Out On The Couch

Helping Queer Clients Become Their Own Liberators

Posted: 9-9-20 | Matthew Spector


Liberation Psychology’s Critical Contribution

Keywords: Liberation, Psychology, LGBTQIA+, Affirmative, Queer, Decolonizing, Martin-Baro, Anti-oppression

Liberation psychology strives to understand and address the oppressive sociopolitical structures affecting communities in order to promote their healing (Martín-Baró, 1994). Developed by the Spanish-born psychologist Ignacio Martín–Baró in 1970s El Salvador, liberation psychology tasks itself with examining contexts of oppression in order to foster critical consciousness, emancipation, and transformative action within individuals (Martín-Baró, 1994).

As LGBTQIA+-affirmative psychotherapists, one of our aims is to acknowledge the impact of oppression—both institutionalized and internalized—as an underlying cause of mental health challenges amongst our queer clients. Through its inherently political and intersectional lens, liberation psychology lends us a helpful framework to accomplish this task, guiding our clients toward personal and collective liberation.

One of the most distinct and powerful aspects of liberation psychology is its critique of “mainstream” psychology’s individualist approach to mental health, a framework steeped in our white supremacist system. This works to maintain dominance over the most oppressed bodies in our society: Black, brown, Indigenous, and queer folx. Choosing to focus not just on the “intrapsychic” or the individual in isolation, liberation psychology aims to emphasize how identity development is often damaged, thwarted, or complicated when we are growing up within a greater system of social relations that are, to so many of us, oppressing, dehumanizing, and alienating. 

Thus, rather than separating the “individual” from the “society in which they inhabit,” liberation psychology operates under the notion that the “individual” is inseparable from the “sociopolitical,” and that recognizing the fact of that inseparability is liberating to both (Martín-Baró, 1994). As Martín-Baró once wrote, “How enlightening it is [to see mental health or illness] not as the result of the individual’s internal functioning but as the manifestation, in a person or group, of the humanizing or alienating character of a framework of historical relationships” (1994, p. 111).

Undoubtedly connected to the concept of decolonizing mental health, liberation psychology is, it has been argued, best understood as belonging to a much wider family of decolonizing bodies of theory and practice (Burton & Gómez, 2015). Within this paradigm, “the role of the psychologist [and psychotherapist], whose values align with liberation psychology, is to disturb the discipline from becoming complacent and complicit in the perpetuation of oppressions” (Comas-Díaz & Torres Rivera, 2020, p. 97). Thus, decoloniality has become an important feature of the discipline, one characterized by a process of interrogating and deconstructing ways of knowing, being, and doing that are rooted in a Eurocentric worldview (Comas-Díaz & Torres Rivera, 2020).

As a means of decolonizing knowledge and encouraging responses to oppression with greater social justice potential, Martín-Baró (1994) proposed three “urgent tasks” for a liberation psychology: 

Task #1: The Recovery of Historical Memory

Queer and trans people need to be connected to their own history, one that’s been primarily erased by heteronormative systems. By reconnecting with one’s roots and acknowledging one’s own origins, community identity, and history, true self-knowledge can be attained. This key foundation of liberation psychology is known as “concientización” (Freire, 1971). Recovering “historical memory” is essential in the process of interpreting one’s sense of the present, and in glimpsing possible alternatives that might exist for the future. “Thus, the recovery of historical memory offers a base for a more autonomous determination of the future” (Martín-Baró, 1994, pp. 30-31).

Task #2: De-ideologizing Everyday Experience

This means establishing a “critical distance” from what appears to be “common sense” (part of one’s daily habits and ways of seeing the world), posing it as a problem to be discussed and explored rather than something determined as objective or “fact” (Martín-Baró, 1994). When what is previously seen as “natural” is recognized as something that is “not the whole story,” a space is opened for reflection in which other, previously unarticulated, stories come into focus. An effort must be made to recognize and eliminate the self-perpetuating stereotypes queer folx have internalized and generate new images for what it means to be you.

Task #3: Utilizing the People’s Virtues

It is crucial to adopt a strengths-based approach, one that emphasizes innate heroic and self-deterministic qualities, when working with queer and trans individuals. This involves empowering and highlighting the resiliency and fortitude within each individual (strengths often used to cope with stressors/oppression) and transforming them into tools for liberation (Martín-Baró, 1994).

At its core, liberation psychology is essentially LGBTQIA+-affirmative; it emphasizes how growing up and living as a queer person in a heteronormative and binary world can detrimentally affect one’s emotional and psychological development, leading to mental health concerns that are often seen as “personal” rather than issues that stem from an oppressive environment. It rightly places the onus of one’s psychological pain on the homo-, bi-, lesbian-, and transphobic society in which they exist, rather than on the person themselves.

Necessarily, as the approach departs from traditional psychology’s sole prioritization of the individual, liberation psychology seeks to understand the whole person within their sociopolitical, cultural, and historical context. Without question, for queer folx—especially those of color—this context is often traumatically dehumanizing. Thanks to the foundational work of Ignacio Martín-Baró, liberation psychology can provide LGBTQIA+-affirmative clinicians a basis to help folx find empowerment and liberation amidst the unjust oppression they experience. 

The subsequent articles in this series will delve into each “urgent task”—and how they can specifically be applied to LGBTQIA+ folx—more thoroughly. By learning about liberation psychology’s origins and central tenets, my hope is for clinicians to understand its critical contribution to the field, to realize its relevance to LGBTQIA+-affirmative principles, and to begin to integrate these tasks into their work with queer folx. By utilizing a liberatory approach in the room, we can help our clients become their own liberators.

Learn more about working with LGBTQIA+ Clients

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Burton, M., & Gómez, L. (2015). Liberation psychology. In I. Parker (Ed.), Handbook of critical psychology (pp. 348-355). London, England: Routledge.

Comas-Díaz, L., & Torres Rivera, E. (Eds.). (2020). Liberation psychology: Theory, method, practice, and social justice. American Psychological Association.

Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder

Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a Liberation Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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