Therapists Should Learn a New Cultural Competency: “Online Compliance”

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Many humanistic therapists aspire to practice “unconditional positive regard,” an unwavering client acceptance and support popularized by American psychological titan Carl Rogers. Like all ideals, unconditional positive regard is difficult (if not impossible) to fully reach. It takes skill, practice, and maturity to quiet and ignore the constant chatter of mental judgment, even for the experts whose job it is to do so.

Certain forms of reflexive and negative judgment are well known and increasingly discussed: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, for example. Anecdotes abound concerning the failures of therapists to maintain and display appropriate sensitivity towards their clients, even very recently (the time when it was strength have been excusably ignorant for a long time).

Accordingly, therapists call for a renewed emphasis on “cultural competence”: a deliberately cultivated and expanded ability to understand and relate to clients from different personal and philosophical backgrounds. Although the term was used as early as 1989, awareness of the importance of cultural competence appears to have increased over the past decade. The central and motivating idea is that without well-developed cultural competence, a therapist runs the risk of not only failing to help clients, but also actively harming them with prejudicial flippant remarks or obtuse non-assistance.

But another essential element of cultural competence has been underestimated by the psychological realm: “online activity,” if you will. Being “extremely online” is a sort of self-deprecating joke that won’t die, because it actually speaks to an important dimension of contemporary human existence: the breadth, depth and special flavor of one’s life on Internet.

We are now at least a full generation in the rise of “digital natives”, people who grew up using computers and interacting online rather than having to adopt these practices as adults. In a brief slice of technological history, “going online” was a low-key, occasional event limited to periods of time spent sitting at a large, slow, dial-up computer. Now, and for the foreseeable future, online and offline life are barely separable, interacting at every turn. Even before Covid-19, ordinary American life moved quickly online, day and night. Between the 2019 pre-pandemic and the 2020 shutdowns, the percentage of employed Americans working only from home increased 10-fold, from 4% to 43%. Online dating is no longer a laudable admission for those with niche interests: today, more than a third of heterosexual couples say they met online. Life online affects the events you hear about and attend, how you perceive and interact with legacy institutions like government and school, the doctors you choose and what you expect of them, even where you decide to live and how your city is changing right under your nose.

As a life coach who works primarily with clients in their 20s and 30s who find me on Twitter, I’ve seen time and time again how online cultural issues affect goals, desires, norms for themselves and even the fundamental personal identities of individuals. (For better or worse, coaches tend to operate more freely from institutional and traditional constraints than therapists, and we do seem to be more clearly attuned to the needs of extremely online people.) Problems such as repeated romantic failures, work frictions and social anxiety are not themselves new, but they manifest themselves in very particular ways (and sometimes very complicated) online. Think: being unmatched on dating platforms, being muted on Twitter, text read receipts combined with the ambiguous radio silence of notification fatigue or outright indifference.

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