Diversity in society entails a variety of subgroups with their different ranks and privileges, some of which are devalued and marginalized. While the same is true for families, practitioners of mainstream psychology typically do not take the dynamics of diversity into account when working with families. Instead, they often adopt the dominant family members’ point of view and thus treat marginalized family members as if they are sick or inadequate and in need of help rather than facilitating learning and growth within the family system by treating the whole family as the patient and showing members how they can come to respect and learn from each other.
Marginalized family members, like marginalized subgroups of society, endure pain and suffering as well as the poverty, violence, depression, and substance abuse resulting, in part, from being devalued by dominant family members or societal groups. Such individuals or groups are rendered invisible, unappreciated, and often coerced into conforming to the values of the dominant subgroups. Unfortunately, instead of seeing the diversity they represent as a rich source of experience, insight, and wisdom, dominant subgroups often view them as inadequate or even threatening.
An episode of the Dr. Phil show provided a good example of how mainstream psychology fails to take into account the insights offered by the dynamics of diversity and thus unconsciously contributes to the marginalization of nondominant subgroups and individuals.
Rather than looking at the family in terms of its diversity, Dr. Phil sided with the family in marginalizing Michael. He didn’t seem to notice that the family projected their own views onto Michael, saw him as sick and deficient and in need of change, and devalued him. Therefore, Dr. Phil failed to challenge the family’s ignorance and prejudice. He supported the family’s dominant subgroup in a unified effort to change Michael into what the family believed to be a “responsible” adult on a successful life path. He diagnosed Michael as irresponsible, undisciplined, and unrealistic as if these qualities alone were the root of Michael’s and the family’s difficulties, without addressing the rest of the family’s shortcomings – their criticalness, rigidity, and lack of acceptance. For example, he confronted Michael about how infrequently he had worked at a real “money-making” job, how he didn’t have health insurance, and how little progress he had made with his writing projects. He repeatedly showed Michael how his irresponsibility and lack of work ethic had led to his financial circumstances and his lack of progress in his chosen field. For instance, when Michael said that he hadn’t asked his family for money, Dr. Phil pointed out how he had, in fact, relied on their help when he got sick. Accepting the family’s perspective – that Michael was the problem and the one who needed to be changed – focused on aligning Michael’s values with the values of the family, believing that being more disciplined and realistic would even help Michael achieve his own goals of being a writer and artist.
Dr. Phil also failed to challenge the family’s projections onto Michael allowing them to see Michael in terms of qualities they viewed as negative. He never considered how Michael could be an inspiration for the other family members to pursue their own artistic interests or how their sacrifices for financial security and family closeness had prevented them from being happier or more fulfilled. In addition, he never investigated the root of the family’s focus on financial security and success by delving into the family history. Dr. Phil’s responses showed the limitations of the approach taken by practitioners of mainstream psychology.
In a real way, our communities, society, nation, and world are like one big family. Some people and groups are more aligned with the dominant culture, while others are more marginalized and seen as outsiders because of their style, age, health, looks, preferences, beliefs, or behaviors. But the truth is no marginalized person or subgroup is the patient or the problem; no one person or subgroup is the teacher. We all have something to learn and to teach, and healing is something we all need to do together.