Do psychologists have unique role in helping country heal?

By Catherine Robertson Souter
April 13th, 2021
Jennie M. Kuckertz, Ph.D, a postdoctoral fellow at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital
Jennie M. Kuckertz, Ph.D, is a postdoctoral fellow at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital.

With the near-universal hardships and losses of the pandemic that have affected us all in some way, Americans are feeling stress and anxiety across the board. Yet, rather than reach out and support each other, some are losing their ability to come together because of political and social differences. These issues have destroyed friendships and decimated family bonds.

A lot of conversations online and in the media center on how to mend relationships. It’s an area where psychologists may have special ability to use their skills and create new pathways for dealing with opposing viewpoints, said Jennie M. Kuckertz, Ph.D, a postdoctoral fellow at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital.

In an essay for America Magazine: The Jesuit Review, she wrote about her own background to illustrate how people need to listen before judging and look for common ground.

In a conversation with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter, Kuckertz talked about her reasons for writing the article and what she sees as the somewhat unique role to be played by psychologists in helping the country heal.

In the article, you wrote about growing up in a family that was very anti-vaccine and how talking with an empathetic state representative helped your mom to be open to changing her views. The result was that you were allowed to attend public school for the first time and set you on the path to where you are today.  What was your goal in sharing this story?

I felt like, as a clinician in Boston who was one of the first people to get the vaccine, I had that perspective but I also had this perspective that a lot of my colleagues in this area didn’t have of growing up in a family that was skeptical of vaccines and understanding some of the reasons why that was the case.

I was able to speak to the dialectic of that.

I did intend for it to be a more personal piece. I was taught and reinforced to keep the personal and professional parts of myself separate and I think there is a lot of value to that.

At the same time, in thinking about how we can be effective in delivering public health messages, we need to be able to share more of ourselves. With clients and family, I am able to communicate more effectively when I approach them with what I know about how human beings think and work.

This interaction had a big effect on your own life, not just your mother’s. How does that event look to you now?

I think about a lot of the interactions my mom had with other adults in our lives and in our community and I remember when people were condescending. Even though their viewpoints are those that I now would agree with as an adult, it didn’t feel good.

I think about not only how I want to be perceived by the other adults I am interacting with but what do I want their kids to think about this interaction. Even if I don’t change their parents, those kids are still developing and forming their own opinions and I want them to feel important and understood.

What kind of feedback have you gotten since it was published?

As I was writing it, I used two cousins as examples of readers I would want to reach. One would say she is an extremely progressive liberal and the other would identify as conservative Republican.

So, I thought about those polar opposites and I wanted to reach both of them. I was happy that both talked to me about the article and shared it even on their own social media pages.

In your article, you make a point about really listening to others with differing views. Although therapists are already trained to do this, what problems do you think psychologists can still have where it concerns these big divides?

I think the fault that many see in our clinical work is when we jump to try to make a change, or make suggestions when people are not ready to change, or we don’t fully understand the situation or the problem. We can actually do more harm than good.

How does your work and training translate into your personal life? How do you work to build bridges?

In my own life, with people I care about, I have been trying to think more about those same principles. I try to think about what can I validate that is valid in people’s experiences? Where is our shared kernel of truth? And accepting that I may not change their mind or we may not see the same way, what I can do is not make the situation worse.

By both validating what is valid and creating space, I may also create some openness for them to see a different perspective even if that doesn’t happen in front of my own eyes in the moment.

You also talk about dialectical behavior therapy that psychologists can use to defuse situations and inspire better communication.

I think dialectics are really important in approaching our clinical work but also in approaching difficult social and political issues. There are always two sides. For vaccines, for example, some people’s hesitation comes from real experiences they have had. If we can find what is valid in their experiences that is leading to these fears and try to listen and understand, that creates some space because people feel understood.

At the same time, I also think that our knee jerk reaction to lecture about vaccine safety or moral responsibility comes from a place where we have all been really suffering over the past year.

There has been an enormous amount of loss and we ourselves feel anxiety and sadness and anger over that. So, we do have this immediate response and we have to be compassionate about ourselves when we respond that way even when it is not effective.

For some of us it can be hard to address these issues because these are issues that are personal for all of us.

As a therapist, you have to have a good sense of your own emotional capacity and regulation around certain topics. I think it is completely understandable based on your own experiences and emotions to stay away from some topics if you feel like it will be too damaging for you or damaging to the relationship or ineffective.

At the same time, I would encourage people to just challenge themselves a little bit to approach these conversations differently, with more openness.

I think that we need to appreciate that it is a privilege when people share with us these experiences that they know we may not agree with. There is a lot of vulnerability and anxiety and shame on both sides in having these conversations. When a client comes to me for their intake and shares a lot of raw personal experiences, I thank them for that vulnerability and trust.

Why do you feel it is important to step up, not just in your own practice but in how psychologists interact with the world?

There is a tendency in our society and in our relationships to immediately look for solutions and not do the work of, not only understanding the other person’s emotions, but also our own emotions and how they are driving our responses.

I think psychologists, better than anybody, are trained to think about what experiences have shaped emotions and how those emotions shape thoughts and behaviors. If we could spend more time trying to understand those emotions, we could come up with useful responses and maybe even solutions to these issues down the line that are more likely to resonate with people and be effective.

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