First 100 Days: Can Psychotherapy Be a Political Act?

By Jany Keat



Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” – Václav Havel

Since the election, I have been struggling to make sense of my role as a psychotherapist and future analyst in the new world order. How do I process this sociopolitical catastrophe with my patients? What, if anything, can I offer them in these disturbing times? In fact, how do I even keep working within a theoretical framework that has tended to repress the political and maintain the capitalist fantasy of the individual untethered from the social and political world? Whose emphasis on the individual within the family may collude with a social framework that wants and needs to keep people apolitical?

The social and political encroaches on our lives. It can nurture and enrich or wound and diminish us, physically and mentally. But in times of relative peace, it pretends not to, and the force of our society’s separation of personal and political is powerful. My patients and I have always understood the rules of this game—what is considered suitable for discussion in the therapeutic frame, and what is not. My patients have invited me into their private worlds, and I have been honored to immerse myself in those worlds.

Now the rules have changed. When democracy itself is threatened, we can no longer deny that we are political beings, because politics becomes about our very existences as citizens. We are facing extraordinary attacks on our sense of reason and logic, on our ability to think, on our humanity. Well, extraordinary and not extraordinary. Democracy is an ideal, not a system, and who gets to be a citizen, a person, has been contested and fought all along. In the face of this long struggle, we need to seek creative ways to hold onto our minds. We need to maintain hope. We need to find our belief in the power of resistance, in the value of daily “living in truth.” This, perhaps, becomes psychotherapy with the political self.

I believe that psychotherapy can be a political act, and that its political nature lies in its emphasis on freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and the powerful resistance to tyranny encapsulated in the radical idea of creating a private space, free of censorship, to explore our own humanity. In The Power of the Powerless, Václav Havel describes the power of the greengrocer in the totalitarian regime who one day refuses to put up a sign that says, “Workers of the world unite,” a slogan that really means: “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.” Havel explains that, “By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system.” Psychoanalysis exposes the game every day. It refuses to believe that the manifest is all there is, and insists on looking underneath every slogan. Psychoanalysis has the capacity to represent this very power of the powerless, because, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.”