Psychotherapy as it is commonly practiced in the West was initially developed in the context of Western philosophical, scientific, and religious traditions and values. Because it has these roots, psychotherapy has been deeply connected with individualism.
A challenge for Western psychotherapists working cross-culturally has been that individualism is not a universal value. Working with clients from non-individualistic cultures may require questioning the individualistic premises on which the Western psychotherapeutic tradition is based.
Individualism is a complex worldview. It began to emerge in the form that we recognize today in the 17th century, in the thought of philosopher John Locke, serving partly as a reaction to rule by monarchs with absolute authority. It became appropriate to question this authority, and in doing so to elevate the value of individual freedom and liberty to unprecedented levels. Subsequent Western thought continued to evolve, but retained individualistic premises. For example, existentialist thinkers – who have directly influenced humanistic traditions in psychotherapy – found new ways to prioritize individual freedom. This included the freedom to live life creatively and in ways that suit one’s individual nature, whether or not doing so fit traditional or pre-established ways of living.
The Western psychotherapeutic tradition is deeply indebted to individualistic tendencies in Western thought. It is not uncommon, for instance, for psychotherapists in the West to think of their work as helping clients to achieve individual “self-actualization,” even if this means that clients will be living in ways that are in conflict with community or family values.
Researchers at a Midwestern American university recently interviewed a group of therapists from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong who had received their doctorate degrees from US counselling psychology programs, and who had subsequently been practicing therapy in Asian countries. They were asked about the aspects of their training in Western psychotherapy that would not apply to their work with the Asian clients they were seeing. There was a strong consensus among the participants that premising therapy on individualistic values would not be appropriate.
As one therapist put it, rather than being a solely individual matter, in Chinese culture “your success means the success of the whole group and your family.” Another therapist, working in Taiwan, said that “we often want to help people become happy…, however, when personal needs conflict with their family needs that would be a conflict for a Taiwanese counsellor.”
Western psychotherapists working with clients from non-Western cultures may struggle fully to understand the implications of non-individualistic worldviews. This is to be expected given how central individualism is to Western thought. But there is little doubt that a necessary first step for Western therapists working cross-culturally is to begin to think critically about individualism, and to begin to imagine what it might be like to hold a very different perspective on the world.
Bradley Murray is a psychotherapist in private practice.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA