What Does it Actually Mean to be an Anti-Oppressive Therapist?

At Integrative Psychology Centre, we are committed to providing anti-oppressive care for each of our clients. Clients and therapists alike are sometimes unclear about what this actually means, so we thought it would be helpful to unpack what it means for us. In essence, to be anti-oppressive in our clinical practice, we are first and foremost committed to actively addressing and challenging various forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, ableism, classism, heterosexism and various other forms of discrimination and marginalization that individuals and communities might face.

But how does one do that in clinical practice?

These are some of the key principles that guide our anti-oppressive practice here at Integrative Psychology Centre:

1. Self-awareness and Reflexivity

Self-awareness and reflexivity are the foundations of anti-oppressive practice and refer to a clinician’s ability to reflect critically on their own beliefs, biases, and values; and on their unique positionality within systems of power and privilege.

Clinicians should be able to answer the following questions:

“What are my privileged identities?”

“What are my marginalized identities?”

“What are my beliefs, biases, and values about x, y, z?”

“How do my beliefs, biases, values, and identities influence how I conceptualize the challenges clients bring to therapy?”

The goal of this reflective process is to help ensure that the therapist’s own biases and assumptions do not negatively impact the therapeutic relationship and process. This is easier said than done, as our biases are often in our blind spots and operate automatically beneath the surface. Being part of a group of clinicians who is committed to anti-oppressive practice helps create and maintain safety for clients. Having a team of clinicians with this shared commitment helps therapists have difficult conversations about their blind spots and biases and helps them challenge automatic assumptions that could be harmful to clients.

2. Intersectionality

Another aspect of anti-oppressive practice is the recognition of the intersectional nature of identity. This refers to an awareness that individuals (clients and therapists alike) have multiple, intersecting identities which influence their experience of power, privilege and oppression. Understanding these intersections can help practitioners better understand the unique experiences of each client and tailor their support accordingly.

3. Cultural Humility and Competence

This part of anti-oppressive practice refers to the commitment that an anti-oppressive therapist has to learn about cultures and experiences other than their own, to recognize the importance of culture in the lives of clients, and to use culturally appropriate interventions for each client. Traditional psychological theories and practices have often neglected and negated the importance of culture. Traditional psychological theories have also pathologized aspects of culture, which perpetuates systemic oppression in the therapy room. An anti-oppressive therapist is committed to creating safety in the therapy room by recognizing the limits and harms of traditional psychological theories and by honouring the client’s culture and belief systems.

4. Collaboration and Empowerment

Another important part of anti-oppressive practice is the valuing and prioritization of a collaborative and empowering relationship between therapist and client. This is opposed to a hierarchical relationship that can perpetuate systemic oppression by contributing to the disconnection of the client from their feelings, needs and values. When a therapist is collaborative and empowering in their approach, they involve clients in the decision-making process, support their autonomy, and facilitate connection to self, community and culture.

5. Social Justice and Advocacy

Anti-oppressive practice is not limited to the therapy room. Anti-oppressive practitioners are also involved in social justice and advocacy efforts outside of the therapy room. They are committed to promoting social justice and challenging oppressive systems outside of their clinical practice. This may include things like advocating for clients, engaging in community work, and participating in policy change initiatives.

6. Critically evaluating research and practice

As discussed earlier in the context of cultural humility and competence, anti-oppressive practice involves the recognition that traditional psychological theories and practices are influenced by oppressive ideologies. As such, an anti-oppressive therapist is able to critically examine theoretical frameworks and research that influences their practice. A key question an anti-oppressive therapist may ask themselves is this: “Is this theoretical framework or body of research representative of diverse populations or is it relevant to only a subset of the population?”

The ultimate goal of anti-oppressive practice is to incorporate these six principles into daily practice in order to: (a) provide inclusive mental health care for all individuals and (b) address and challenge systemic barriers that contribute to disparities in mental health outcomes.

So, why isn’t every therapist anti-oppressive in their practice? Because truly anti-oppressive practice that is not performative is hard!! It requires a deep commitment to self-reflection, ongoing learning, and a willingness to challenge one’s own biases and assumptions (which is much easier said than done).

Here is a list of challenges that therapists face when it comes to implementing what is needed to be truly anti-oppressive in their practice:

  • Unlearning biases is difficult: Clinician biases are deeply ingrained through personal experiences, societal norms and professional training. Unlearning these biases requires confrontation of one’s own biases and prejudices and this does not happen overnight. It is an ongoing process and can challenge one’s sense of self (e.g., “I am a good person/therapist,” “I have great training,” “I would never hurt my clients”).
  • Continuous self-reflection is emotionally taxing: In order to engage in the required ongoing self-reflection and reflexivity, clinicians need to confront their own limitations, biases, and power dynamics in their work. This work is emotionally and mentally heavy. Not everyone is willing to truly do the work given how resource intensive it is.
  • Balancing multiple roles is needed and poses unique challenges: An anti-oppressive therapist often needs to balance their roles as therapist, advocate and ally, which may feel overwhelming due to conflicting paradigms, complex ethical dilemmas and the need to make difficult decisions in the best interest of the client.
  • Navigating systemic barriers: Anti-oppressive therapists can face resistance and backlash from colleagues, institutions, and sometimes clients who don’t share in their commitment to social justice and equity. Challenging systemic barriers is a slow, frustrating, emotionally taxing and time-consuming endeavour.
  • Staying informed and culturally competent: Similarly, developing cultural competence and staying informed about diverse experiences and identities requires continuous learning, commitment and engagement. It requires clinicians to seek out additional resources and training, which is time intensive.
  • Emotional Consequences: Unlearning biases, balancing multiple roles, navigating system barriers, engaging in advocacy work, and staying informed is often emotionally draining. Clinicians may experience vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue.

Those committed to anti-oppressive practice recognize these challenges and ensure that they are supported both personally and professionally. They are also intrinsically motivated to be a part of the change they wish to see, which provides great meaning for the work they do. This intrinsic motivation fuels and motivates the inside-out commitment to anti-oppressive practice with the ultimate goal of creating better mental health outcomes for all.

If you have any questions about our practice or feel ready to explore the possibility of therapy, contact us for a free initial telephone consultation. We look forward to connecting with you.

Dr. Dina Buttu

Dr. Dina Buttu is a Clinical and Counselling Psychologist in Ontario. She provides culturally-responsive, trauma-informed and anti-oppressive psychological services. Dr. Buttu is especially interested in helping second generation Canadians find a sense of wholeness and authenticity by making sense of inner conflict and confusion related to their multiple identities. She is the founder of Integrative Psychology Centre.
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