When "Them" Become "Us"
Crossing the great divide of otherness
By Kenneth V. Hardy
In the private sanctuary of our offices, most of us can usually keep the emotional barometer within a comfortable range. Because therapy builds slowly on an established relationship, confrontations and criticisms, when they occur, tend to be muted and indirect. When we're activated by a challenging client, we have at our disposal an ample theoretical framework—transference, countertransference, family-of-origin issues—for keeping attacks at arm's length and helping us keep our composure.
But when we step outside our offices to apply our therapy skills in doing public work, the rules of engagement are vitally different. A journey through racism, sexism, homophobia, or other thorny and contentious issues means traversing a rockier road.
Facilitating dialogue on these topics often brings together people who've been historically divided, with little personal investment or trust in one another. We can't hide behind the walls of a private office: we're exposed, "out there," judged in a court of public opinion that isn't always kind or forgiving. Furthermore, we have no widely accepted framework or vocabulary to serve as a guide when the going gets rough—which is something I can testify about from painful personal experience.
It was two o'clock on the morning of a summer day in 1988. I'd been lying awake for hours, tossing and turning on the twin bed of a retreat center at a beautiful national park in South Carolina. I'd been facilitating a diversity-training session for mental health professionals whose clients were mostly poor and working-class blacks and Latinos. My job was to help them become more "open, aware, and sensitive" to racial issues, but the first day had been an unmitigated disaster. Now, every time I closed my eyes, I saw and heard the evidence of my failure—participants' comments and faces flashing through my mind, one after another. I was being haunted by sneers, snarls, looks of disparagement, disdain, and disgust.