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Does it matter if your therapist is from the same ethnicity and culture as you?

Updated: May 18, 2022

This is something that divides therapists. More and more clients are requesting therapists from the same background as them – most of mine approach me because I am South Asian (as are they). Most therapists are understanding of this, however, some therapists argue that no two people can ever fully experience the same thing anyway, so why does it matter?

I’ve very much always been in the first camp. When I first left Islam and was receiving a lot of abuse for this, I wanted to see another therapist from the same background as me, who had also left Islam. Sadly, I couldn’t find anyone, although I am sure they must exist (Hit me up if you are out there).

So, I went to see a counsellor, she was white. She was lovely and helped me think about things in a different way. But I had to spend a lot of time explaining the cultural elements about what was going on and why sitting down and chatting to my parents wasn’t a possibility, which not only took time away from the limited sessions I had, but I was so emotionally fragile I just didn’t have the energy to sit and explain it all. I just wanted someone who got it so we could get on with the counselling I needed.

I started my first private practice, After Faith. two years ago. Here I provide therapy to other ex-Muslims. Every single one of them has said to me they have been to see other therapists’, but that they spend ages explaining basic things, which they found frustrating and unhelpful. When one of their insurance companies wouldn’t allow them to see me, instead of seeing someone else, they chose to withdraw from therapy completely as said it would be ‘pointless’ trying with someone else (I am not saying I agree with this, but this was the clients opinion).

This week I had a client who was victim of a racist incident a few days ago. My client was understandably traumatised by it. It made me think back to my school days, where I experienced more racism than I have in my adult life. I was called the P word, the N word, someone set my hair on fire, and I was spat at. These were all different incidents but took place in school between ages 13-15. For my client, the incident this week wasn’t his first either.

Do you have to have had these experiences to know how awful they make you feel? No, of course not. But when a client tells you ‘I feel like I don’t belong here’ I could relate to this, I have felt this way myself. Do I think this makes me a better therapist? No, not at all.

I’ve worked with bereaved parents who have lost their children. I have fortunately never experienced this myself, but I don’t think its stopped me from supporting them. But maybe if they had seen a therapist who had experienced this themselves, they might have felt a stronger connection? Just the fact of ‘you know how much this sucks cos you’ve been through it’ can be very validating. Therapy is such a personal thing, you literally lay out your whole life to a complete stranger. I don't see how having some shared experiences (religion, ethnicity, culture etc) could not make a difference.

So my two cents are that choice does matter. I know we don’t live in a world where funded services can always support this and I am not saying there is no value to be had to seeing a therapist from a different background, but I do believe that it can make accessing therapy a lot easier when there is choice involved.

Curious to hear your views on this? As a therapist, or as a client, how much difference do you think it makes when your therapist is from the same background as you?

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