In the 30 plus years I have been in practice, I can’t count the number of times I have worked with someone who has a value system that is different than mine.  A number of weeks ago I wrote about how our differences still offer opportunities to foster deeper connections.  In that post, I talked about differences in aspects of our identities and experiences that may, in reality, create emotional and present moment experiences that are more similar than different.  And while I still believe that to be 100% true, I began to think about the times I have worked with an individual or family whose visible and invisible identities may be similar, but whose values have fundamentally conflicted with mine.

Tugging At Our Values

During a recent consultation group I was facilitating, one of the social work interns began the group by sharing an experience she had when meeting with a young woman whose children were in foster care.  During the course of this meeting, the young woman shared that her child was placed in the home of a female same sex couple.  She was irate about her children being removed from her home because of alleged abuse, then being placed in a home with two women where they would be influenced by the women’s behavior, which she was certain would “send them to hell.”

The social work intern who was discussing this case was at a loss about how to respond to her client’s statements which she considered to be prejudiced and offensive.  She wanted to preserve the therapeutic relationship, but at the same time, she felt a pull to somehow challenge her client’s prejudice, or at a minimum, provide her client with more information about same sex couples.  She knew it was important to maintain a nonjudgmental stance and at the same time struggled with her commitment to social justice.

Almost everyone in the consultation group, including experienced social workers, echoed her concerns about preserving the relationship, the client’s right to self-determination, meeting the client where she is at, and conveying unconditional positive regard.  They also talked about their own struggles over the years with a commitment to social justice and advocacy for marginalized populations when confronted with clients who verbalize or express some form of prejudice. 

Listening Without Reacting

I started seeing Renata early in my career as a social worker.  At the time we began meeting, she was 14 years old, a survivor of sexual abuse perpetrated by an aunt.  Her parents typically brought her to sessions and waited for her while we met.  Occasionally, I would meet with the family in an effort to further their support of Renata’s recovery at home.  From the time we began meeting, she made explicit her disdain for lesbians and gay men.  I don’t believe she knew I was gay, nor was I “out” publicly at the time.

It was hard to hear Renata’s comments without reacting.  While I understood why she felt the way she did given her experiences of abuse, I wanted to provide her with some education, and to challenge her perceptions of lesbians and gay men by telling her about me.  I knew this wasn’t appropriate, so with a fair amount of supervision and support, I continued to see her and to empathize with her experience. 

After almost a year of making no comments about lesbians or gay men, she looked directly at me one day and said:  “Jeff, sometimes I wonder if you’re gay.”  I thought she must be able to hear my heart beating at the time and see my hands shaking.  I had prepared for the possibility of this moment and of the possibility she would decide not to continue in therapy with me.  I thought about all the ways I could skirt the question by “wondering why this was coming up now,” or asking her to share with me “what it would be like if I was gay” and “what it would be like if I wasn’t gay.”  Instead, I opted for directness.

“If you want to know the answer to that question, I’ll answer it,” I said.  In hindsight, I suppose that statement alone was an answer.  But Renata replied, “Nah.  I was just thinking about it.  It’s not important.”  And so we continued our work together, though her question, along with the many negative statements she had made about lesbians and gay men lingered with us in the room. 

After a number of weeks and no further discussion about her question, she rather abruptly changed the subject one day and said, “Ok, Jeff, I’m ready to know.  Are you gay?”  I inhaled and answered “Yes.  I am.  And after some of the discussions we’ve had, how is it for you to have this information?” 

Surprisingly, Renata smirked.  “All this time I was worried that you might hit on my mom when I should have been worried about you hitting on my dad.”  We both laughed.  And as I think about that moment now, I see how our relationship and my staying with Renata and her process allowed for her to shift her beliefs and opinions about lesbians and gay men.  I had advocated for social justice without knowing at the time that was what had occurred. 

Using Our Relationships To Challenge Values

Tori was 47 when she began therapy.  She was direct in our very first session.  “Men can’t be trusted,” she said with certainty.  “They’re abusive and they’re manipulative.”   She also shared that she had been abused by three men from the time she was 9 years old until the time she was 12 years old.  A colleague had referred her to me and she shared that she reluctantly thought she would “give me a try.”

While she approached me with some initial mistrust, we engaged in the process of therapy relatively quickly.  We spent a fair amount of time exploring what relational patterns she carried with her now as a result of her experiences of abuse.  She was quick to identify the patterns she wanted to change, and entered several different relationships during the five years she was in therapy with me.  While in these relationships, we were able to more closely examine and understand how and why she chose some of the men she did.

In one session, when we were consolidating some of the work she’d done, she affirmed what she had said when we began:  “I still hate men, you know.  They’re all the same.”  This time, I felt some space to challenge her a little.  “What about me?” I asked.  “I’m a man and you’ve said to me on a number of occasions that you feel safer with me than you have with most people.”  Without missing a beat she responded:  “Well, you’re the other kind of man.”  

At first, I thought she might have been talking about my sexual orientation, which had arisen as a topic several months prior.  I checked it out:  “Do you mean I’m the other kind of man because I’m gay?”  I was ready for her to answer affirmatively.  “No!  Not at all!” she smiled.  “You’re the ‘good’ kind of man.”  I smiled back and thought again how being with Tori and creating space in our relationship allowed her to begin to think differently about men in general.

Being Unconditional While Advocating for Change

Not every encounter we have with people whose values are different than ours provide such tidy opportunities for change.  Over the years, I’ve had a number of people make negative or prejudicial comments about groups of people---about race, religion, country of origin, age or some combination of these. 

Sometimes, people make these comments with the assumption that I believe similarly.  In some instances I remain silent about my own beliefs and just listen, trying to understand how the person sitting opposite me came to hold the beliefs s/he does.  I wonder if a certain experience or set of experiences has caused someone to generalize negative attributes to a whole group of people.  While still attempting to show support, I may gently ask questions to invite my clients to consider how generalizations might not always be accurate. 

Other times,  clients may have grown up in families where they are taught a set of beliefs that become internalized over time.  Again, while still trying to demonstrate support, I may ask questions that I hope invite some level of introspection and examination.  My goal isn’t to change someone’s sets of beliefs.  I do hope, however, to create a space where values that maintain power differentials and oppression have even the smallest bit of wiggle room for some intentional examination.

I know there are therapists who would question whether I am making my own agenda more important than my client’s when I invite exploration of systems of oppression.  I suppose in some ways I am bringing myself as a social worker into the room in those moments.  Then again, I became a social worker because I believe in social justice and advocacy.  I firmly believe I can be empathic, nonjudgmental and unconditional while still advocating for social change, even in the micro-relationships we have in therapy. 

I remember a workshop I was facilitating in Oregon for the state’s juvenile correctional system about 10 years ago.  The specific workshop was about working with LGBTQ youth who were incarcerated and who also had histories of being physically and sexually abused.  Part of the workshop focused on helping participants develop a language around working with these young people, and one word I attempted to help define was “homophobia.” 

During a break in one of the days of training, a participant walked over to me and asked if she could talk to me.  “Of course,” I said. “I just don’t understand why I’m homophobic because I believe you’re wrong for being gay,” she said with honest confusion.  I thought for a moment and responded:  “I don’t think you’re homophobic because you believe I’m wrong being gay.  I think you’re homophobic for telling me that’s what you believe.” 

There was a flash of uncertainty on her face, but then a slow sense of recognition.  She can have her values and her beliefs, but it may not be demonstrating good clinical work or sound clinical judgment to share them with clients when they may create hurt or oppression.

So much good.  So much evil.  Just add water.

—Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS
Co-Founder and CEO