Therapy and culture

Hey non-white people! Let’s take a moment to talk about cultural identity and therapy. How easily are you able to slip in and out of your various cultural guises? When people engage with you are they seeing all of your identities or just one? Have you learned to hide aspects of yourself depending on where you are? Do you wear your blackness/browness/queerness/femininity/masculinity proudly? Is it something you don’t even need to think about?

The skill with which so many of us “code switch” between language and culture often belies the work we have put in to navigate, straddle, shut off, show off, play up, close off and juggle our various identities.

For some, it’s been harder than others. Internalised bigotry and shame about who we are and where we come from pervade our lives in sneaky ways making it so we are continually working to overcome it.

Equally many of us are often rejected by our culture of origin, due to a clash in value systems, or intolerance within the community itself.

When making the decision to enter therapy, these issues influence how we make choices on what kind of therapist we want. It can often be the case that we choose someone vastly different but then realise during the sessions that the therapist’s ideas of individuality versus collectivity aren’t nuanced enough for someone who comes from a culture where community supersedes the individual.

Seeking a therapist with a similar background can cut through a multitude of explanations around upbringing, values and expectations. Someone who can relate to your memories of parents threatening to send you back home if you disobeyed them, or understand the discomfort that arises by the question “where are you from?”

On the other hand, many seek out a therapist totally outside of their community, for fear that someone from the same background might hold the same limiting beliefs, or even the fear that they might know people in common. Valid concerns that can often play out in the therapeutic space if they are not addressed or acknowledged by the therapist or client. Moreover, studies have shown that matching the therapist to the client based on race or culture doesn’t always mean better outcomes for the client. What really matters is how culturally aware and competent your therapist is; someone who understands boxes and is careful to not put you in one.

If you’re thinking about going to therapy I imagine you already have some ideas about how culturally close you want your therapist to be. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings about this and don’t be afraid to change therapists if you feel that the one you’re with can’t or won’t get it. Best of luck!

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