One way to analyse different approaches to mental well being is the degree to which the model serves a liberation agenda, or a social control agenda.

[Liberation psychologies] focus on the well-being and self-organisation of people and their communities…promote critical reflection and transformation in local arenas, and…their goal is not the imposition of a prescribed yardstick of development but an opening toward greater freedom in imaging the goals of life.

Watkins and Schulman 2010, pg.5

In other words, liberation psychologies don’t just focus on the individual but the whole community, they don’t accept the status quo culture if it’s harmful, and they don’t tell people what it means to be successful/normal.

Mainstream psychology and psychiatry (which could be defined simply as that which gets the majority of research funding and institutional/governmental validation) fall at the social control end of the spectrum for a variety of reasons;

  • It tends to focus only with the individual, not acknowledging their interconnectedness to other and the environment, and that everyone’s whose most important goal is personal happiness,
  • It assumes that that there are fundamental realities of personality and psychopathology that are the same across times and cultures, not accounting for socio-cultural influences on the way we view mental well being,
  • That social structures should persist as is, and it is the person who should shape themselves to fit the structures (as opposed to supporting the transformation of harmful social structures)
  • A scientific laboratory based approach that is far detached from lived experiences. (Watkins and Schulman 2010, pg.5)

All of these inform and emerge from the central criticism of mainstream psychology; that it doesn’t acknowledge the role social oppression, colonialism and globalisation play in diminishing individual wellbeing, and that it works in service of the dominant Western colonising agenda by helping people adapt and adjust to oppression, rather than seeking to analyse and transform it.

Where does Processwork sit on this spectrum? Can we claim to be a psychology of liberation? I think we can.

Tolman (2008, pg. 91) in his article on emancipatory psychology, states “…a psychology serving the interests of ordinary people would have to be based on a sound theoretical understanding of the relation of the individual to society.” Processwork has a strong focus on the intersectionary space between the individual and society, including and most importantly, a sophisticated analysis of power, rank, privilege (see Mindell 1992, 1995), social marginality and oppression (see Goodbread 2011), and offers dynamic tools for individual and social transformation relative to power, oppression and marginality. This is seen most evidently in Processwork’s concept of deep democracy:

Deep Democracy is based upon those perennial psychologies and philosophies that include global, egalitarian approaches to personal problems.

(Mindell 1992, pg. 14)

[Deep democracy is] an awareness of how power can be used against individuals and how this power can be transformed.

(Mindell 1995, pg. 39)

The concept of deep democracy represents a profound valuing of diversity. All roles and voices within a context/issue etc are not just welcome or tolerated, but seen as necessary to resolve or transform conflicts and dynamics of oppression.

Watkins and Schulman (2010, pg. 5) “recognise [liberation psychology] practices when they focus on the well-being and self-organisation of people and their communities, when they promote critical reflection and transformation in local arenas, and when their goal is not the imposition of a prescribed yardstick of development but an opening toward greater freedom in imaging the goals of life.” If Processwork could be said to have any goals, they would be the awareness and unfolding of nature, rather than the imposition of agendas or hierarchical structures for development. Processwork is not against power imbalances per se, but does not explicitly or complicitly support the abuse and mis-use of power. An awareness of social and interpersonal power dynamics is central to Processwork and in this way it is also a psychology of liberation.

In liberation psychologies, “the strands of individual, community, cultural and ecological wellbeing are held tightly together, and are seen to be necessary to one another” (Watkins and Schulman 2008, pg. 10). Processwork also recognises the interconnection of all life, perhaps to an even further degree than stated by liberation psychologies, through its emergence from quantum physics and Taoist philosophy.

Processwork, like liberation psychologies, doesn’t assume an expert position by professionals, but instead a facilitative position that supports the unfolding of awareness and existing wisdoms and the accessing of personal and collective agency. Processwork views the individual and community subjective experiences as valid and containing the seeds for transformation. Processworkers support the growth of these seeds but do not presume to plant them.

The Processwork concept of city shadows also aligns with one of the central concepts in liberation psychologies whereby “environments of injustice, violence, and repression have powerful psychological effects on everyone, whether they are registered consciously or unconsciously. When there is no public language or space to discuss these effects, they may turn into painful somatic symptoms of seemingly unknown origin that are misattributed to other factors.” (Watkins and Shulman 2010, pg. 53).

City Shadow theory (Mindell 2008) sees a psychotic client as the identified client of the community; their symptoms an expression of marginalisation in the community. The individual client highlights marginalisation in the society, with the normal community disturbed by it because they are against awareness of this disavowed part of themselves, and their role in the social marginalisation of others.

…the schizophrenic patient…is the collective’s dream, their compensation, secondary process and irritation.

(Mindell 2008, pg. 125)

It is with these reasons that I provoke the debate, if there really is any to be had, that Processwork can unequivocally claim to be a psychology for liberation.


Goodbread, J. (2011). Living on the edge. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Mindell, A. (1992). The leader as martial artist. Portland, OR.: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, A. (1995). Sitting in the fire. Portland, Or.: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, A. (2008). City shadows. Second Edition. London: Routledge.

Tolman, C. (2008). German critical psychology as emancipatory psychology. In: COHEN, C. and TIMIMI, S. (eds.), Liberatory Psychiatry, 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Watkins, M. and Shulman, H. (2010). Toward psychologies of liberation. Second Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

This article is an adapted extract from Liz Scarfe’s Diploma thesis, Pointing at the Moon; Exploring the question What is Psychological Freedom?


Photo credit: PHOTO/arts Magazine via / CC BY

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