Liberation Psychology–Context Matters

Written by: Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.

Date Posted: June 17, 2024 10:58 pm

Liberation Psychology–Context Matters

Liberation Psychology–Context Matters

Chicago Therapists Take a Holistic Approach to Mental Health Rooted in Liberation.

In celebration of Pride Month, we thought it would be a great time to explore the principles of Liberation Psychology. It’s a model for empowerment, healing, and transformation that takes into account the social and historical context of our individual backgrounds and communities. Liberation psychology fosters a sense of personal agency by recognizing the systemic nature of oppression and giving individuals a chance to confront and transform their conditions through positive action.

Liberation psychology is a holistic approach to mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of personal and societal well-being and prioritizes transformation through empowerment.

A practice rooted in liberation understands that historical and societal conditions, along with people’s lived experiences, are relevant factors in the healing process. Rather than trying to adjust the individual’s inner condition to meet unjust societal conditions, liberation travels a path aimed at empowerment and addressing the socio-political factors contributing to distress.

Humboldt Park Chicago, Illinois

Key Practices of Liberation Psychology

  • Understanding Systems: We build relationships based on recognizing and understanding the impact of societal and political forces in shaping an individual’s experiences. Through a combination of reflection and action, we can find meaningful and strategic ways to address injustices and work toward positive change. This type of engagement is purposeful and can help lead to better mental health outcomes.
  • Raising Consciousness: The awareness-raising process is integral to facilitating empowerment. Liberation encourages and supports individuals to develop clarity about the influence relationships, systems, and social structures exert on their lives.
  • Community-Based Approach: While individual therapy rooted in liberation can be an essential tool in healing, liberation psychology also advocates for community-based interventions. These interventions focus on collective well-being,  education, active participation in creative, community arts endeavors, and social movements.
  • Cultural and Historical Context: The liberation approach stresses the importance of understanding individuals within their cultural and historical contexts. It questions the idea that psychological practices are entirely objective and can be universally applied. Instead, it posits that a more nuanced approach incorporating local realities must be considered for healing.


Liberation psychology emerged in Latin America in the late 20th century. Ignacio Martín-Baró, born in Spain in 1942, is widely recognized as the founder due to his innovative and courageous efforts to merge psychological practice with the pursuit of social justice.

Martín-Baró was a  Jesuit priest, social psychologist, and academic who worked in El Salvador. He completed his graduate and doctoral studies in psychology at the University of Chicago.

His experiences and observations of violence and social injustice during the Salvadoran Civil War profoundly influenced his work. Martín-Baró believed that traditional psychology often ignored the socio-political context that affected people’s mental health and contributed to their suffering.

In 1989, a Salvadoran death squad assassinated Ignacio Martín-Baró, along with five other Jesuit priests and two women. His death underscored the risks faced by those challenging oppressive systems, and it also galvanized further support for his ideas.

While its beginnings were rooted in Latin American experiences, liberation psychology influences psychological practices worldwide. It has inspired similar movements in regions facing oppression and inequality, such as Africa, Asia, and among marginalized communities in the Global North.

Who Can Liberation Psychology Help?

Liberation psychology can help anyone affected by systems that act to disenfranchise individuals and communities, for example:

  • Black
  • Indigenous
  • Women
  • Differently Abled
  • Working Class
  • Ethnic and Racial Minorities
  • Immigrants
  • Veterans

The chances are you may find yourself at one of these intersections, so it is not a leap to say liberation psychology might be able to help most people in some way.

There is no doubt that when it comes to marginalization, there are degrees to which we are affected. For instance, we can make a case that everyone suffers under patriarchy, even men. As you focus in, women are primarily at risk. And then, when you focus in even further, black queer women may be the most at risk because of the number of marginalized intersections they inhabit. So, there are hierarchies of affected individuals within the marginalized groups.

Why are we making this distinction? Because the canary in the coal mine phenomenon applies. If you want to understand the exact nature of the systemic harms and be able to address them effectively, you listen to those MOST acutely affected by these systems.

Pride Month

What Practical Steps Can We Take To Dismantle Biased Belief Systems Within Ourselves?

While members of less marginalized groups, as well as those at the top of the food chain have much to unpack, It’s important to note that an individual can be part of a marginalized community and still have internalized racism, misogyny, etc. Unlearning this is a rewarding and often complicated journey. Being kind to ourselves and working within a self-compassionate framework will help make this work less painful. Understanding that we are human and have shared humanity in areas we may not be proud of can help lessen the sting of facing our truths. We may have been raised and socialized with deeply entrenched and problematic views about the world, but we are BY NO MEANS a mistake.

Why should I want to go through this process?

Addressing the denial around our biases, along with identifying and critically examining how we may be advantaged gives us a clarity and personal freedom that was heretofore, unattainable. We also gain increased resilience, emotional regulation skills, and empathy for ourselves and others. If you want these outcomes, we encourage you to do this work.


  • We can listen without judgment to people speaking about their lived experiences and what they go through daily, especially if they look physically different from us or belong to a group/community other than our own. They have a unique perspective gained through direct experience. Strive not to center yourself or your experiences in the conversation but rather listen and learn. This skill requires a degree of humility, a willingness to check defensiveness, and an ability to let go of individualistic self-centeredness.
  • We can learn to take action coming from a place of love and empathy. The meaning we ascribe to our circumstances, history, and roots can help us act from a place of understanding and give us agency in our own stories.
  • Rather than imposing our personal views, we can understand and respect that each individual is an expert on their own experiences.
  • We can start believing women and prioritizing the voices of the marginalized when they tell us their stories.
  • We can learn to question and think critically about systems and how they might be contributing to an individual’s anxiety and distress.
  • We can learn at a deep level that there is not only one right way to accomplish goals, think about experiences, or exist in the world. But rather, everyone has valuable contributions to make and deserves to be heard. Being curious about the diversity of others’ thoughts, beliefs, and experiences can yield closer connections. It can also lessen loneliness and isolation, thereby improving mental health.
  • Start taking notice of black-and-white thinking, as well as either or language. Endeavor to become aware when people are oversimplifying complex issues. Slow down and allow for deeper analysis.
  • Learn to identify and regulate your emotions when your defensiveness becomes triggered. Do you feel threatened if others challenge you in any way or talk, think, or behave differently? Is maintaining authority over others an established approach? Are you unable to see yourself as defensive or prioritizing authority? Just learning to ask yourself these questions and then sitting with the initial discomfort can yield awareness, change, and, eventually, relief.
  • Is your belief in your right to comfort vs. being challenged? Are you conflict-averse? Unpack your insecurities and work to accept their existence without shame so you can move beyond this emotionally charged state and start experiencing some real peace and resiliency.
  • Overcome the rugged, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, brand of Individualism, and replace it with a belief system that values cooperation. Practice sharing power, credit, and responsibilities. In other words, be a good group member of the human race.
Man's Search For Meaning

Man’s Search For Meaning

Interestingly, our research uncovered that Ignacio Martín-Baró both greatly admired and was influenced by the work of venerated Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Frankl, popularly known for his internationally acclaimed book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” developed logotherapy and existential analysis based on the concept that our primary driving force is finding meaning in life.

The basic principles of logotherapy are as follows:

from “Logotherapy Revisited” by Maria Marshall, Ph.D

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  • Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  • We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Logotherapeutic concepts have, as a matter of fact, been integrated into many different fields. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and burnout prevention. We see parallels between the methods of logotherapy and those employed by liberation psychology. The primary similarities are basically liberation’s goal of achieving individual empowerment through finding one’s voice, reclaiming cultural stories, and developing meaningful actions to respond to difficulties. Viktor Frankl advocated for the humanization of psychology his whole life. We find that liberation psychology has picked up this torch and continues to run with it.

Therapeutic Approaches Rooted in Liberation

Culturally relevant therapies are sensitive to the individual or community’s historical context. Rather than disregarding this context, we develop therapeutic practices incorporating cultural values, traditions, and languages.

A narrative approach focuses on helping individuals and communities reclaim empowering personal and collective stories. This approach also helps to combat damaging societal tropes and narratives.

Trauma-informed care not only recognizes the widespread impact of trauma on marginalized communities, we work to create safe, supportive environments that acknowledge and address their complex needs.

As psychologists, we are committed to an ethical framework emphasizing the importance of relationships in our care. We prioritize both empathy and mutual respect in all interactions with clients and community members.

About SpringSource Psychological Center

Our Commitment To Diversity

At SpringSource, we recognize the importance of a good therapeutic fit. It is essential to feel understood and seen by your therapist such that you can feel safe enough to access and explore underlying feelings that may be difficult to discuss.

We are aware that as we strive to be an inclusive therapeutic practice, it is necessary for SpringSource to have clinicians who represent diverse perspectives. As we grow, our clinicians help shape our culture, such that we incorporate different points of view and become stronger for it.

Can You See Yourself Here?

Our goal is to continue building a community where a myriad of voices are represented. We want our space to reflect the world around us, not just a small part of the population.

The On-Going Work

At SpringSource, we actively pursue our own reflection and self-examination. We recognize and challenge our privilege and invite open dialogue about the rights and needs of all human beings. We commit to the work of being an ally to under-represented groups. Likewise, we commit to aligning ourselves with social justice movements that are pursuing human rights initiatives.

Additional Resources

Writings for a Liberation Psychology — Harvard University Press

(PDF) The Life of Ignacio Martín-Baró: A Narrative Account of a Personal Biographical Journey (

Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl

We Want to Hear From You

We believe there are many paths to healing and look forward to helping facilitate your individual recovery journey. With offices in downtown Chicago and Northbrook, Illinois, we offer in-person and virtual support. Call or email SpringSource today at 224-202-6260⁠ | | We offer free 15-minute initial consultations—schedule here.