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Why I Am a Liberation Psychotherapist

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Comas-Diaz, L. (2017). Difficult dialogues: Why I am a liberation psychotherapist. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 52(2), 11-13.

Dr. Lillian Comas-Diaz

Developed by the psychologist/priest Ignacio Martín–Baró, liberation psychology examines contexts of oppression to foster critical consciousness, emancipation, and transformative action. In this article I use a liberation tool—testimonio—first person narration that expresses psychosocial experiences as a protagonist/witness (Aron, 1992).

For over 35 years I have incorporated liberation psychology into my psychotherapy practice. Although classically trained, I have long resonated with liberation psychology’s challenge to mainstream psychotherapy’s ahistorical, acontextual and individualistic underpinnings (Comas-Díaz, Lykes, & Alarcon, 1998).

My journey was forged in 1986 when, as a member of a joint American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association mission to Chile to investigate mental health abuses, I witnessed liberation psychotherapy in action while meeting with psychologists working with victims of political repression under the Pinochet dictatorship (Bales, 1986).

Liberation psychotherapists accompany clients by developing collaborative relations that
acknowledge power inequality in relationships, as well as in society (Comas-Díaz, 2000). They promote conscientización (critical consciousness) (Freire, 1970) by teaching clients to critically perceive their circumstances, analyze the causes of their oppression, and discover new paths of action.

Concientización raises critical questions such as What? Why? How? For whom? Against whom? By whom? In favor of whom? In favor of what? To what end? (Freire & Macedo, 2000). This aspect of liberation psychology helps clients to understand the mechanisms of oppression, fosters agency, and encourages engagement in personal and collective social justice. Following is an example of a conscientización dialogue (the name and identifying details have been changed):

Joy: I was furious. A White guy jumped in front of me at the pharmacy line.
Lillian: What?
Joy: Yes, I told him that I was next.
Lillian: What happened?
Joy: He ignored me and started to talk to the pharmacist.
Lillian: Why do you think he did that?
Joy: I guess I’m invisible.
Lillian: How come?
Joy: I’m a working class middle age Black woman. I don’t count.
Lillian: Who benefits from your invisibility?
Joy: Isn’t that obvious? He does, because he is an angry White man who gets ahead by
ignoring a Black woman.
Lillian: How is that for you?
Joy: I don’t like it.
Lillian: Whom does his behavior hurt?
Joy: You did not hear me? It hurts me.
Lillian: I heard you, but bear with me. Who else may be hurt by his behavior?
Joy: Besides me, well, other Black women.
Lillian: Who benefits from his behavior?
Joy: That’s a funny question. Not me. Mm. His ego?
Lillian: How do you understand that?
Joy: I’ve seen it before. He was exercising White male dominance.
Lillian: To what end?
Joy: To keep me in my place.
Lillian: Any other reason?
Joy: Well, the political climate promotes people like him keeping people like me down.
Lillian: I am sorry you went through this experience. In addition to being furious, what other
options did you have?
Joy: Talking to the pharmacist? Better yet, calling the manager!

In addition to fostering conscientización through dialogue, I use liberation tools such as
artivism—art with a social justice purpose (Sandoval & Latorre, 2008)—to help clients connect with their cultural strengths, recover their historical memories, and reformulate their identities.

Liberation psychotherapists focus on clients’ lived experience to foster an existential
examination of their life purposes (Comas-Díaz et al., 1998). As such, they promote holistic wellbeing through the integration of indigenous psychological healing into psychotherapy (Comas-Díaz, 2012).

Liberation psychotherapy has been applied to migrant populations (García-Ramírez, de la Mata, Paloma, & Hernandez-Plaza, 2011), LGBT clients (Russell & Bohan, 2007; Singh, 2016), women (Lykes & Moane, 2009), people of color (Bryant-Davis & Comas-Díaz, 2016), and others.

In sum, liberation psychotherapy can be applied to anyone since most individuals experience areas of oppression. Finally, you don’t need to abandon your theoretical orientation to practice liberation psychology. Are you ready to become a liberation psychotherapist?

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References

Aron, A. (1992). Testimonio, a bridge between psychotherapy and sociotherapy. Women & Therapy, 13(3), 173-189. doi: 10.1300/J015V13N03_01

Bales, J. (1986, February). Speak Out: U.S. delegation finds intimidation and fear uproot Chilean society. APA Monitor, 17(2), pp. 4-5. doi: 10.1037/h0079189

Bryant-Davis, T, & Comas-Díaz, L. (Eds). (2016). Womanist and mujerista psychologies: Voices of fire, acts of courage. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Comas-Díaz, L. (2000). An ethnopolitical approach to working with people of color. American Psychologist, 55(11), 1319–1325. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.11.1319

Comas-Díaz, L. (2012). Multicultural care: A clinician’s guide to cultural competence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Comas-Díaz, L., Lykes, B. & Alarcon, R. (1998). Ethnic conflict and psychology of liberation in Guatemala, Perú, and Puerto Rico. American Psychologist, 53(7), 778-792. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.53.7.778

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury Press.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (2000). The Paulo Freire reader. New York, NY: Continuum.

García-Ramírez, M , de la Mata, M.L, Paloma, V, & Hernandez-Plaza, S. (2011). A Liberation psychology approach to acculturative integration of migrant populations. American Journal of Community Psychology, 47(1-2), 86-97. doi: 10.1007/s10464-010-9372-3

Lykes, M.B., & Moane, G. (2009). Editors Introduction: Whither feminist liberation psychology? Critical explorations of feminist and liberation psychologies for a globalizing world. Feminism & Psychology, 19(3), 283-297, doi: 10.1177/0959353509105620

Russell, G. M., & Bohan, J. S. (2007). Liberating psychotherapy: Liberation psychology and psychotherapy with LGBT clients. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy, 11(3) 59-75. doi: 10.1300/J236v11n03_04

Sandoval, C., & Latorre, G. (2008). Chicana/o artivism: Judy Baca’s digital work with youth of color. In A. Everett (Ed.)., Learning race and ethnicity: Youth and digital media (pp.81-108). The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262550673.081

Singh, A. A. (2016). Moving from affirmation to liberation in psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming clients. American Psychologist, 71(8), 755-762. doi: 10.1037/amp0000106

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