Differences with your Therapist: Talking about differences with your therapist in regards race, gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, immigration status, nationality, ethnicity, age, indigenous identity, and ability is often a very difficult conversation to have. You might even be feeling overwhelmed by the listing of all the differences between people! Talking about differences with your therapist can be an awkward conversation. It is very unlikely that your therapist will want to disclose his or her own personal information. This does not mean her or she is being withholding or uncomfortable. Often in many schools of psychology, disclosure of personal information of the therapist is strongly discouraged. Unfortunately, even with well trained therapists, therapists are all still human and their true level of multicultural competence is very therapist specific.
While therapists may not share their background and / or biases, we believe that talking about these differences with your therapist is important. Each part of a diverse background involves one’s own lived experience, meaning that even if you are the same as the person across from you, their life experiences are completely different than yours. These differences also carry the weight of many societal factors. These factors can often affect how a person perceives and goes about dealing with a situation. These factors are what define you and can influence your main issues that you are coming into therapy with. In therapy these differences can come out in the therapeutic process. It can affect how you react and see your therapist. Talking about differences with your therapist is important as it creates the space for open discourse on your experience.
Part of therapy is a blind trust that your therapist has your best interest in mind. Disclosing personal information to a stranger that you know nothing about can be a scary and vulnerable experience. Your therapist, being an outsider, will not inherently know your own unique background and story. Sometimes being a complete outsider will work to your advantage. This therapist will be able to see things that you can’t, and they will only have your best interest at heart. However, if one of your core issues that led you to therapy is related to identity than you will want to make sure that you find a therapist who is competent in this particular area. To ensure competency, you can listen to talks he/she has given, read their academic journal articles or self help books they have written as well as their blogs. This may require some searching online to see what the therapist is about, but it is well worth your time.. Having a multi-culturally competent therapist can make a difference. For example if you’re going to therapy for questions about your sexuality, some therapists view homosexuality as immoral others view homosexuality as a normal outcome of love and support gay marriage. Similarly some therapists don’t think racism exists while others are aware of the complexity of how race influences ones world experiences. Thus, finding a therapist who has solid training as well as a similar perspective is critical.
Don’t expect your therapist to disclose anything about them, but do expect that they will be willing to engage in conversation and help you work through the issues you may be coming in for. If you have chosen a therapist who specializes in a certain diversity area, then it’s reasonable to expect that they will be able to talk about it if you bring it up. It is not reasonable however, to expect that they share the same experience as you or that they will disclose about their background. If you are seeing a therapist whom you have chosen without any research into diversity factors, then expect the unexpected because you simply won’t know how well they handle certain issues until you are well into the therapeutic process. Some will be fabulous and others won’t be. Just remember while every therapist isn’t great at every topic, each person has a particular strength and something to offer that will help you grow. Regardless of the therapist’s training it’s reasonable to expect that your therapist has your best interest at heart and will work with you to help you with your issues that you may be struggling with.
One of the first things in talking about differences with your therapist is to note what the differences are. This starts in understanding your own identity. Some people find the ADDRESSING model to be helpful. This model stands for: Age, Disability (born with), Disability (acquired), Religion, Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status, Indigenous affiliation, Nationality, and Gender. Take a piece a paper and write down each thing and fill it out for yourself. After you’ve filled out each section write a little blurb about what each of those things mean to you and your experience with them. For example for a made up person:
- A (AGE): 37
- I’m always told that I’m old because of my age, even though there are people way older than me. I’ve got my life together for my age.
- D (DISABILITY, BORN): None
- D (DISABILITY, AQUIRED):
- I don’t have any, but I’ve experienced it with my mother who is paralyzed because of stroke.
- R (RELIGION): Baptist
- People always think that we are crazy people and super religious; I’m not super familiar with religions that are not under the Christianity umbrella.
- E (ETHNICITY): Haitian
- People don’t know a lot about Haiti beyond the earthquake; very friendly people; people are afraid of black people; I’ve been harassed for being black. I would like to learn more about other cultures. This interacts with my depression because I’m reminded each day of how black people are viewed in America. (This would be a tip off to find a therapist that works with people of minority backgrounds).
- S (SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS): Upper middle class
- My parents never had to worry about money; I have a good paying job and security. I’m not sure how it would be like to be poor or from lower SES.
- S (SEXUALITY): Pansexual
- People never never never understand what it means to be pan, even people in the LGBTQ+ community!
- I (INDIGENOUS STATUS) : None
- N (NATIONALITY): Haiti
- I love my country, but it’s so different than American culture.
- G (GENDER): Male
- It’s really easy to get away with things as a guy. Men are suppose to be tough and not show many emotions.
Having this laid out gives you a framework of whom you are and the experiences you have had. It also help’s you to refine what it means to you to be part of each category. Being able to address differences between yourself and your therapist will give you an idea of the lens that they are viewing issues from. To start this conversation you may want to use lines such as:
- In my culture we view (insert issue) like this…
- As (insert gender) this is how we approach (insert issue)
- My religion believes (insert issue)…
- Society says that my (insert identity portion) is…
If your therapist makes a mistake, then you have the ability to dialogue with him or her and tell him or her about your experience. Unlike many others who may be ignorant of diversity issues, your therapist is on your side and he or she is doing his or her best to understand the world from your perspective. Taking the time to help your therapist understand not only helps you build better communication skills on these topics, but can help your therapist grow as well. It’s also may be an important lesson in trusting those who just might not get it. The goal of therapy is to help you break out of cycles that may have been keeping you back. An identity portion may interplay with this cycle and it’s important as noted to find someone who can work on that level. If they have trouble understanding or make uncomfortable jabs/conclusions then maybe it’s time to consider seeking a therapist. By talking about difference with your therapist it gives you more insight into how your identity has affect your experience and allows your therapist to have more clear picture of you and the issues that you are experiencing.