others’ instead of taking the healthier, more difficult path of self-awareness and self-responsibility.” Doherty and the 3000 therapists who signed the manifesto, claim it is our professional responsibility to stand by those who feel marginalized, alienated, and personally targeted, and that to do so we must “speak out for the well-being of people we treat and care for in our work.”

Wait, What?

James Ryan, Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, outlined five essential questions in his commencement speech to the Class of 2016. These questions are “Wait, what?,” “I wonder,” “Couldn’t we at least…?,” “How can I help?,” and “What truly matters?”

“Wait, what?” is at the root of all understanding. “Wait” first reminds us to slow down and ask for clarification. Wait, what? stresses the importance of understanding an idea before advocating for it or taking action. When Doherty and many of the most prominent therapists in the country tell us we “must speak out for the well-being of people we treat and care for in our work”, exactly what does that mean? How and with whom are we to speak out? Are these therapy leaders asking us to address these issues in the therapy? Or are they saying we should speak out publicly? Will doing so affect how we are seen by our colleagues and others in the professional community? And how do we reconcile this directive with training that admonishes us to avoid “politics” in our practice. Wait, what?

“I wonder” can either be followed by “why” or “if?” Dean Ryan explains that the question “I wonder” is at the heart of all curiosity. “I wonder why” is a way to remain curious about the world and “I wonder if” is a way to think about how we might improve the world. Applying this second question to the current state of the union, we might ask: I wonder why there is a burgeoning trend in public spheres to personally attack those with whom we disagree and to blame marginal and vulnerable populations for the systemic problems we face? Applying this question to psychotherapy in general and to LA-CAMFT in particular we might ask: I wonder if my clients are feeling scapegoated and what effect this is having on their clinical issues? I wonder what my role is in addressing these feelings within the therapy session as well as in the public arena? I wonder why more therapists don’t become members of LA-CAMFT and why more members don’t get involved in chapter leadership? I wonder why LA-CAMFT continues to lack racial diversity? I wonder what we need to do to become more relevant to a more diverse demographic so that we can become more representative of the Los Angeles community we are intended to serve?

“Couldn’t we at least?” is at the core of all progress. “Couldn’t we at least…” enables us to get unstuck, to move past disagreement to some consensus. Couldn’t we at least engage in conversation with other therapists about what it could mean to be a “citizen therapist?” To be a therapist who engages in citizenship. To be committed to community well-being, a just society, and a democratic way of life, as much as individual client mental health and personal growth? Couldn’t we at least do a better job of engaging the community leaders and therapists who are members of the populations most vulnerable to oppression and scapegoating – Black, Latino, Muslim, Immigrant, and LGBTQ?

“How can I help?” is at the base of all good relationships. The truth is that how we help matters as much as that we do help. And if we ask how can I help, we are asking with humility for direction; we are recognizing that others are experts in their own lives and that they will likely help us as much as we help them. To this point, I am asking you, the therapists in Los Angeles, and you the chapter membership, how can LA-CAMFT leadership help you in your career path as therapists? How can we better help you, the pre-licensed members, in your journey to licensure, and you, the licensed members, in supporting your clinical practice? What kind of forums or resources can we provide to address the critically important issues that we and our clients are facing with this new administration?

“What truly matters” is at the heart of our own convictions. What truly matters to you, the membership, as we move forward into the new year? What truly makes the cut for our time, energy, and resources as relates to the last four questions? What truly matters when selecting speakers and workshops? What truly matters in the effort to support you personally and to strengthen our therapy community?
Dean Ryan says that when we get in the habit of regularly asking these five essential questions, we will have no problem answering a final bonus question which he has taken from a line in a poem by Raymond Carver titled, Late Fragments. The line in context goes:

And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel beloved on this Earth.

I know this is true for me. I wonder if it is for you too? I wonder if this isn’t why we have chosen this profession and give so much of ourselves to it; so that we can not only feel beloved, cherished, and respected, but so that others can as well. Let’s keep asking ourselves these five essential questions and keep coming together in community so we are more able to support each other and the essential healing work we do.