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date: 04 December 2020

Introduction to Social Class and Classism in Counseling Psychology

Abstract and Keywords

Psychologists and counselors have difficulty conceptualizing social class and classism as individual and psychological constructs. The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the concepts and constructs discussed throughout this book. The author begins with an description of economic privilege as a concept tied to other privileges such as White and Christian, but with distinct features pertinent to understanding classism and inequality. One distinct advantage from economic privilege, as the author describes, is the protection of cultural and environmental consequences. The author also describes the most recent revision to the Social Class Worldview Model (SCWM) and describes how it may be applied to working with clients. Elaborating further on features within the SCWM, the author also presents a model of Social Class and Classism Consciousness (SCCC) which may be used to describe the ways in which people see themselves as social-class individuals. Finally, the chapter concludes with a description of classism-based trauma. Classism-based trauma is a single significant or repeated exposure to trauma which may cause people to alter their lives. The concepts and constructs presented in this chapter are frameworks that may be used to guide clinicians and researchers in further understanding social class and classism in people's lives and to allow scholarship to develop which may explore and investigate these important dimensions.

Keywords: Economic privilege, Social Class Worldview Model, Classism, Trauma, Counseling, Research

The recent recession in the United States would seem to be an appropriate opportunity to engage in a national discussion about economic inequality, joblessness, and greed. The increasing wealth disparities and social structuring of resources against the poor and middle class are likely to create generations of inequality wherein the affluent and poor alike will see their social class conditions be transmitted intergenerationally (Hacker & Jacobs, 2008; Sharkey, 2012). Yet there is no substantial discussion but instead the labeling of such discourses as “class warfare” (Cooper, 2011). The absence of such a national discourse, even if all the conditions seem ideal, parallels a disciplinary silence on such significant concerns as well. Psychologists are in an important position to engage and facilitate such dialogues, especially with clients and within our scholarship, but at present, our discipline has taken a fragmentary approach to understanding such a ubiquitous concern.

When I began my own scholarship in the area of social class and classism, I started with a thorough review of the extant research at the time. I was surprised to find scant research on social class, socioeconomic status, and classism. I found that electronic data bases, when searched, tended to overreport the number of studies and theories focusing on social class. On closer investigation, I found that scholars were receiving credit for addressing social class and classism even though most of the mentions of social class and classism were parenthetical. That is, authors would, at some point in an article or chapter state something to the effect of, “and future (p. 4) research should consider important intersections of culture (e.g., race, social class).” In the mid-1990s, there did not appear to be any theories or cohesive research on social class and classism.

Social class and classism in psychology, and especially in psychological practice, are confusing and difficult concepts to understand and apply (Liu, 2011). “Social class,” “socioeconomic status,” and “classism” are among the over 400 terms that were found in a review of counseling psychology literature around 2004 (Liu et al., 2004). Certainly by now, just in terminology alone, there is likely no reduction in the ways in which applied psychologists refer to social class. I suspect that part of the reason there is so much difficulty in applied psychology is related to the ways in which people make sense of social class and classism in their lives. As a cultural construct, there must be a parallel recognition of how social class is conceptualized by the individual along with how social class is enacted in relationships with others. The consideration of these self and other components is unique to applied psychologists and other mental health providers because these are fundamental to psychotherapeutic and counseling work with clients (Gelso, 2011; Wampold, 2010).

For psychologists it is important to use theory to guide research and clinical work. Overwhelmingly though, most research on social class in psychology has lacked the use of a theory. Theory guides hypotheses, analyses, and the understanding of results; theory also provides a framework for clinicians to understand the varied ways in which people might make meaning of their social class selves, social class relationships, and social class environment. Psychology, like many other disciplines, sometimes lacked theories on social class (Liberatos, Link, & Kelsey, 1988; Oakes & Rossi, 2003). Instead, the focus has largely been on the identification of indicators that could constitute a preconceived social stratum (e.g., upper class, middle class). The primary focus seemed to be on identifying and populating, for instance, the constituency of a middle-class group. In essence, psychologists had incorporated the disciplinary practice from sociology and had not developed a psychological approach to social class and classism.

Psychological approaches to social class and classism, especially in applied psychology, should ask and address those questions that are unique to how individuals interact with one another. Certainly these questions concern the individual’s sense of him or herself as a social class person and how he or she constructs social class. In my own theorizing, I have two complementary theories that address these questions: the social class worldview model (SCWM) (Liu, 2011) and the social class and classism consciousness model (SCCC) (Liu, 2011, 2012). But we should also be addressing the concerns that impact and fuel how the social class and economic world operates around us. What is the role of greed, for instance, in a person’s self-conceptualization with respect to social class? Which part of the drive toward affluence and maintenance of wealth is psychologically healthy and/or deleterious? And what is the psychological composition of economic privilege and what role does it play in relationships (Liu, 2011; Liu, Pickett, & Ivey, 2007)? The psychological approach to these questions and other questions is the foundation of our discipline and practice around social class and classism.

More recently my attention has been directed toward a form of classism-based trauma from which a person continues to experience the lingering effects and/or transforms his/her life to seek or avoid future situations that may cause him/her classism trauma (Liu, 2011). Two stories in the media illustrate this classism-based trauma. First, a story reported on (Omer & Shin, 2012) describes a poem a woman posted on Facebook that generated apologies from her former classmates. She starts the poem with “that little girl who came to school with the clothes she wore the day before / instead of asking why … you picked on her / the little girl who had to walk to school while others rode the bus / instead of asking why … you picked on her.” Her posting about being bullied in part due to her poor clothing is an excellent example of how this extreme form of classism has life-long effects. The second story comes from Dwayne Johnson, or the Rock (The Rock, 2012). He describes the “traumatic experience that inspired him to spend every waking hour in the gym.” That traumatic experience was when he was 14 years old and his family was evicted from their apartment. He mentions briefly the despair in his mother’s face. Again, this example from Dwayne Johnson is another form of classism that is traumatic and carries with it lifelong consequences. To understand the effects of classism-based traumas, psychologists need to shift from objective indicators of social class and classism and redirect attention to the subjective experiences of classism. Later, I expand on classism-based traumas.

Unlike sociology, psychology focuses on the individual and his/her connection to the social world (Liu & Ali, 2005). Sociology is mostly concerned with the macro effects and tangentially how these broader variables may impact the individual (p. 5) (Liu, 2011; Liu et al., 2004). My parallel argument for studies of other cultural constructs is that psychologists do not specifically study race, for example, but rather examine race via identity, acculturation, and the impact of racism. Thus, theories of racial identity, acculturation stress, and conflict provide psychologists with an opportunity to understand how race is meaningful in a person’s life. Similarly, rather than study gender, psychologists may examine gender role congruence or conformity to masculine norms. For social class and classism, the wholesale importation of another discipline’s paradigm into psychology has largely left psychologists with confusion about what social class is and how it is meaningful for the individual. As I have postulated elsewhere (Liu, 2011), the extrapolation of demographic indices such as income, education, and occupation has given psychologists, practitioners, and researchers the semblance of control and organization over a construct but no theory or framework from which to use that tool. This is like having a steering wheel but no car attached to the wheel. Without a theory of social class and classism, information about a person’s income, education, or occupation is virtually meaningless.

This is not to say that income, education, and occupation are immaterial to the psychological construction of social class and classism. Instead, it is important to know that individuals may potentially value and perceive income, education, and occupation differently depending on their milieu. In a university town, certainly income is important, but social status and class are often tied to educational level as well as occupational title (i.e., professor). Additionally, income, education, and occupation confer different material conditions and resources on the individual and so, again, these variables are distinctly important but valued differently. Income, for example, affords an individual material resources, but the materials one values depend on the situation or context, or as I have termed it, one’s economic culture (EC). In a university town, a valued social class material object may be a new laptop, whereas in southern California, a valued social class material object may be a new car. Extant literature and my own literature reviews and research tend to support the importance of a subjective and phenomenological approach to understanding social class and classism. Related to this subjective approach is the importance of a cohesive theory that ties together social class and classism. My own social class worldview model (SCWM) is one example of a theory around social class and classism.

Readers should note too that it is my strong belief that social class theories need to address the dual components of social class and classism. For me, social class cannot exist apart from classism—these are coconstructs, and one cannot be explained without the other. In the case of race and racism it would seem unfathomable to discuss the construction of race or the meaning of race for an individual without implicating the importance of racism. Here, the same implications persist, and so theories of social class must implicate the role of classism.

The purpose of this edited book on social class and classism in counseling psychology is to provide readers with a compendium on social class within the field of applied psychology and counseling. I specifically focus on applied psychology and counseling since the need for continued clinical work and research is great given our work with clients across the lifespan as well as differing social class contexts. As a multicultural competency, clinical and counseling expertise on how to best adapt interventions to various economic communities is paramount. Moreover, for skilled counselors, it is equally imperative that skills be developed to elicit the ways in which clients describe the reasons for their own illnesses. The combination of these two approaches was found most effective in meta-analyses of culturally focused treatments (Benish, Quintana, & Wampold, 2011). I first discuss some aspects related to economic privilege and its connection to classism in applied psychology. Second, I highlight the social class worldview model theory because some authors either allude to it or describe it in brief. Moreover, I explicate the theory around the social class and classism consciousness model (Liu, 2012) and its relationship to the SCWM. Finally, I end this introduction with an in-depth description of classism-based traumas as a new theoretical approach to understanding an extreme form of classism experiences and provide related counseling implications.

Economic Privilege

Many of the chapters, many of the authors, and many of the studies within this book focus on people in poverty and the effects of inequality and economic decline. There are a great number of multiculturally minded and social justice–focused authors, counselors, and researchers who are working to understand inequality and affect change. Authors in this book directly implicate or allude to the benefits of privilege, especially social class and economic privilege. Increased access to resources, power, and prestige are (p. 6) all effects of privilege. Laminating economic privilege to other forms of privilege such as Whiteness and being a man can only accentuate the accrual and defense of resources, power, and prestige.

Privilege has been constituted as invisible benefits given to people based solely on identity aspects that the individual had no part in developing, creating, or nurturing—for example, being White (McIntosh, 1995) or being Christian (Schlosser, 2003). The benefits of privilege are largely invisible and outside the control of the individual. For instance, being White, male, and affluent may likely decrease one’s chances of being pulled over by police for drug interdiction searches. White privilege may be expressed as the “benefit of the doubt” in that, if a White person were to act wrongfully, he/she may be afforded some opportunities for other explanations for the wrongful behavior rather than being labeled a bad person (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2005).

One primary benefit of economic privilege is the protection from consequences. Economic privilege protects individuals in three ways. First, economic privilege protects the person from environmental and contextual consequences such as living in toxic or violent environments. Second, economic privilege protects individuals from the consequences of their behaviors and attitudes. An example is that economic privilege not only gives people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to poor behaviors, but economic privilege also protects them from law enforcement. Finally, economic privilege protects individuals from assaults on their cultural identity. For instance, there is virtually no meaningful identity assault on a person who is White, wealthy, and male. And, related to privileged protection number two, each White wealthy man is evaluated independently such that one White wealthy man’s poor behavior does not necessarily create a group stereotype or declination in power for all White wealthy men.

Economic privilege, similar to any other privilege (e.g., Whiteness), is linked to systems of power, oppression, and marginalization. Pure privilege works invisibly, is unconscious and automatic, and is considered “normative” by society. Discussions about the creation of extreme wealth in our society do not seem to be meaningful to people when weighted by facts and figures about tax policy. However, the mention of extreme wealth as a “natural” outcome of merit and hard work fits neatly into the normative (normal) upward mobility narrative of our society. Privilege works to facilitate unequal systems and processes for the benefit of a few and to the detriment of many. Privilege is normalized and legalized and legislated. Gay marriage, for instance, appears to some to be an affront to the privileged, “normal” history of heterosexual marriage (even though the history of heterosexual marriage is far from the nostalgic and romantic hue it is often given by its proponents).

What is unique about economic privilege is that people can have access to a semblance of it. That is, economic privilege allows people to participate in its functioning. A person may work diligently and become wealthy, for instance, and economic privilege is thus afforded to that person. Yet the wealthy White businessman who came from poverty is never fully accepted because he is “nouveau riche” or is from “new money” rather than from “old money.” The wealthy Black businessman still cannot catch a taxi because his race liability outstrips his economic privilege. Participating in economic privilege means continuing traditional oppressive and marginalizing systems.

Starting an introductory discussion about social class and classism with economic privilege allows us to consider the ways in which individuals make sense of the social class environment and how the individual potentially conceptualizes him/herself as a social classed person. Economic privilege is certainly tied to one’s income, education, and occupation, but this relationship is moderated by other forms of identity privilege and is limited by marginalized identities. This complication and tension between identities provides some impetus for our understanding of social class and classism as intrapsychic, subjective, and phenomenological experiences within an economic structure and system.

The Social Class Worldview Model

The Context of Economic Cultures

Although many individuals imagine themselves to be “middle class,” the reality is there is no unitary “middle-class” culture or identity. Middle-classhood is multiple and varied, and the expression of middle-classhood depends on one’s environment and those around the individual. A car is an important material symbol of social class in a city such as Los Angeles but may not be as important among “middle-class” people in New York City, where some individuals may go their whole lives not knowing how to drive a car. In New York City though, status may be conferred to those who live a particular lifestyle or live in a certain part of the city. Social class context drives how status is achieved and valued.

(p. 7) Therefore, the SCWM is premised first on the foundation of economic cultures. Each economic culture has its own specific values, beliefs, and expectations, which help the individual understand what personal resources are important and valued as a means to maintain one’s social class. The individual’s local economic culture exists within a larger economic culture (EC), for example, a country’s economic system. These cultures are interdependent. As an example, in the United States, the larger EC from 2007 onward experienced a contraction of resources (available credit) and went into a deep economic recession. The larger EC impacted local ECs, which, depending on context, expressed the recession differently. Communities that were Black, older, and less educated felt the brunt of the recession most deeply and severely, and consequently, by 2012 were still not able to return to prerecession levels of employment and pay (Austin, 2012).

In the local EC, individuals are expected to maintain certain types of capital necessary for maintaining their social class standing. As I mention later, failure to maintain these types of capital is met with forms of classism from others. Conceptually, I posit that individuals must maintain three forms of capital: human, social, and cultural (See Figure 1.1). Human capital is defined as the capabilities and physical characteristics with which a person is born and which the person may develop and enhance throughout a lifetime. Enlargement of these forms of capital is limited by physical limitation and access to resources. Body size, muscularity or leanness, and attractiveness are examples of human capital. Social capital is defined as social networks and interpersonal connections. People may use this form of capital to gain access to jobs that are not advertised, for example. Finally, cultural capital is defined as the aesthetics an individual develops that reflect one’s social class group. For one group it may be art in a particular gallery that is valued, while for another group, aesthetics may be expressed as an ability to differentiate different forms of camouflage needed for hunting.

The Worldview

Theoretically, the worldview is a collection of lenses through which capital demands and expectations are understood by the individual. There are two influences that shape the worldview: socialization messages and social class consciousness. Socialization messages are forms of communication from friends, peers, and family and may come across through statements, such as “work hard to succeed,” or through behaviors, such as ignoring the panhandling homeless person. The person internalizes these messages (explicit and implicit) and these messages become lenses through which the individual may see him/herself as well as others.

Introduction to Social Class and Classism in Counseling Psychology

Figure 1.1 The Social Class Worldview Model—Revised. EC = Economic Culture; C = Cultural Capital; S = Social Capital; H = Human Capital; SM = Socialization Messages; SCCC = Social Class and Classism Consciousness; MAT = Material Possessions; BEH = Social Class Behaviors; LSTYL = Social Class Lifestyle; UP = Upward Classism; LAT = Lateral Classism; DOWN = Downward Classism; and INTCLS = Internalized Classism.

(From Liu, 2012)

Along with these socialization messages, the person develops his/her own social class consciousness. This social class consciousness, which will be explicated later, is how the individual sees him/herself as a social classed person and how he/she understands the functioning of social class and classism. While the worldview focuses on interpreting capital demands on the individual, social (p. 8) class consciousness is focused on how the individual sees and understands him/herself in that social class system.

The worldview (See Figure 1.1) comprises three apertures: attitudes toward materialism, social class behaviors, and lifestyle considerations. Materialism focuses on the ways in which relationships are evaluated via possessions and valued objects. Social class behaviors are about social class congruent behaviors such as etiquette, accents, and language. Lifestyle considerations concern the ways in which a person spends his/her time. I refer to these three constructs as apertures since, given a particular EC and capital demands, the individual may see social class primarily through one dominant lens. The other lenses are also operational but in smaller diameters. The larger the aperture, the more important that lens is through which the person evaluates relationships and experiences classism. For example, if a particular EC placed demands on the person to develop social capital (relationships), and the primary way these relationships are developed is via materialism, then the individual is likely to evaluate and seek relationships through material objects and possessions. Classism is also expressed and experienced via what a person has or does not have. Classism from others is also likely to be experienced as marginalization because of material deficiencies.


Classism is the manner in which marginalization, ostracism, and oppression occur within the social class worldview model. First, classism functions like the aperture framework in that there are dominant and auxiliary ways in which classism is expressed and experienced. There are three main forms of classism within my theory: upward, downward, and lateral. Upward classism is marginalization directed to those who are perceived to be in a higher social class than the perceiver. Expressions of upward classism may be labeling someone a snob or elitist. Downward classism is marginalization directed to those who are perceived to be in a lower social class than the perceiver. Expressions of downward classism may be labeling someone as lazy or deserving of poor treatment. Lateral classism is marginalization directed to those perceived to be in a similar social class to the perceiver. Lateral classism may be expressed as “keeping up with the Joneses because the Joneses keep reminding you.” Another form of classism I hypothesize is not interrelational but intrapsychic.

I refer to multiple forms of classism because interpersonally, individuals are both aggressors and targets of classism. Being aggressor and target also means that there may be two forms of classism at work. Downward classism may be the experience an individual has when perceived by another person to be in a lower social-class position. Yet, the same individual may refer to the aggressor as a snob and elitist in a form of upward classism. It is imperative here that I also recognize these forms of classisms are from interpersonal interactions and are experienced by the individual as demeaning and marginalizing. In no way am I equating these interpersonal forms of classism to the ways structural and institutional classism functions to oppress and marginalize people. Feeling hurt and injured by another person (interpersonal) is not the same as taking away a person’s money and food (institutional and structural).

Another intrapsychic classism is internalized classism, which manifests as feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and frustration from not being able to maintain one’s social class status. These feelings may lead to self-destructive behaviors for some; for others, these feelings may lead to a complete shift in social class status. For example, a person loses a job, and may not be able to maintain a particular luxury lifestyle. The feelings may be enough that the individual decides that the lifestyle is impossible to continue and shifts downward to a lower social class level and seeks out a new EC and acculturates to new capital demands as a result.

These classisms work with the social class worldview to create homeostasis for the person (social class constancy) when all the components are working well. Similarly, disequilibrium results when one is unable to maintain a perceived social class standing and social class constancy is threatened. The individual may reorganize the worldview and/or classism actions as a means to manage burgeoning feelings of internalized classism (anxiety). In some situations, the person rediscovers homeostasis, while in other situations if disequilibrium persists, the individual might consider changing the self-perceived social class position.

Social Class and Classism Consciousness

Alongside social class socialization messages, which a person receives from friends, family, and peers, the manner in which a person understands him/herself to be a social classed person is the other important feature in the social class worldview. The SCWM does not indicate how the individual conceptualizes him/herself as a social classed person, (p. 9) only how he/she operates and responds to capital demands from the EC. I would venture to speculate, as an example, that people may create a system that is homeostatic yet have no conceptualization of themselves as social classed persons or of how social class functions around them. Therefore, my development of the social class and classism consciousness (SCCC) model was to understand the individual’s social class awareness and consciousness.

Social class and classism consciousness refers to a person’s sense of being in a social class system and to how the person sees the world and others. The SCCC model has three broad levels: no social class consciousness, social class self-consciousness, and social class consciousness (See Table 1.1). There are also ten statuses within the three levels (See Table 1.2): unawareness, status position saliency, questioning, exploration and justification, despair, the world is just, intellectualized anger and frustration, reinvestment, engagement, and equilibration. At the first level, no social class consciousness, a person is largely unaware of social class in his/her life. The individual is not necessarily void of any class consciousness but has not developed any understanding of how social class operates in his/her life. The way in which the person may try to understand social class and classism comes mostly from introjects of scripts and schemas from media, family, and friends. I mean “introjects” to be unfiltered and wholesale adoption of perspectives from others; the person has not fully considered these scripts and schemas and tends to parrot social class discourse from those around him or her. At the second level, social class self-consciousness, the individual is evolving a self-consciousness about social class and classism. “Self-consciousness” here is used intentionally to reflect a hypersensitivity to oneself as a social classed person, and the burgeoning awareness of social class contexts. While the individual is sensitive, he/she still lacks a complex understanding of power, privilege, and inequality. Simply stated, the individual knows something is occurring economically but does not know or understand what it is or how it is happening.

Table 1.1. Social Class and Classism Consciousness Model Levels and Statuses (SCCC)

No Social Class Consciousness


Status Position Saliency


Social Class Self-Consciousness

Exploration and Justification


The World Is Just

Intellectualized Anger and Frustration

Social Class Consciousness




At the third level of the SCCC, social class consciousness, the individual attends to exploring social class inwardly and focusing on self with others. The person is interested in how he/she impacts the social class world. The person explores avenues by which exploration is coupled with actions and behaviors that are meaningful expressions of how social class, classism, and inequality are understood. The SCCC is posited in a hierarchical order, such that there is potential movement from less sophistication and cognitive maturity to more complexity. People also go through all the statuses. Over time, an individual develops a preferred status from which to understand social class and classism, as well as him/herself as a social classed person.

The implication of this particular theory is related to the subjective approach to social class and classism which I advocate. Regardless of one’s objectively defined social class standing (poverty to affluence), clinicians and scholars should recognize that social class consciousness varies. Being poor, for example, does not necessarily mean one sees him/herself as a social classed person anymore than being affluent. Another consideration is that the process by which consciousness develops is not linear but rather a struggle for the individual between his/her intellect, emotions, history, and relationships.

Classism-Based Traumas

Classism-based traumas have similarities to chronic racism and sexism (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005). All these forms of oppression and marginalization are founded on biased and inaccurate histories, codified by unequal laws, perpetuated through institutional legacies, and naturalized within a national culture. Racism, like other isms, is not just an individual-level problem, but a problem rooted in sociopolitical (e.g., the unequal distribution of power), sociohistorical (e.g., biased and inaccurate (p. 13) histories of peoples), and sociostructural (e.g., legal, education, and economic systems) forces that marginalize and oppress individuals (Jones, 2010; Liu & Ali, 2005). With respect to classism, it is cause and consequence to economic inequality and serves to justify the economic status quo of a few “haves” and many “have-nots” (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004).

(p. 10) Table 1.2. Social Class and Classism Consciousness Model




Perception of Peers

Perception of Others

Perception of Society


Social class is not a salient part of one’s worldview. There is recognition of inequality, of rich and poor, but no real conceptualization of how social systems may work to create inequality. Overall there may be a belief in the myth of meritocracy and an acceptance of personal and other peoples’ unqualified privileges and entitlements

The self is an independent actor in the social class system

Peers are perceived to reflect and endorse the individual’s worldview and are believed to share a similar unaware worldview

Some recognition that there are higher and lower “others” but no acknowledgment that the individual is also part of a larger economic system

The larger sociostructural system works neutrally. People get what they deserve. The individual believes that there are some unfair advantages but not so much to unbalance the system

Status Position Saliency

The individual recognizes people in higher and lower groups and the individual is aware that he/she may belong to a social class group

The individual generally sees him/herself as belonging to a social class group and begins to recognize the boundaries of his/her social class group

Peers are part of the individual’s social class group, and the individual recognizes peers who may belong to other social class groups

The individual perceives multiple social class groups within which others belong and that these groups are stratified but the individual is unclear what creates the hierarchy, stratification, or inequality

The larger society is recognized to be composed of higher and lower social class groups, some of which deserve esteem and others deserve derision


The individual questions the role of social class in his/her life. The questions may create anxieties and tensions related to how social class operates in the individual’s life and the larger society

Some dissonance about the individual’s role in social class and inequality; generally unsure what social class and classism means, but some burgeoning recognition that social class exists and operates. The individual may also question how he/she came to his/her particular social class position

Beginning sense that the individual and his/her cohort have certain social class boundaries that still seem diffuse and unclear and some recognition that the peer group has boundaries

Steady recognition that there are social class in-groups and out-groups

Still greatly unsure how the larger sociostructural system of social class operates but some sense that status considerations are important parts of one’s experience

(p. 11) Exploration and Justification

The individual seeks out knowledge and experiences to answer these questions. The individual is primarily interested in finding support for previously held beliefs about how social class functions and the role it plays in his/her life

The self is unsure and is vulnerable, but the individual is willing to explore answers that may support his/her already existing, albeit tenuous worldview

Peers and the cohort group are sought out for answers but with a growing recognition that the peer group may be an unreliable source of information

Other people are unreliable because they do not “understand” the individual’s experiences and perspectives and are likely to challenge the individual too much

A growing sense that society “must” be just and inequality “must” be a “natural” product of people’s efforts


The individual resigns him/herself to believing there is no escape from the current circumstances. For instance, an individual in poverty may believe he/she cannot move beyond his/her situation

The self is perceived as impotent against the current situation; the individual does not believe he/she possesses the skills to overcome his/her situation

Peers are regarded in a similar situation and peers may be the target of anger if they try to deviate (improve) their current situation

People are not interested in helping you cope with the situation better

There are rich and poor and society is made to make the rich richer and the poor poorer

The World Is Just

The individual is resigned to accepting inequality and the rationalization that people get what they deserve. The individual is interested in his/her own privilege, entitlements, and status attainment

Because the world is unchangeable, it is important to look out for oneself

Peers are sought out who reinforce this same worldview. Usually people reinforce the individual’s current social class position or who are interested in upward mobility

Other people have not worked hard enough or made the right “life choices” to succeed

Society is just and inequality is a natural product and process

Intellectualized Anger and Frustration

As the individual explores his/her questions around social class, classism, and inequality, the individual becomes angry and frustrated at the state of inequality. The individual becomes increasingly interested in addressing economic inequality. The individual likely attempts to involve him/herself in broad and far-reaching activities that are outside their ability to intervene and understand. There is no introspection or deep consideration about poverty and inequality except reactive anger and frustration

The self is blameless and it is others and society who created inequality, and it is the individual who must “correct” the injustices

Interested in seeking out other groups and expanding their peer group to find additional support for their experiences and growing perspective. Peers are expected to reflect the individual’s worldview about inequality

Others are categorized into oppressed and oppressors—with the oppressed being those in poverty and low-income situations. Others are also encouraged to fight against inequality

Society is unjust and must be corrected—usually through some revolutionary action. Large social action is sought

(p. 12) Reinvestment

The individual investigates social class, classism, and inequality again in his/her own personal life and explores how his/her actions impact others. The individual is interested in finding ways to understand social class in his/her own world

The individual recognizes that he/she is engaged in unequal, unjust, and sometimes classist actions. The individual recognizes these actions having negative impacts on others. They begin to connect individual behavior to possibly larger social problems

The individual observes how peers also enact social class and classism. Peers are being evaluated on their social class consciousness

Rather than focusing on society at large, the individual focuses on his/her surrounding environment. The individual’s interest is the immediate context within which social class and classism are enacted and how their individual behaviors may make an impact

Society is recognized to be comprised of smaller contexts. These smaller contexts are the ways in which society may be changed to be more equitable


The individual is actively involved in social class, inequality, and poverty issues in his/her community. The individual is testing his/her developing awareness of being a socially classed person

The individual recognizes the importance of being vigilant against inequality and that social class operates all around. The individual is intentional and deliberate about how they act in certain contexts, are sensitive to social class differences

New peer groups may be sought that reinforce this growing new consciousness. Dissonance and conflict may still exist as the individual shifts away from old friends to new networks. Anxiety may increase from these new experiences

It is important to find way to help people in one’s community/neighborhood. It is also important to support other causes against classism

Society is largely unjust and classist and marginalizing of people from poverty and the poor. The whole of society cannot be changed immediately, but it is important to be a part of or start a process of change


The individual is able to complexly explore and understand the role of social class in his/her world. The individual struggles for equilibrium when trying to figure out issues of poverty/injustice

The individual recognizes that he/she is constantly negotiating privilege and power, and there are some times and contexts in which they have and use the privilege and others in which they do not or cannot exercise privilege

The individual has multiple groups of friends and peers that reflect their complex understanding of social class. The individual has some ability to move between and within each of these groups

The individual recognizes people in different strata and sees the privileges, power, and limits of each group. He/she recognizes the fluidity of these groups and how context changes the quality of each group

Society is not an independent entity or organism outside the individual, and the individual can only make changes through constant vigilance in combating classism

Source: From Liu (2011, 2012).

While there are significant similarities among all the isms, classism is sometimes difficult to identify both for the counselor and the client. The reason for this difficulty is that an individual’s social class is not typically a phenotype like race or sex and so the acts of classism may not necessarily target an overt identity like someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, or ability. And so, while the individual may have felt marginalized or is able to recall some feelings of alienation and discrimination, the client may have difficulty “pin-pointing” the specific reason why he or she was targeted. Thus, the counselor is expected to have some skill and awareness that will allow the client to better understand and frame these experiences of classism.

Classism is not a unique form of oppression or marginalization but instead, classism is intimately tied to other “isms.” There is a deleterious interaction of race, gender, and social class such that poor women and racial ethnic minorities are often at the lower end of health gradients (Adler, Boyce, Chesney, Folkman, & Syme, 1993) and other indicators of health, educational and occupational achievement, and success. Additionally, classism, while it is often most traumatic for those who are poor and in lower-social-class situations (Smith, 2008), may also affect individuals across the economic spectrum. Thus, the construct of classism trauma is relevant even for those in affluent and privileged settings (Liu et al., 2007).


Throughout this manuscript, we refer to the classism-based traumas and not specifically “classism trauma.” The intent is to describe the meaningful impact of classism-based experiences but not to allude to or diminish the significance of “trauma” as a diagnostic category. Traumas, as most psychologists understand, are often related to some unexpected and violent event such as an accident, explosion, or loss of life. The diagnostic characteristics of trauma may be characterized as “the experience and psychological impact of events that are life-threatening or include a danger of injury so severe that the person is horrified, feels helpless, and experiences a psychophysiological alarm response during and shortly following the experience” (Schauer, Neuner, & Elbert, 2005, p. 5). In our current place in history, traumas are often related to battlefield and war-based experiences, and, as such, trauma is a singularly important diagnostic classification that is often used to describe acute or post-traumatic experiences (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000; Cigrang, Peterson, & Schobitz, 2005).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as defined by the DSM-IV-TR is “ the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor(s) involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate” (APA, 2000, p. 463). For the current DSM-IV-TR, assessment for PTSD usually means that the person has a response to an event that involves fear, helplessness, or horror; that there is a persistent avoidance of the stimuli associated with the trauma and/or a numbing of general responsiveness; and persistent symptoms of arousal (APA, 2000). Additionally, other mood disorders associated with PTSD (comorbid) are generalized anxiety and depression (Otter & Currie, 2004).

We also understand that traumas may occur as a result of prolonged exposure to a stressor such as abuse and violence (e.g., child or sexual abuse) (Anda et al., 2006; Andersen et al. 2008; Carpenter et al., 2009; Neigh, Gillespie, & Nemeroff, 2009). In these ways, abuse and violence are forms of interpersonal violations and traumas, and many of the clients who have histories of abuse and violence may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Therefore, racism (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005) and other isms such as classism may serve as triggers and variables by which chronic stress, violence, and abuse are channeled toward an individual, thereby setting the framework for classism-based traumas. The use of “trauma” as a term to describe significant and meaningful experiences with classism does imply some overlap of how “trauma” has been defined with respect to post-traumatic stress, for example. The classism-based traumas do imply feelings of extreme helplessness and fear, and the individual is likely to feel particularly vulnerable under threat and to be looking for avenues to avoid the situation or stimuli associated with the trauma. (p. 14) Additionally, the experiences of traumatic classisms (the term used hereafter) may be direct or vicarious, but the outcome is similar regardless of how the experience occurs. Thus, the operational definition for classism-based traumas is: An acute and/or chronic situation wherein the individual experiences personal threat to his/her social status and position; at the time of the experience, he or she is unable to escape from the threat or modify the situation; the outcome is that the individual feels helpless and vigilant to other possible classism-based threats.

The classism-based traumas are related to significant single or repeated exposures to messages as well as reminders of one’s “deviancy.” Depending on the individual, this exposure to classism may be a single comment or remark (i.e., you look dirty), demeaning or disapproving glance, or familial-based experience (e.g., a family refused entry to an establishment). The notion of classism-based traumas is not just about bullying or teasing (as a child, adolescent, or adult). Certainly bullying and teasing may be involved, but classism-based traumas are likely to have long-lasting effects in which people configure their lives in such a way as to cope with these primary experiences. There are also features of classism-based traumas that an individual may experience that are not specifically related to any one person’s actions (e.g., the death of a significant person). Thus, bullying and teasing do not accurately encompass the variability of how classism-based traumas are experienced or expressed.

Classism-based traumas may not necessarily be determined from outward appearances and there may be no negative physical sign that a person has experienced a classism-based trauma. Rather the individual who appears to be surrounded by material possessions or to be wealthy may have a history of classism trauma and the current circumstances are a coping style. That is, one way to overcompensate for classism-based traumatizing experiences is to focus on material objects or money as a maladaptive response. The belief may be that surrounding oneself with certain material objects or money will protect one from further denigration. The problem is that the individual eventually limits him/herself to a restricted range of coping styles, and the failure, or even the threat of failure may lead to fear, anxiety, and depression.

Classism, Social Rejection, and Impaired Relationships

But how might classism be a form of trauma? Classism is a form of social exclusion and rejection and it affects different levels of a person’s life. Some of the effects are visible. For instance, at the macro and societal levels, classism is cause and consequence of economic inequality and serves to concretize the caste-like social class groups. Gated properties and security patrolled streets are visible reminders to those who cannot afford to live in these communities that aside from their labor, their presence is unwelcomed. Another potential outcome of inequality and a poor economy is an increase in poor health behaviors such as consuming more “junk” food. An economic analysis suggests that losing one’s job or the threat of losing one’s job (i.e., a state’s rate of unemployment) is related to decreased consumption of fruits and vegetables (a 1% increase in unemployment is related to a 2–8% reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption) (Dave & Kelly, 2010). From a health perspective, experiencing classism traumas and living in an environment of constant vigilance and stress results in reduced efficiency of one’s body and the increased hormones related to stress response (Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007). Over time, the increased biological stress response is related to weight gain (Kuo et al., 2007). From a psychological perspective, social exclusion (losing one’s job) is related to poor self-regulation (e.g., eating more cookies) and a disinclination toward making healthier choices (Baumeister, DeWall, & Ciarocco, 2005). It seems that people who are socially rejected or fear social rejection tend to make poor short-term choices (e.g., eating unhealthy food) and minimize long-term consequences (i.e., getting overweight).

But there are invisible effects, on the interpersonal and subjective level, such that classism is likely experienced as a form or threat of social exclusion and rejection. Classism may happen because one is perceived to be too materialistic (i.e., shallow) (Van Boven, Campbell, & Gilovich, 2010) or buying the wrong things (i.e., ridicule) (Wooten, 2006). The importance of understanding classism is related to the intrapersonal (intrapsychic) effects and the effect classism has on relationships. Classism may be a single event, but much like other forms of isms and exclusion, there are reverberations throughout the person’s life. As such, the classism-based traumas are unlikely isolated to the individual but transmitted to relationships and perhaps to other generations.

With regard to social rejection, the experimental research has clearly demonstrated deleterious outcomes. To start, social rejection typically leads to self-defeating and unhealthy behaviors (e.g., longer periods of procrastination) (Twenge, Catanese, & (p. 15) Baumeister, 2002). Even among those who may regard themselves as intelligent, social rejection decreases logical thinking and performance on complex cognitive tasks (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002; DeWall & Baumeister, 2006). Additionally, the experience of social exclusion leads to momentary physical numbing, emotional numbing, and even less empathy for others (DeWall & Baumeister, 2006). Essentially, threats to belonging to a group, whether physical or social, activate similar neural networks designed to regulate pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003).

Over time it may be possible that people who experience repeated social rejections become highly sensitized to rejection cues, demonstrate increased startle response, and at times may even preprotect themselves (i.e., aggress first) and reject others or see rejection cues (i.e., hypervigilance) even when there are none present (Romero-Canyas, Downey, Berenson, Ayduk, & Kang, 2010). Seeing hostility in others, even in neutral situations, is a common outcome of repeated social rejections, and unfortunately acting hostile toward others is the other typical outcome of social rejection (DeWall, Twenge, Gitter, & Baumeister, 2009; Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). In some ways, these preprotective behaviors and attitudes are not necessarily wrong, since for some people who may experience repeated forms of classism and exclusion, it allows the person to respond more adequately to assaults rather than having each new rejection be a novel experience. As one researcher terms it, “If you can’t join them, beat them” (Twenge et al., 2001, p. 1058). The rejection-sensitive person then may be hostile and aggressive toward others as a means to protect him/herself from rejection, decrease prosocial behaviors and empathy (Twenge, Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Bartels, 2007), and protect whatever social connections they have from other assaults or injuries (Romero-Canyas et al., 2010).

One interesting outcome from the social rejection research is the complexity of responses by people who are socially rejected. Hostility is a common reaction to rejection, but research also suggests that ingratiation is another outcome. In situations where a participant was primed to think of him/herself as socially rejected, the individual may express a strategy to gain acceptance again (i.e., ingratiating behavior) (Romero-Canyas et al., 2010). In their research, Romer-Canyas and colleagues found that if people believed there was an opportunity to improve one’s standing with respect to the rejecter, then the individual would likely engage in a strategy of ingratiating behaviors; this did not represent an internal change (i.e., believing the rejecter was a good person), but rather the person employed behaviors to improve his/her standing. Ingratiating behaviors and attitudes are an important finding for classism theory since it suggests that people who may be rejected sometimes express a strategy to regain favor and remain in the group.

Overall, it seems that there is research to support the basic premises of classism laid out by Liu (2011). People do want social connection—they are vulnerable but needy—and they protect themselves against vulnerability and exploitation (Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007). People are not singular in their response to classism, but can exhibit paradoxical behavior such as ingratiation toward those who rejected them. Moreover, it seems that for others who have experienced classism “beating them” (Twenge et al., 2001) is a way to potentially perpetuate classism. As Twenge and colleagues discovered, those who were rejected tended not to direct their hostility toward the rejecter but toward partners. In other words, hostility was not necessarily a form of retaliation toward the rejecter but a worldview formed from rejection that was used against others.

Classism-Based Traumas and Pain

For the most part, classism and classism-based traumas may be conceptualized as forms of social pain (Zhou & Gao, 2008). Thus, there is a possible physiological memory attached to rejection and classism. It seems that research has found relationships between social distress, physical pain, and the symbolic power of money to help the individual cope with these noxious experiences (Zhou, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2009). Zhou and Gao (2008) based their series of studies on the notion that physical pain and social exclusion are experienced in psychologically similar ways (cognitive, physical, and attitudinal). They state, “social pain, monetary-loss pain, and physical pain [are regarded] as overlapping pain systems” (Zhou & Gao, 2008, p. 127) and thus the person may feel social exclusion and rejection in the same ways as physical pain (MacDonald & Leary, 2005). In situations where people feel marginalized, fear losing social support, or experience personal distancing, individuals may act in ways to retain or preserve relationships (Zhou et al., 2009). The simple reason why people are motivated as such is because social support, it seems, provides an important ameliorating role in “buffering” the impact of pain perceptions (Zhou & Gao, 2008) (p. 16) and so people are highly motivated to maintain social support.

In experimental studies, it appears that the experience of social exclusion tended to increase an individual’s tendency to spend money (Baumeister, DeWall, Mead, & Vohs, 2008). One way to explain these results is that the individual may have problems with self-regulation and impulse control (Baumeister et al., 2005; Rose, 2007), but another way to understand it may be that spending money may be a way to increase the individual’s appeal and attractiveness to others (Baumeister et al., 2005). Zhou et al. (2009) also found similar results where people who experienced social and physical pain increased the interest of the individual toward money. Interestingly, in these experimental conditions, physically handling money by counting it seemed to decrease perceptions of physical pain. Conversely, if the participants considered the money they had already spent, they tended to become more vulnerable to experiences of social exclusion and physical pain (Zhou et al., 2009). The authors from these studies speculate that money becomes a physical representation of safety but also the pursuit of money “may be the motivation to deny the feelings of insecurity” (Zhou & Gao, 2008, p. 131).

The paradoxical result of pursuing and thinking about money is that the individual tends to eschew social interactions that may actually be helpful to him or her. Vohs, Mead, and Goode (2006) found that when participants were primed to think about money, the participants tended to be more socially insensitive, offered less help to others, tended to prefer working and playing on their own, and preferred physical distance from others. Recent research also suggests that when these experiences of social rejection occur, especially in the context when the person perceives that it is unfair, the individual is likely to feel more entitled to act in ways to avoid further personal injury and to find positive outcomes for him or herself (entitlement) (Zitek, Jordan, Monin, & Leach, 2010). The outcome of these “unfair” wrongs and feelings of entitlement is often selfish behavior (Zitek et al., 2010). In experimental settings, selfishness is demonstrated through not helping others, decreased likelihood of inconveniencing oneself for the sake of others, engaging in more selfish behaviors such as leaving trash around or taking a pen, and a tendency to ask for more money in compensation.

Thus, the research seems to suggest that one possible outcome of experiences of classism is that people may turn to money as a means to cope with the perceived loss of social support. Additionally, the research suggests that people may feel entitled to act in selfish ways and to reduce prosocial behavior, especially in situations where they believe the interpersonal wrong they experienced was completely unjustified. One might imagine that classism-based traumas may take the form for instance, of losing one’s job, and the result of this experience and situation is an individual who is socially withdrawn, focused on money and other resources, and is unlikely to engage others in social activities.

Counseling Implications of Classism-Based Traumas

Considering the entire expanse of economic situations helps psychologist better understand how social class and classism-based traumas are understood, experienced, and expressed (Liu, 2011). For instance, although the objective situation for many wealthy and affluent tends to suggest that they have better access to mental health care, and are more likely to have overall better mental health (Bogard, 2005; Luthar, 2003), psychologists should not assume these individuals are free from mental health problems (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005) or experiences with classism-based traumas. Research among affluent and wealthy adolescents has shown that growing up in affluence and wealth brings with it certain problems that may be unique to their situation. Levine (2006) finds in her research among the affluent adolescents that they experience pressures and expectations toward perfectionism by peers and parents. These adolescents often do not receive critical and negative feedback from teachers and so they are ill-equipped for these sorts of comments. Failure to meet these expectations may be forms of classism-based traumas. Parents in these affluent contexts focus on the child and adolescents’ seeming outstandingness and push their children toward competition and achievement (Luthar, Shoum, & Brown, 2006; Pittman, 1985). Among these parents, the belief is that isolating these children promotes self-sufficiency. As a consequence, for many of these adolescents, their sense of worth is predicated on their performance (Luthar, 2003; Luthar & Sexton, 2005) and they often turn to their peers for normalization and comfort (Luthar & Becker, 2002). Consequently, one problem that arises from these relationships is substance use and abuse (Luthar, 2003; Luthar & Sexton, 2005). In fact, in one study, Luthar and D’Avanzo (1999) found that suburban and affluent youth had higher scores on psychological maladjustment and substance use (p. 17) (tobacco, alcohol, marijuana) than urban (poor) youth.

Thus, across the economic spectrum, mental health conflicts and problems exist as a result of the context. For psychologists one of the important considerations in working with clients is to better understand and conceptualize the perspective people may have about their present situations and personal history. Of specific interest is the possibility of some classism-based traumas that may have helped to change the individual’s worldview and started them toward behaviors that may be unhelpful, maladaptive, or deleterious to their mental state and well-being.

Psychologists are well positioned to understand and explore a person’s experiences with classism-based trauma. Training to be multiculturally competent means that many psychologists are exposed to cultural considerations such as race, racism, gender, and sexism, to name a few. When exploring these experiences, psychologists may uncover a person’s significant history of racism (overt and micro), and/or sexism, homophobia, ageism, and classism and begin to tie these experiences to current maladaptions and challenges in life. It may not be too uncommon to find a client with these experiences who considers the event(s) pivotal. Given the events, situations, or experiences, the counselor may discover that the client has since acted in ways to accommodate, avoid, or protect him or herself from further incidences.

Using this framework, classism-based trauma may also have a similar impact on the client’s life. From a career perspective, for example, a person reporting dissatisfaction about a job or career choice may potentially be revealing a significant classism experience that became pivotal in future educational and job choices. The person’s interests become shaped and value systems changed in order to better accommodate future career prospects. Still nagging are those unmet needs and interests but the individual may feel “locked-into” a job because they have now established a new lifestyle baseline that they must finance. An expensive car, large home, or other expenses may now compel the individual to continue in a career in which they are unhappy but financially obligated. They may be, at best, ambivalent about their situation since they may meet the specific threshold of avoiding further classism assaults, but they may not be fulfilled in their job choice and occupation.

The counseling psychologist’s work is not only to uncover these previous classism experiences and traumas, but to help the client understand better how these may be connected to their present dissatisfaction or ambivalence. In these counseling relationships, the psychologists should have good referral resources to financial advisors. Psychologists may come to serve as a nexus for referrals not only to psychiatric assistance but also to other life considerations such as the client’s financial health.

In other counseling contexts, it may be useful for the counselor to better understand the client’s material value orientations. Clients who primarily discuss their material possessions or orient their lives around the pursuit of material possessions may be expressing some level of dissatisfaction with their present situation (Liu, 2011). Exploring the client’s previous experiences of classism may reveal some traumatic incident wherein the person found some comfort through material possessions. The client may also be encumbered by a debt cycle wherein he or she is constantly accruing debt (e.g., credit card debt) as a means to finance his or her material interests. These financial pressures are unavoidable though, and it is quite certain that these financial problems are only exacerbating their internal angst.

Classism-based trauma may also happen vicariously. That is, rather than being the specific target, the individual may be part of a group, family, or an onlooker. For example, the child or adolescent who is part of a family gathering or outing to a restaurant may be refused service or given poor service because of the family’s social class. The individual experiencing this classism recognizes that there is differential treatment and attributes it their poor appearance, clothing, or other social class “markers” (i.e., stereotyped social class distinguishing characteristic). The client may recall being a part of the group or family, and while he or she was not a specific target of the classism, the classism was experienced collectively. Moreover, it is possible that the client may have been an onlooker to a traumatic classist event, and again, while the client was not the direct target or recipient of the classism, the client still remembers and recalls it as a meaningful personal event.

Finally, classism-based trauma may also occur as a result of a significant personal loss or gain. Grieving the loss of a loved one may also trigger memories and other recollections that, in and of themselves, may represent a form of classism-based trauma. The client may relate collaboratively built dreams between the lost loved one and him or her about a particular future lifestyle such as plans for vacations, trips, homes, or cars. The death of a loved significant person may impel the client toward apathy because (p. 18) of the loss. On the other hand, the loss of the loved one may be related to the client changing their life to only secure material possessions and other concretized representations of his or her relationship.

For instance, when I worked with a client experiencing significant sadness at the loss of her mother, in exploring the feelings of loss, the client related an experience when she was a child and they were driving around expensive neighborhoods with her mother. The client, her mother, and her younger brother drove around these neighborhoods looking at expensive houses and talked about one day living in these homes. The client, who was a graduate student in business, was about to enter a high-paying job, and her sadness was in part related to knowing that her mother would never enjoy the advent of this different lifestyle. In counseling, she had not made that connection between her present sadness and these “house-hunting” memories. The insight was an important part of helping her better understand her grief and her relationship with her mother (Liu, 2011).

The other possibility is a result of a significant gain that may mean changes in lifestyle as well as relationships with significant persons, family, friends, and peers. Imagine the person who suddenly gains wealth from an inheritance, financial success, or even a lottery. These windfall gains would seem to be related to happiness. Yet anecdotal reports from newspapers and magazines, as well as some empirical evidence from psychological literature seem to suggest the opposite (Gardner & Oswald, 2007). Not everyone fares poorly and there seems to be some evidence to suggest that small and medium sized lottery winners generally do well (Gardner & Oswald, 2007). But for those who experience a significant economic windfall, there may be changes in their life that they did not and could not anticipate. The changes and other challenges may be overwhelming and may also be recalled as a form of classism-based trauma. The classism in this situation is related to the demands and expectations from individuals across multiple economic cultures and the disequilibrium that comes from trying to satisfy the entire array of people. At the time of receiving the windfall, we could imagine, the notion of classism is not apparent. Perhaps in retrospect the interpersonal conflicts and intrapersonal dissonance resulting from the windfall may not be regarded as positively.

I present a framework to understand classism-based traumas as an example of how social class and classism experiences must be understood from a psychological perspective, and that there are deep emotional and psychological wounds that result from classism. Psychologists are in clinical and research positions to investigate this phenomenon. Additionally, understanding the impact of classism-based traumas is an important self-exploration for psychologists. As part of our multicultural competencies framework, recognizing one’s own traumas and how these experiences leverage into our work with clients is a pertinent self-awareness. Comprehending this trauma’s impact in our own lives helps us understand how we create our own worldviews and what may compel clients to create their worldviews.


Introducing readers to a conceptual and theoretical construct that is not well understood by psychologists is daunting. I recognize many psychologists and readers of this introduction and this book will bring to the research and concepts their own understanding and experiences of social class and classism. Shifting the language and schemas away from only using social class categories (i.e., middle class) to understand social class and classism as psychologists represents another hurdle. These conceptual and theoretical tensions are appropriate for such a burgeoning area as social class and classism in counseling psychology. People should be bringing their own experiences and reflecting on how these theories, the research presented in this book, and the current scholarship captures their worldview and lived experiences.

I would encourage readers as they read the chapters to consider other psychological constructs and theories and how these approaches may enliven our present understanding of social class and classism. Later in this book, I also discuss future directions with respect to research and theories, and clinical applications. By no means am I suggesting, in the presentation of the SCWM, SCCC, and the classism-based traumas, that these are the only theories to understand social class in psychology. I offer these as theoretically meaningful for my work and hope that the material presented in this book stimulates scholarship and discussions that leads to future theory development and applications.


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