Deep political differences became the elephant in my therapist’s office

Editor: A lot of readers responded to our anonymous post the other day, “The therapist blurts,” in which a therapist’s judgmental comments about a patient’s Palestinian solidarity work terminated the relationship. This was not a singular occurence. Here is another story from the couches.

I am glad your friend is wisely looking for a different therapist. About 15 years ago I consulted a psychiatrist. He had a photo in his office of a kid in an army uniform. I never looked at it too closely until the day I did, and then asked him about it. Proudly, he offered that his son made aliyah and served in the Israeli army. I responded by sharing my recent involvement in Palestine solidarity work. He thought that was great, telling me his daughter worked for CAMERA. I took a deep breath and didn’t mention the subject again. 

Eventually, he moved to another part of the country, and our therapeutic relationship ended. We stayed in touch, from time to time exchanging political informational emails about Israel-Palestine. Sadly, not only did we disagree, but could not do so with even a modicum of respect. The person who had spent hours listening attentively, supporting me during a very difficult time in my life was now harsh, judgmental, and disrespectful. Ultimately, I asked him to stop emailing me.

I too am a psychotherapist. Clients come to discuss their lives not mine. But there is no mystery where I stand on Israel-Palestine.

Rajie Cooks image of the kaffiyeh on Susan Landaus office wall
Rajie’s poster of the keffiyeh on Susan Landau’s office wall

On one wall in my office is a print of a keffiyeh with three small peace signs, by Rajie (Roger Cook). Another wall has a photo of a Palestinian boy with the caption, ”If you destroy our houses, you will not destroy our souls.” 

To me this communicates an understanding of grief, loss, suffering, family, abuse, violence, conflict, destruction, exile, and inhumanity. And that my practice and my politics are rooted in my belief in the resiliency of the human psyche and spirit.

It is fascinating to me to consider how helpful he was to me. He was a “good therapist.” Or was he? For a substantial period of time we shared an agenda that had clear boundaries. That seemed to work well. At the point where I asked about his photograph and he responded, the relationship boundaries expanded to include new material. His initial response was honest. As a patient, I avoided confronting and dealing with his response. He also let it go. From that point on, the therapeutic relationship was compromised. The familiar elephant was in the room with an invisibility cloak.

Was it the difference in political perspective itself that terminated my relationship with a therapist with whom I was no longer in treatment? Or was it that without the established boundaries intact, we were real people without the skills to navigate a difference? And, does that change, and how does it alter the time period in which he was a “good therapist?” 

Paramount for me in all this is “Therapists are people, too.” But prerequisite to being a therapist and a person is an ethic that supports and allows the other person to fully be him or herself. Honesty, respect, and appreciation of difference are the sub-text of all human relationships, in or out of the consulting room. When those ethics are violated, trust is shattered. However one reflects on the previous basis of relationship, it is changed forevermore. Or so it seems.

About Susan Landau

Susan Landau is an activist and organizer with Philly BDS.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 17 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. GJB says:

    I am a clinical social worker/psychotherapist. One relevant term we use in the field is “conscious use of self”. Sharing personal feelings or opinions can open up a can of worms, but I have always felt that if that sharing is done consciously, with a defined purpose, it can actually benefit the therapeutic relationship. A client that I have been seeing, an older man, is a fervent, right wing Zionist. He knows I disagree with him, but in showing him that I respect his right to his opinion and his feelings, I am able to help validate his own self-respect. The fact that I disagree with his opinions might even enhance my work with him since gaining the respect of someone with whom you disagree can be even more significant than with one who shares your opinion. But I have to be extremely careful and constantly monitor my own feelings and interventions. The temptation to try and “convince” this man is a strong one, but as a professional I have to scrupulously avoid this. Thankfully, this man influences no one but himself; I imagine treating someone with real influence like a major politician or journalist with those views would be rather more of a challenge. I should have such problems!

  2. Had a similar experience with my eye doctor. After participating in an e-mail debate in which I presented pro-Palestinian arguments ane he and other people defended the Zionist viewpoint, he refused to see me for a while. When I needed new eyeglasses he was always busy and could not see me, even when he did have time for new patients; he finally referred me to a young female doctor who had started to practice at his clinic.

    A few years later, when I again needed new eyeglasses, he agreed to see me again, but of course we didn’t talk about that issue. Our relationship has been correct since.

  3. Mooser says:

    “Thankfully, this man influences no one but himself”

    And all the money he sends to the settlements is never used to hurt anybody! No one has even thought of killing Palestinian olive trees by smothering them with dollar bills.

    • Mooser says:

      BTW, GJB, if I need to rationalise a problem out of existence in at least into insubstantiality, you are the first therapist I would call. You are great at it! And if you can do that for yourself, just imagine what you could do for others!

  4. GJB says:

    Mooser, if the therapists that were the subject of this and the other MW post were unprofessional in letting their political views affect the therapy that they did (which seems to be the consensus) so would I be unprofessional if I let my own strongly held views (similar to yours, I am sure) affect my ability to work with this client. My point was really that it is difficult, no matter what one’s perspective, to resist the temptation to take advantage of one’s position in a professional relationship, but ethically it does need to be done. Having said that, you do make a good point about the damage he can do if he donates to the settlements (or the IDF, JNF, or whatever else for that matter).

    • seafoid says:

      I read something written by a social worker who is active with a troubled area in Ireland. He made the point that anyone engaging professionally with a client in trouble needs to remember that everyone ultimately is has their own dysfunction and prejudices , even the professionals, and that it is impossible to be truly neutral. This was aimed at social workers but I think it’s valid for therapy too.

      Zionist therapists are just freaks, but no different to most people in terms of the presence of freakhood.

  5. RE: “Paramount for me in all this is ‘Therapists are people,
    too’.” ~ Susan Landau

    WITH APOLOGIES TO THE UNITED NEGRO COLLEGE FUND (AND MALCOLM X): “A mind is a terrible thing .”

    PEOPLE, PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE. . .

    FROM ‘ANNIE HALL’ (1977)
    Duane: “Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving… on the road at night… I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The… flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.”
    Alvy Singer: “Right. Well, I have to – I have to go now, Duane, because I, I’m due back on the planet Earth.”

    Great Movie Scenes; Annie Hall (1977); Dwayne’s Urge For Collision [VIDEO, 00:56] – link to youtube.com

  6. kma says:

    I once answered the question, “what are your goals?”, with “I want to end the occupation of Palestine”. I was told that I could not take on something that can’t be done. I was floored. I thought that was the whole point of working on it!
    I took my ass off the “couch” and spent my energy elsewhere. it’s been great.

  7. mig says:

    I have a fine therapist, we never argue anything. We always get along. His name is Jack Daniels. Sometimes i visit Mr. Johnnie Walker instead. Visit is short but very satisfactory. ;)

    • Mooser says:

      Sure, that might work for you, but I do all my therapy at the MaryJohn Institute. When I’m ready for a lobotomy I’ll look in on Drs. Walker and Daniels.

  8. Citizen says:

    I wonder what a really astute and fully conscious shrink would say to a client who tells him or her this: link to blogs.timesofisrael.com

  9. lobewyper says:

    Very interesting and helpful posting, Susan. Thanks!

  10. Thanks for this information. Thats why American psychiatrist has writtena lot and has done investigation on shock,after efffects,and residual psychological deficts among citizen of isarel under Scud /Kasheem rocket/war drill / and from having to use gas mask while there is not one article in mainline western psychiatric /psychological journals of repute on effects of war,forced transfer or on economic blockade of Palestinians or of Lebanese. This is the question ,one might pose :why so? Will it be an oblique admission of possibility that Palestiians are human and prone to suffer and experience pain and long term psychological trauma from the same war that had left psychological marks on Israeli citizen? Next question would be whats the point of having scientific adavances in different fields if we held them hostage to the needs of the powerful to the detriments of the vcitims?

  11. Avigail says:

    As a psychotherapist myself and a political activist for Palestinian rights, I am a bit troubled by this story. Therapeutic relationships work best in my experience when there are some shared values between the client and the therapist. This issue clearly got between you two and I think the way the therapist handled it was in fact quite clumsy.

    I don’t think it’s acceptable for a therapist to tell a client what they should or shouldn’t be involved in politically or otherwise. According to Andrew Samuels when clients bring ‘political energy’ into therapy it should be dealt with for what it is and with the same respect as any other issue they being up.

    If what the client does or believes is offensive to the therapist’s values then the therapist should disqualify himself or herself from working with this client rather than try to convince the client that what they believe or do is somehow wrong or misguided.

    On my work website fullyhuman(dot)co(dot)uk I say that I am a political activist for Palestinian rights and provide a link to my political website. The reason I do this is because I am well aware that some prospective clients who are from Jewish background or who might otherwise be supportive of Israel might find what I do offensive. I therefore give prospective clients a chance to reject me before they even contact me.

    I just don’t understand the behaviour of your therapist and while I don’t think it was strictly unethical I do think that he was clumsy and that he compromised the quality of your therapeutic relationship. It sounds like you did get something out of seeing him, but that you also still have doubts about how things were between you. Thanks for sharing your story. I found it very interesting.

    • Mooser says:

      “I do think that he was clumsy and that he compromised the quality of your therapeutic relationship.”

      I’m no cerebrocroaker, nor do I play one on TV, but I can’t help but agree with you. Even I could have done a better job handling the situation. First of all, I would have kept my big therapeutic mouth closed until I had reviewed the situation and developed a treatment plan. After a bit of reflection, and some research, it should be simple to convince the patient that there attachment to I-P issues is the result of deep-seated neuroses, mother and father issues and excessive masturbation. From there, it should only be a short step to convincing the client that the only sure cure is to have sex with the doctor. Of course, this therapeutic course should be properly paced to accommodate the therapists financial needs. Should take 60-72 months. Than it’s down to the Lexus dealer, and life is just one long sweet repressed racial memory.

  12. Mooser says:

    “The reason I do this is because I am well aware that some prospective clients who are from Jewish background or who might otherwise be supportive of Israel might find what I do offensive.”

    You think that what you do for Palestinian rights is offensive? Why? Hard for me to think of anything offensive about trying to help oppressed people under terrible conditions. Or do you just have a very low opinion of Jews, their ethics and reasoning powers?

  13. Mooser says:

    “Therapeutic relationships work best in my experience when there are some shared values between the client and the therapist”

    As opposed to them both being human beings? Oh well, I guess that doesn’t necessarily imply any shared values.