Navigating Different Identities in Counseling
Often, one of the things that can prevent people from going to counseling, or from going back after an initial session, is worrying that their counselor won’t understand them. It can be difficult to feel motivated to go to counseling for a variety of reasons. After the hardest part, which is showing up for the initial session, you might feel less motivated if you aren’t sure if your counselor will understand you, or if you’re worried about differing identities. There could be a variety of emotions, all of which are valid and understandable.
Historically, cisgender white heterosexual people have been the oppressors, while people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and children and the elderly have been the oppressed. The counseling field has also contributed to oppression leading to a mistrust of mental health professionals, especially among people of color. We see continued attempts to oppress certain people, such as the LGBTQ+ community, with the passing of policies that directly impact counselors providing care. There are many counselors who stand up against these policies, and there are also counselors who don’t. This can make it incredibly scary to be a person who holds one of these identities and to be uncertain as to what kind of counselor you’re sitting across from.
Even if you are cisgender, white, and heterosexual, you may also hold some identities that when you come into the counseling room you wonder will this person really get me? Sometimes, yes. As counselors we don’t need to have the exact same identities as our clients to support them. Other times, no. I’m not going to understand your experience as a male, as trans, as a person of color, as someone from a different country, as someone with a physical disability, as someone older than me, or even someone younger.
For some people, this can be really disheartening to hear. How can you possibly help me if you don’t get me? Certainly, having the same experience as a client helps me to understand, but even then, there’s no way I can know what someone’s experience is, even if we’ve been through similar situations. Your therapist should be curious – curious to know your experience, how you make meaning of it, and how it impacted you, rather than basing what you share off their previous experiences.
Likewise, your therapist should also be willing to have conversations about different identities. I know I am. I’m transparent about my identities with clients, especially when one of their identities is something they want to discuss in counseling. I’m not saying that if someone who is a member of the Queer community comes in, I say well I’m cis and straight so I’m not sure I’m going to get you, but I do want to have a conversation with them about how this could impact our relationship, especially because I’m a person who has a lot of privilege. Talking about identities is so important for creating safety, especially when you hold an identity that has faced discrimination, threat, and lack of safety in most contexts. I also want my clients to know I’m open to feedback and although I may not understand, I want to understand as best as I can.
While I wish I could say that all therapists are like this and that all therapists will openly discuss how different identities could impact your relationship with them, I know this is not the case. If you feel the space is safe enough that you can bring up the topic yourself, then I encourage you to do so. However, if you feel uncomfortable then sometimes it may be time to find a different therapist who either shares the same identities or is open to discussing differences. It is their responsibility after all. We hold so many identities as humans, and every identity that you, as a client, have may not be known to us. If this is the case, I encourage you to bring it into the room in a way that feels the safest to you, with a therapist you trust, so we can talk about it.
Most of all, we never want people to get discouraged from counseling because they’re afraid they won’t find a therapist like them. There are people with similar identities as you, though I’ll acknowledge they can be hard to find. This being said, if there is a huge gap between us, and my clients feel like I can’t quite help them with something, then I also want to be able to provide them with the resources to connect to people who share their same identities. Community is important, and we never want to stand in the way of clients creating community.
**Disclaimer: QBIPOC counselors are important and needed. There is a shortage of counselors who hold QBIPOC identities due to oppression and white supremacy in our country and in the counseling field. We recognize and value all who need and deserve representation.