As the long-time clinical consultant for a crisis hotline, I grapple with an old question that’s arisen with a new and urgent focus: How should we respond to callers who use racist, sexist, homophobic, and other offensive language?
Therapists absorb and metabolize strong affect and hurtful words all the time. Our role is to listen and understand, to find the person behind barriers of hate, fear, and ignorance. We are also taught to meet people where they are.
But what if where they are crosses a line? Ventilation can offer relief, but it can also cause harm to the listener and the speaker. Setting limits is part of good clinical care.
Listening to intensely prejudicial language not only taxes the tolerance of the counselors, but makes them feel complicit in perpetrating trauma and injustice. The staff is skeptical about my talk of metabolizing agents, sometimes simplistically so, but often with good reason.
Hateful speech increases prejudice and dehumanization. Exposure to it has severe and long-lasting effects on both physical and mental health. Not only is it important to protect counselors from burnout and trauma, but also to safeguard those who spew offensive language. “We are not doing our callers any favors by tolerating behaviors that would get them in trouble everywhere else,” a wise African-American long-time staff member always reminds us.
This dilemma extends far beyond the counseling relationship. We are living in an era of vitriol unleashed by the President to devastating effect. Many counselors see it as their duty to challenge such venom on the crisis lines.
No one is proposing cancel or call-out culture, which the black feminist and activist Loretta Ross describes as toxic, a system of “punishment and exile that mirror[s] the prison industrial complex.” Ross goes on to say, “Call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others, or for powerful people beyond our reach.” This does not describe our callers, who generally come from the least powerful margins of society. The point of our work is to try to reach, not drive people further underground into isolated and silent bunkers of reinforced conviction.
Ross proposes instead a culture of calling-in: “a call-out done with love.” This is what we strive for on the crisis lines. We discuss in our meetings the balance between opening up and shutting down, countertransference, self-care, pitfalls of shame and self-righteousness, ways to limit-set that are constructive rather than retaliatory, the limits of tolerance.
Over the years I’ve reminded the staff of an old African proverb: “Sometimes your mind can be so open that your brains fall out.” Now, they remind me of the same thing, and we stumble on together.
Originally published in NCSPP’s Impulse