Culturally sensitive therapy has a big influence on the therapeutic relationship. We cannot separate an individual from their culture. Culture determines how we perceive the world around us.
The part of me in college who had to end her relationship with her therapist wanted to write this blog explaining the importance of therapy being culturally sensitive. That part had to end the relationship because it felt like even after seeing the therapist for a couple of years I was still explaining how the cultural expectations influenced what I was experiencing.
A lot of my clients have shared similar experiences with me. They say that they are tired of explaining, they wanted to see someone who just gets it.
Why is culturally sensitive therapy important?
Culturally sensitive therapy is important because understanding and being sensitive to how a client’s culture might have influenced their trauma or mental health helps them feel seen and understood. This allows trust to develop in the therapeutic relationship.
A culturally sensitive therapist will be able to hold space for different opinions, value systems, beliefs and experiences. One who is aware of their own culture and beliefs and is aware of how it might interact with the client.
Someone who is curious, shows interest, does their own learning, asks questions to learn more about their clients unique experiences in the cultural construct.
Culture comprises of, language, food, role expectation, religion, sexual orientation, family traditions, expectations that are unique to their family, cultural traditions and expectations held by the community they grew up in.
Individuals’ unique experiences, history, the generational trauma that has been passed on and how the big historic events and political decisions on a national and global front affected them uniquely.
When an individual comes in for therapy they come in with all of their experiences and beliefs. The culture they grew up in influences how they see themselves.
We are all humans that’s common among us and we are wired to connect socially. Isolation makes our system feel unsafe. The culture we grow up in guides how we connect and make space for people in our lives.
There are different types of cultures like, individualistic and collective cultures.
For example, in some cultures words like boundaries, consent, space, prioritizing one’s own needs are not encouraged in the community.
In these cultures we don’t look at ourselves as individuals, we look at ourselves from the perspective of the community. That is, what our role is in the family/community and how we fit that role.
Even though these roles could cause younger generations to carry legacy burdens, we stick with the roles assigned because we don’t want to risk abandonment.
Prioritizing others’ needs over our own is encouraged. Needing space and having boundaries is criticized and shamed. Interdependence is encouraged, but a lot of the time that crosses over to codependence.
There are other cultures that prioritize being self-reliant and self-sufficient. That’s what’s encouraged and taught right from our childhood. In these cultures relying on other people and asking for help is shamed. Constant self reliance can cause feelings of isolation and anxiety.
This is just a very simplified example of different cultural experiences. It might seem like we fit in one category or the other.
But, there are so many layers and nuances that come with your own unique experiences based on if you are a male or a female, if you have experienced childhood trauma or any other type of trauma, if you live in your country of origin or have moved to a different country, what role religion has played in your life. If you belong to the LGBTQ community. Your personal beliefs and what you want from your life.
Whatever culture you might have been raised in, your needs as an adult might be different and you might not like every accept of what you learnt as a child. You have the choice to decide what you want to let go of and what you want to hold on to.
Recently I came across a social media post that said if you stop talking to your parents because of your experiences with them then you are not being true to your culture that sees parents as higher up in the hierarchy and assigns unconditionally respect and acceptance to them no matter how they treat you.
It’s important to understand that healing is a personal journey and cultural expectations cannot dictate what healing looks like for you.
Some of our parts carry our cultural expectations even if the other parts are ready to let go of them.
Here are few examples–
if as a child you were taught to never speak up and always be a rule follower, even though as an adult you are aware that you need to and want to speak up or set boundaries you will not be able to and every time you do you will feel immense amounts of guilt.
A culturally responsive therapist will be aware of these nuanced conflicts and will be able to hold space for both your parts and guide you towards your true self to figure out what you want.
You belong to a family that has prioritized what other people think about them and make all the decisions from that perspective even if that hurts you. At this point in life you are tired and you want your parents to stop doing that. But, you don’t know how to get them to stop and you feel anger and resentment.
A culturally sensitive therapist will be able to understand you and your experiences and also bring into perspective the community expectations. They will be able to help you process your feelings and feel empowered by helping you realize your agency.
If you are in a difficult marriage and you don’t think you can leave because you have kids together, or because of financial reasons or because your culture looks down upon leaving your marriage.
Some cultures have the expectation that the adult children will take care of their elderly parents. However, the parents never see their kids as adults. For them they are still their kids who have to blindly follow their instructions. Culturally adult children are not allowed to set boundaries and are expected to show up at the drop of a hat. You might be the adult child who is exhausted, torn with guilt, feels resentful and helpless.
A culturally sensitive therapist will make space for that. Will understand your internal conflicts and the conflicts arising from cultural expectations. They will be able to guide you to work with all of these different conflicting parts.
The work in therapy is to gain awareness about who you are, what your needs are, what messages you have received from your culture, how your culture might have influenced you, what legacy burden you might be carrying.
Working through the trauma, processing parts of you that carry emotions like shame, guilt, fear, anger and other intense emotions that come from your wounded part.
Identifying the parts of your culture that resonate with you. Learning how to hold on to those parts and being able to let go of the ones that make you feel burdened.
How to find a culturally sensitive therapist?
Therapy is a personal journey. It’s a process that takes you towards your healing. You want to spend time looking for the person that feels like the right fit.
Culturally sensitive therapists are able to provide you support and help you explore your inner world and conflicts even if they don’t have shared experiences with you.
Even if a therapist is from a similar cultural background as yours a culturally responsive therapist will find out what your unique experiences have been.
Here are a few steps you can take towards finding a culturally sensitive therapist-
Figure out your priorities– for example, what is making you seek therapy, is it important to you that the therapist has similar religious beliefs like yours, speaks your family of origin language, is from a similar culture as yours.
The Web is your best friend- nowadays most therapists have their own website or some type of a web presence. Go through their website. Spend some time researching different therapists and see if you resonate with what they are saying.
Look for someone who is not only from a similar cultural background as yours but they also specialize in what you are looking for. For example, if you are looking for someone who works with trauma then go to a therapist who specializes in it and is culturally sensitive.
Take advantage of virtual therapy– Research has shown that virtual therapy is as effective as in-person. Don’t restrict yourself to your neighborhood or city.
Look for therapists all over your state. Some therapists are licensed in multiple states. When you come across someone you like, reach out to them and see if they are licensed in your state or not.
Set up a consultation– Ask for video consultations. During the consultation ask them about their background. What do their sessions look like, what’s their experience in working with people from different cultures.
Once during a consultation someone asked me how I process the parts of me that get triggered in the session because of shared experience with clients.
This is an important question because the role of a therapist is to hold compassion, curiosity and connectedness towards the client. If the therapist gets triggered and doesn’t have their own space to process that then it might start showing up in your sessions.
Ask about their therapeutic approach– For example, Internal family system (IFS) can make it possible for a therapist who is from a different culture to be present with you. I am an IFS trained therapist. It is a therapeutic approach that specifically works with cultural burdens. It works directly with your conflicting parts and helps healing to come from within. The therapist is trained to put all of their parts aside and be present with the client in a companionate, curious and connected way.
Start therapy– the best way to find out if they are culturally fit for you or not is to start seeing them. If it feels like it’s not a right fit you can stop at any point and look for someone who might be a good fit.
Healing is a process. A culturally responsive therapist who practices culturally sensitive therapy and is a right fit for you in terms of your presenting issue will be able to be the guide you need in your healing journey.
If you want to learn more about virtual therapy you can check out my write up on it.
If you want to set up a free consultation with me then feel free to reach out to me.