When selecting a therapist there are many factors to consider. Here, person-centred counsellor and qualified psychological wellbeing practitioner, Nicola Corder, shares some insights.
I work with many clients who have marginalised societal identities and identity is an area I specialise in as a therapist. I am an intersectional therapist which means I consider how different identities overlap for my clients creating unique experiences of privilege and disadvantage. Intersectionality describes an analytical framework for understanding how our combined social identities impact our lives. The concept was initially devised by Kimberley Crenshaw (1989) to highlight the double oppression that women of colour face.
Examples of aspects of identity considered in the framework include race, gender, sexuality, class, neurodiversity, physical appearance, and disability. In our society we often talk as though people are only facing one identity issue at a time when, as writer and activist Audre Lourde said:
‘There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.’
As a therapist with many marginalised identities myself, I understand the importance of representation and client choice when it comes to choosing therapists. I am a cis-gender woman who identifies as either black or mixed race. The rising popularity of online therapy is one great way of making sure black, asian and mixed race individuals can find therapists who can understand and validate their experiences.
Online therapy allows everyone to have more choice of therapist, for example a trans man of any ethnicity might identify strongly with and wish to work with another trans man as therapist or a cis man for that matter, and it is always right that the individual has the choice of who they receive support from. One of the great things about online therapy is that it does not matter where you are based, you can find the right therapist for you.
Choosing a therapist can be a difficult task and it is one I struggled with myself in the past. I remember when I was looking for my first therapist in my early thirties. I did not know what I needed then from a therapist at all. I was also yet to realise what an important role racial issues and racism would play in my therapy. My mother is White British, and my father is black British with Jamaican and Nigerian heritage.
Although my first psychotherapist did help me in some ways, I remember that it was difficult to talk to her about race. She was a white woman, and I did not know if she could really understand anything to do with racism. This made me feel anxious and it was a barrier in the work we did together. She never expressed any awareness of racism in the UK and never even acknowledged there was a racial difference between us, let alone what the impact of this may be. It was left up to me, as the client to manage all of this and in hindsight I was not able to. I stayed mostly silent about my racial identity unless I could not avoid it. It was the elephant in the room.
Later when I was training as a counsellor, I had to seek a new therapist as part of my course requirements. Again, I did not know exactly what I needed, and my course did not help me to think about this. I started counselling again with a white woman, but I was feeling more adventurous by this time as my awareness that I needed to discuss racism was growing. When I started to open up to my therapist about my experiences as a racialised member of society, I realised she had no awareness of the impacts of racism and her responses felt inappropriate. I knew I could not continue therapy with her and explained I was leaving therapy. She suggested I was trying to ‘punish’ her and rejecting her because of my own past issues. I was angry about this as it felt like I was being blamed for her own limitations which she could not accept and one of my experiences in relationships in general had been to be blamed when things went wrong. It was an oppressive experience. I am glad that it happened though because this was a breakthrough moment. I had finally become clear about my needs.
I started my search for a therapist again. It was a struggle to find a black therapist. I found one black female therapist who I really wanted to work with but as she had a different approach to the one, I was being trained in and as such, I could not work with her. Later I found Black male therapist and booked a consultation, however this turned out to be yet another disappointing experience. He had his own ideas about how I should view my identity and I knew I would not be able to find my own way with him. I was beginning to wonder if there was anywhere, I could get help. My past racial issues were playing out in my search for a counsellor: either having my identity ignored or being told by others how I should define it. I wanted to be able to define my own identity rather than having others tell me how I must see myself.
Eventually I found a therapist who was white but from a mixed-race family and I was able to start to explore some of my experiences of racism in the way I needed to. Although my therapist was white and did not look like me fortunately, she had enough of the required skills to support me. My difficult journey may have been averted though if there had been more black or mixed race therapists available for me to choose from.
Below are some tips I have put together that may help clients with choosing the right therapist for them:
- Consider whether face to face or online therapy is better for you. If you feel uncomfortable talking online and generally do not enjoy the experience, that is fine. Some people feel better having someone else in the room with them.
- Consider if the identity of your therapist is important to you. It is OK to assert your needs if you want a therapist with a particular identity in terms of gender, race, sexuality, age etc. You might not get exactly what you want but there is no harm in starting out looking for a therapist with a certain identity or certain identities.
- Think about the areas you really want help with and look for therapists who make it clear that they cover your needs.
- Find out what you can about the approach of the therapist to ensure it is right for you. Most therapists will explain their approach in their profile but ask more questions when you speak to them if you need to about how they work.
- Consider how much experience the therapist has in the areas that are important to you. Again, you can ask about this if it is not clear from a therapist’s profile.
- Do not be afraid to ask lots of questions in general! Good examples are ‘How have you helped people with similar issues to me in the past?’, ‘what is your understanding of X?’, ‘are you an ally of X?’
- Use directories and services which cater specifically to the area you want support in.
- Do not feel the need to rush! It is ok to take some time to figure out who is the right therapist for you.
If you are looking for a new therapist I hope you get the right match for you. Everyone deserves a good experience of therapy and the more marginalized identities we have the harder it may be to get our needs met. My hope for the future is that the therapy industry continues to grow in inclusivity, so that everyone can access the support and care they deserve.