The morning after the election I began processing the results with my colleague and practicum students I train and supervise. Shortly into a dialogue with one supervisee, I recalled an interaction she and I had following a family therapy session we recently co-facilitated. I run a training model grounded in experiential, gestalt-based approaches and we were a few weeks into her first family therapy client. As it generally tends to go—slowly, and then all at once—the experiential nature of the session evoked years' worth of suppressed emotion. Anger, grief, confrontations with mortality, abandonment, and various ambiguous losses that the family had always felt, but desperately tried to move on from and ignore. It quickly filled the therapy space. It was messy. It was ugly. It was raw. But it was authentic.
At the end of the session my supervisee looked at me in distress and said, "That was awful..." Although I wasn't surprised by her response, I was left with a much different impression of what was just experienced. We then discussed how experiential therapies—and the growth process in general—is not always pretty, and often, gets messy. Messy, but not worse. I never liked the phrase that "things get worse before they get better" relative to the therapeutic process. I feel that it fails to honor the courageous work of our clients as they confront the realities of their experience. To me, this has never been a process of things getting worse, but instead, things becoming more. More feeling. More complexity. More weight. More authenticity as clients face the brutal truths that entail their existence. The very experience of authenticity that begins the process of integration and growth. But moving from point A to point B often requires the suppressed rising to the surface in a way that relieves any individual from denying its presence. Whitaker urged that the entire family be present in order for the process to take effect, as it required every member of the system to not only bear witness, but to feel. Once it's in the room with us—all of us—only then can the system collectively begin working through.
To me, this is what I see happening with our country. The very ugly that so many have desperately tried to ignore has now risen to the surface. Looking back to early October I can think of so many individuals in my personal life that would deny the presence of racism, misogyny, and various forms of oppression in contemporary North-American society. Coalitions with the media and various political parties joined to maintain the suppression of the lived experience of countless humans sharing our soil. And just like a family system, the suppressed emotion of a painful truth manifested in various microaggressions, disguised just enough to keep reality buried for a large enough majority. Many were kept distracted, others were pathologized, and too many were scapegoated.
I can now see a homeostasis that was established and maintained over the past several decades. Progress was made, but in so many ways, our country stayed just the same. Racism and oppression were never overcome—they evolved to survive. But those that live it, and the others that grew aware and listened, never stopped fighting. The positive feedback loop of social progress continued to challenge the homeostasis of our country's moral climate. But the more progression tried to pull the homeostasis forward, with just as much might conservative values and beliefs countered with negative feedback. This general functioning of our country's social system continued, pushing each party further away from one another with each passing election. All the while, who felt it the most? Our human system. As the tension between progress and conservatism intensified, so did the system's dysfunction. As we know, a system's ability to maintain homeostasis in the midst of intense positive and negative feedback will eventually tire. And in the earliest morning hours of November 9, 2016, the tension that once stagnated the system snapped.
Much like the experiential process of therapy, the hatred that has always been present, but remained suppressed in so many ways, spiraled to the surface. It is messy. It is ugly. It is raw. But it is authentic. It is something that has always been there, but now, is right in front of our country's eyes. No longer can individuals claim that racism died and equality was achieved. Now, the hatred and divisiveness that is so deeply entwined in the moral fabric of our country has painfully filled the space, and we are all here to bear witness.
Is it too soon to find a silver lining? Did this have to happen in order for our country to be released from the homeostatic forces that stagnated social progress? It's hard to find hope as acts of hatred and violence continue to inflict so many members of our global family, but I also can't deny the parallel to what I've come to know as the human growth process. I won't say that this needed to happen, but since it has, I will remain present and connected as we hold its weight and ambiguity. As challenging as it may be to see, I will remain mindful of the universal pain and yearning that still unites us. I will continue to cultivate hope that, perhaps now, we can begin the healing process of integration and growth. Perhaps now, collectively, we can begin the process of finally making America great—for everyone.
Dr. Lucas Volini, DMFT, LMFT, is a Clinical Fellow of AAMFT, an Assistant Professor at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota in the MFT Program, and author of The National Licensing Exam for Marriage and Family Therapy: An Independent Study Guide. He also maintains a private practice in Waconia, MN. Lucas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org