How To Decolonize Psychoanalysis

How to Decolonize Psychoanalysis

Micaiah Warren

Imagery by Dan Mohr with Stable Diffusion / yesisaid.design

Psychoanalysis and psychology as a whole have transformed, becoming more inclusive than they have ever been. This means that new minds, with new ideas, originating from a multitude of backgrounds are entering the field with the intention of improving the well-being of different individuals. We must keep in mind, however, that while psychology in general and psychoanalysis in particular have come such a long way, there is still plenty of work to be done, or…undone. Psychoanalysis was constructed by professionals existing in a world that was and continues to be discriminatory, prejudiced, and exclusionary of people who exist in outgroups or belong to different identities. Consequently, we must grow to understand that the ideologies of psychoanalysis have also been affected by those same injustices. Throughout history, we have seen the efforts of oppressors to exploit the needs and desires of oppressed people, hindering them from making gains across different fields. Additionally, albeit intentionally or unintentionally, we have seen their efforts to limit the availability of services in communities where they are needed most. These issues have been named time and time again, and while they have received growing attention, these problems persist. Psychoanalysis has historically catered to the needs of specific groups of people. In order for psychoanalysis to develop into a more inclusive model of therapy, it will need to become more accessible to people of color, broaden its scholarly focus beyond dominant culture norms/expectations, and adopt a mission of anti-racism.

Psychoanalysis is defined by the American Psychoanalytic Association as a theory of mind intended to “embrace complexity and understand below the surface.” The purpose of psychoanalysis as a treatment is to bring to light influential aspects of experience that are functioning outside of the patient’s awareness or consciousness. (AAPA, 2022). There is still so much that can be uncovered using this model of therapy. One particularly useful concept is the idea of transference. This phenomenon, which lies at the core of psychoanalytic theory, refers to the transfer of wishes, needs and anxieties from childhood onto people in the adult present, including the therapist. We can use the concept of transference to explore questions of how early socialization around issues of race and privilege shape our unconscious prejudices and lead us to react in the ways that we do in our present lives.

Girl With The Cell Phone

In spite of this potential, however, psychoanalysts have a long history of neglecting topics related to racism and discrimination, as well as neglecting those most impacted by these issues. “To imaginatively embody, and vicariously hold and contain, the trauma of another is the daily task of psychoanalysts. And yet, racialized trauma, especially as it pertains to African Americans, is seldom discussed in the psychoanalytic literature…” (Powell, 2018, p. 1023). While much contemporary psychoanalytic writing focuses on the intersubjective experience of the other, there are few studies that seek to understand how people of power affect the oppressed and the environments in which they live. Since the foundation of this kind of area of study has not been fully established, it makes it very difficult to find effective solutions to improve the well-being of oppressed persons. It also makes it challenging to reform the societies in which they live.* The goals of psychoanalysis should not be selective; they should apply to all groups of people who are in need of recognizing and healing from past traumas.

*For an example of this kind of research, see the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s recent issue on “Psychoanalysis, Race and Racism” (JAPA 69/2).

Once psychologists and psychoanalysts gain more information about the function of oppression, the oppressed, and people of power, more resources can be created to respond to the needs present at the intersection between social injustice and psychoanalysis. The opportunity for people of color to pursue roles in science and health care must become more available and encouraged. We need the direct inputs and experiences of these individuals to provide the best insight into complex issues where their perspectives have been continually lost. Many individuals whose identities and backgrounds diverge from the norm, have reported feeling alienated, siloed or marginalized within psychology and psychoanalysis (Winograd, 2014). Oppressed persons who pursue careers in service of others often have passions directed toward transforming the livelihood of those who have been neglected in society. Increasing the number of people of color in healthcare and science will directly impact the availability of their services in communities that have not been prioritized. Seeing people who look like you and have a similar background as yourself strive to achieve major goals can serve as a motivator to do the same. This kind of aid can have an important impact on the mindset and environments of those living in at-risk communities.

How To Decolonize Psychoanalysis

Decolonizing psychology as a science and psychoanalysis as a discipline will involve putting racial/discriminatory issues at the forefront of the work that we intend to do on a daily basis. This means confronting social challenges head on and opening up to the possibility of dwelling in uncomfortable situations. Because social injustice is so deeply embedded within social systems, we must rewire ourselves cognitively and emotionally to react against these issues. This takes constant attention and awareness. Ignoring these problems or pretending that they do not exist only supports oppressive systems. “A world built on anti-Blackness might… lead to the avoidance of relationships as a way of protecting the self from that world… ‘taking a leap’ by being ‘willing to give’ to the other, despite that world, made room for a new kind of freedom—the freedom to give something valued to someone who is valued.” (Gaztambide, 2021, p. 180) Psychoanalysts must make anti-racism a significant part of their agendas as they pursue different endeavors. It is not enough to remain neutral; it is not enough to ONLY be informed. This kind of work calls for authenticated action toward extending one’s self beyond the bounds of their social constructs.

Issues surrounding racism and discrimination can often feel bigger than anything that we are capable of handling. These social dilemmas have been around for centuries and yet we are still seeing the prevalence of problems today. It is important to keep in mind that although societal improvements are being made, later generations will still suffer the consequences of leaving important social matters on the back burner for all this time. It is important that we act now. Psychoanalysts can do this by doing personal work on themselves to find out what parts of themselves have been impacted by prejudice/racism in society. We can identify these effects in ourselves whether we identify as a perpetrator, as someone who has been on the receiving end of these injustices, or both. Another action that can be taken against racist norms is extending oneself to engage with and support people who are a part of unfamiliar communities. This will allow for an expansion of cultural awareness and knowledge apart from what has already been instilled. Another actionary method that can be taken by psychoanalysts is using our professional platform to spread awareness about these issues and also provide more information about how they can be addressed.

How To Decolonize Psychoanalysis

While there is still plenty to be done before psychoanalysis develops completely into an equitable/inclusive mode of thought, it is important to harness the moment and acknowledge how far we have come. Today, individuals are able to pursue opportunities beyond their ancestors’ wildest dreams. Models and ideologies that confront the discriminatory practices of the field are being developed and will become the foundation for the work that we must continue to do. It is my hope that more professionals in psychology will understand the impact that historical implications are having on the work that they do with other individuals. Coupled with that awareness, there must also be purposeful action against practices that ostracize and devalue others. We live in a world where we are inherently impacted by the actions of one another; when one group is put at a disadvantage, it should be considered a loss for us all.

A List of Recommended Readings

Dennis, E. (2022) The Paranoid-Schizoid Position and Envious Attacks on the Black Other, Psychoanalysis, Self and Context, 17:2, 141-153, DOI: 10.1080/24720038.2021.1977306

Holmes, D. E. (2021). “I Do Not Have a Racist Bone in My Body”: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on What is Lost and Not Mourned in Our Culture’s Persistent Racism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 69(2), 237–258. https://doi.org/10.1177/00030651211009518

Holmes, D. E. (2022). Neutrality Is Not Neutral. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 70(2), 317–322. https://doi.org/10.1177/00030651221094340

Rao, J. M. (2021). Observations on Use of the N-Word in Psychoanalytic Conferences. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 69(2), 315–341. https://doi.org/10.1177/00030651211006917

Stoute, B. J. (2021). Black Rage: The Psychic Adaptation to the Trauma of Oppression. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 69(2), 259–290. https://doi.org/10.1177/00030651211014207

References

About psychoanalysis. About Psychoanalysis | APsaA. (n.d.). Retrieved August 28, 2022, from https://apsa.org/content/about-psychoanalysis

Gaztambide, D. J. (2021). Do black lives matter in psychoanalysis? Frantz Fanon as our most disputatious ancestor. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 38(3), 177–184. https://doi.org/10.1037/pap0000365

Powell, D. R. (2018). Race, African Americans, and psychoanalysis: Collective silence in the therapeutic situation. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 66(6), 1021–1049. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003065118818447

Winograd, B. (2020, July 2). Black psychoanalysts speak. YouTube. Retrieved August 28, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8-VIi7tb44