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

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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.

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