Sometimes I idealize people. For example, as someone who cares about social justice and the arts, I often assume the best about organizers, writers, people who work in social justice-related nonprofits, etc. I tend to think that people whose careers involve fighting oppression or writing beautiful essays will possess corollary qualities, like deep self-awareness, a knowledge of how systemic oppression manifests in their interpersonal relationships, and a general compassion for those around them. My idealization reminds me of how some people I know idealize therapists as like, super emotionally intelligent, all-knowing seers of the human soul.
As a therapist who’s seen a few therapists for my own mental health, I’m here to tell you that some of us suck at our jobs. For example, the second therapist I tried out after moving to the Washington D.C. area literally made me doubt whether therapists do more harm than good in the world. When I talked about my struggles, he often spoke for longer than I did, and he way over-shared about his own life. At one point, when I said something about the racism I experience as an Asian American, he literally said that as an Italian American, he also knows what it feels like to be racially oppressed in America. After a couple months I dumped him, and I had to take a several-month break from therapy before cultivating the willpower to search for someone else.
Even beyond this example of someone sucking at their job, in my early 20s I have learned to stop glorifying people across all types of professions. Throughout my life I have always valued compassion for others as well as cultivating fulfillment without romance and romantic attachments to men. I therefore assumed that pretty much anyone who works at a social justice nonprofit, as an organizer, or as a writer should by some weird projective, transient property also possess these values which I hold dear to my heart. But throughout the past couple years I have encountered organizers and people who work in social justice nonprofits who actually are pretty poor communicators or just avoid addressing their internal issues, which leads to messy relationships. And I’ve met anti-hunger activists, feminist therapists, and teachers who are obsessed with romance and would be totally unmoored without their romantic partners. These people still contribute a lot to society, they just also possess qualities I find off-putting.
When I reflect on why I used to feel so surprised that holding a certain job does not mean someone will therefore be a perfect human, I think about my Asian cultural upbringing as well as the prevalence of capitalism. Under capitalism, we are taught that our value as people is tied to our productivity and our careers, that we should monetize our hobbies and always grind, always hustle. As the son of Vietnamese immigrants who worked super hard to achieve economic security in America, I got the message from my mother as well as from broader society that you very much are your career, that people with prestigious professions (e.g., doctors) are the most impressive. For me, these messages translated into some internalized notion that I should very much judge someone by their career, that someone’s job dictates a whole lot about their character outside of their job too.
I’m learning to question and refute this problematic notion of judging people based on their jobs. Yeah, sure, there may be a correlation between holding certain jobs and possessing certain characteristics. But as any beginning Psychology student would say, correlation ain’t causation. My two best friends are two of the kindest, most thoughtful, radical, communicative people I know and neither of them are full-time organizers, therapists, or writers. Also, the ability to even secure white-collar jobs like being a therapist or artistic jobs like being a writer are so often determined more by someone’s privilege than their character anyway. And, someone can hold a social justice-oriented job and still perpetuate white supremacy culture, as I have observed very closely through my time in academia.
As a Vietnamese American who grew up within a wealthy public-school system and attended a relatively prestigious public Ivy for undergrad, I’m interrogating my classist and ableist tendency to evaluate people’s characters through their jobs. Do you have any tendency to judge people based on their jobs, and how do you feel about that whether you do have that tendency or not? What can we do to counteract the capitalist, elitist, and ableist notion of judging people based on their jobs? Also lol I don’t intend to scare people from going to therapy by sharing one of my more negative experiences, please check out this article if you’re interested in finding a therapist who knows their stuff in regard to social justice and also please try out more than one therapist if you see a therapist and the therapist is mediocre. Until next post!