Does Your Therapist Have To Share The Same Background To Understand You?

April 5, 2018  |  

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I was 12 years old the first time I started therapy. Dealing with several emotional issues at the time, my parents sent me to a therapist to get to the bottom of things. My very first foray into mental health counseling was actually facilitated by a middle-aged Black woman. I don’t recall much about these sessions as it was quite some time ago and they soon came to an end just as quickly as they began.

I would see a revolving door of different therapists throughout my teenage years and into early adulthood. I actually never put much thought into the type of mental health professionals I was seeing. Besides my brief pre-teen encounter with my first therapist, largely Asian and white doctors conducted the majority of my sessions.

As a child, I didn’t think much of the people who were providing me with these mental health services. Often mandated by my father’s health insurance, I’m not even sure if there were any other options or choices regarding the gender or ethnicity of the doctors available. If there were, they certainly weren’t presented to me back then.

Some of these health professionals I genuinely got along with, and others, not so much. While I won’t be as brazen to say our opposing nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and at times gender, were the main reason for disconnect, I will say that I sometimes felt in my sessions that I wasn’t receiving much help or even compassion.

I can recall a time in college when I was discussing perceived racial discrimination I was the victim of at the hands of a white professor who would regularly throw words around like, “you people” to me and Latin-American classmates. My therapist at the time, a white Jewish woman, brushed my concerns to the side, insisting that perhaps I was being too sensitive and the professor’s words were being taken out of context. I was peeved that my therapist, someone who was supposed to be on my side, was instead, insinuating that the discrimination was all in my head. I promptly switched therapists, but the damage was done.

I can also recall instances where I held back being forthcoming with a male psychiatrist about some sexual misconduct I experienced for fear of being judged.

After not seeing a therapist regularly for a few years, I made the decision last year to make my mental health a priority. Without the aide of health insurance, I was on my own with the decision of who to employ for this delicate job, as well as the costs. I looked around in my city of Shanghai, but mostly all I found were middle-aged providers, some who weren’t even fully licensed or certified for the task at hand. This time around, I decided to put some extra thought into the person with whom I wanted to share my deepest and darkest secrets.

I decided to seek out a Black therapist to help me along my mental health journey. I came to this conclusion for a few reasons. A big reason for this decision was my interest in seeing how a therapist from a similar ethnic background could relate to me, and if the counsel I received would differ from my previous experiences.

As with anything else, finding the right fit was hit or miss. One of the first Black women I tried out rubbed me the wrong way by immediately asking, “Are you a Christian?” in our initial session. Religious or not, her question was off-putting, and I came away feeling a bit judged and wondering if I would be able to connect with someone who led with Jesus straight out of the gate. I also wondered with the prevalence of religion in most Black communities, if I was making a wrong choice all together and if a free-spirited hippie white woman would be as good as it would get for me.

Thankfully, I didn’t let this snafu get in my way. After searching the Internet a bit, I found my current therapist, a Black woman with a private practice in Memphis, Tennessee. I connected with her straight away and just as I suspected, it was a joy to be able to figuratively let my hair down with someone who had some real life background and knowledge into the nuances of being a Black woman in this world.

Our therapy sessions were like a whole new world for me, and suddenly I didn’t feel as guarded as I sometimes was in the past. Without the barrier of dealing with someone from such a vastly different background, I found speaking my truth a whole lot easier. I didn’t choose my words as carefully, I wasn’t fearful of using too much Black vernacular that I sometimes had to explain with previous doctors. With my new therapist I could just speak and be.

I’ve been seeing my current therapist for about a year now and am very satisfied with the experience. While I know, of course, common ground can often be found if those involved are interested enough in doing the hard work, therapy in itself is already difficult enough. When it comes to such a delicate process, does one really want to be reaching across racial, cultural, and often socioeconomic lines to feel heard and understood? I think Black women already do enough emotional labor in our day-to-day lives without having to take more of that on in what is supposed to be a safe space.

I often pride myself on going with the flow and being able to get along with just about anyone, but what I discovered in my quest for a certain type of therapist is that it’s okay to be selective and picky about some things. If you’re in the position to choose and curate the type of therapy experience you’d like to have, I suggest thinking long and hard about the type of professional you’d like to deal with.

This of course is not to say that a trained and licensed professional can’t help people from a variety of backgrounds, but in my experience, building rapport and gaining trust was fast tracked by the shorthand of having a therapist with similar characteristics and experiences as myself. The experience of engaging with a Black therapist who has been respectful and knowledgeable about what I’ve been through has made all the difference in my healing process. Perhaps opening up to someone who looks and relates to your struggles can do the same for you.

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