Why It's So Important To Find A Therapist Who Understands You & Your Unique Identity

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Black woman laying on couch in therapist's office while therapist takes notes

Finding the right therapist is incredibly important. Research shows that the bond you share with a clinical professional effects the progress you make. Finding the right therapist for you means putting in the work to forge that bond, and looking around for someone you can relate to in the first place. 

I've been in therapy since the tender age of 19. I took advantage of the mental health services my university provided when I needed them. My very first counselor was an older white male. Though he listened, something was missing in our sessions.

I never spoke up about it.

After graduation, I continued to seek help because of a long-standing uneasiness of being alone in my worries of becoming an adult, then over my changing roles as a wife, mother and a professional.

One of my therapists was an 85-year old woman who had a habit of talking to me as a parent (or grandparent) and sometimes dozed off during our sessions. I took the blame because I’d see her in the evenings and felt she was tuckered out by our scheduled time.

I also felt like she didn’t connect with me and my issues as a Black woman, but I remained silent. 

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My most recent relationship with a counselor wasn’t successful either. This therapist was young enough to be my daughter. She was a white woman who couldn’t possibly understand my BLM plight and the generic advice she offered me wasn’t really helpful. 

I tried to explain these things to her, but it seemed to bring out more defensiveness than anything. So I decided it was time to look elsewhere. 

I wondered why I had to search so hard to find the right therapist. Was I the only person having a hard time with this process?

I thought I was alone in feeling like the perfect therapist for me didn’t exist.

But it turns out, I was not. Plenty of people struggle to find a therapist with whom they connect, someone who can really help.

I reached out to some clients and professionals who could weigh in with their own experiences on what was important to them when choosing a mental health provider — and I asked if there was a light at the end of my search.

Here are a few examples from others who have struggled to find the right therapist, as well as advice and insights from a few mental health professionals. 

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Mary Ann, age 54.

Mary Ann began therapy at age 36 when she experienced a bad breakup and subsequent depression. While age wasn’t an issue, she thought she needed a female therapist, thinking only a woman could understand her feelings of loss. 

Her red flag rose when the counselor said “he cheated on you, of course. All men cheat.”

It took her a few weeks before she worked up the nerve to call her counseling center and ask to see someone else. She was afraid it was unthinkable to change the therapist they matched her with.

“I ultimately ended up with a male therapist who was kind, compassionate and guided me out of my depression — with the help of some decent SSRIs.”

Rhonda, age 54. 

Rhonda has only been to a therapist once in 2015, after her cousin passed away from cancer. She went for a year after realizing she was going through some psychological and emotional problems stemming from dealing with her elderly in-laws, in addition to medical issues that required specialists. 

She says age and gender were important to her when choosing a therapist. After a referral from her primary doctor, she researched her credentials and read reviews from previous patients. “I was not disappointed,” she says.

“I felt like my therapist was a good match for me as we were of the same general age bracket. I felt like the stage of life situations I was dealing with were understood by her, especially when you add the biological hormonal changes associated with menopause that were taking place at the same time. 

"I was completely comfortable discussing my 'female' problems as well as my family situation with her.” The therapist's "bedside manner" and her firsthand knowledge of what some of her problems felt like put her at ease immediately. “It was as if she were a friend having a casual chat. I don't believe I would have been that comfortable with a male therapist. Also, no amount of training or education can teach a man what it feels like to have hot flashes and cramps and all the glory that goes with that.”

K, age 56.

K has been in therapy off and on since age 33. All but one of her therapists have been women. She cites “simple discomfort around men” as the reason she sought female counselors. 

However, she does admit the one man she saw was “surprisingly easy to talk to. If I'd been able to afford it, I would have continued to see him." 

In her latest quest for a therapist, she says, “I purposely searched for a Black female therapist. I've been seeing my current therapist virtually for about 5 months now. It's been the best therapy experience I've ever had. I don't have to explain things nearly as much...or at all, really.”

She made the choice because with two different white female therapists, she found herself wearing the therapist hat as they began unloading their own difficulties related to interacting with Black people. “In both cases it was clear I was not only the first black client they'd had, I might have been the first black person they'd had any real conversation with.” 

She adds, “I don't think you have to be a POC to service POC clients, but you absolutely have to be culturally competent and aware. Minus that, it's just one more in a long series of hurdles that POC clients go through that white people don't.” 

For K, it’s only been this year that she’s felt comfortable revealing that she’s in therapy to anyone outside of her immediate family and a small number of close friends.

“Prior to seeing my first therapist, I was definitely one of those ‘therapy is for white folks’ people.” She says “the past year has been so incredibly difficult for people, that they’ve finally reached the point where seeking professional help, in the form of therapy, just makes sense. That may be why I'm more comfortable mentioning it.”

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Donna Williams, LCSWR, a therapist in New York, explains the therapeutic importance of finding a therapist you connect with.

“I've met clients where I felt we didn’t have a therapeutic connection and the work we would do would not be beneficial because they might not be open to what I would have to say,” she explained.

“I can honestly say, for a person of color, a therapist of color would understand my story, my feelings, and my point of view."

"I do not feel that a white person understands my point of view and it takes a lot to try and explain my feelings when a person of color for the most part understands what I’m saying when I’m saying it,” she added.

Henry, age 51,

Henry is an African-American man who has sought therapists more than once in his life. He learned that his therapy outcomes worked out better when he interviewed the therapist first, to make sure they would be the right match for the issues he was facing at that time in his life.

“When I was in college, I needed the counsel of someone ‘like me’ so I could better understand me," he explained. "When I needed a counselor for general growth? I interviewed them for the right vibe and that was going to challenge me to grow.

"When I was looking for a better understanding of my interplay into my relationships," he explained, "I specifically looked for a therapist with experience in the polyamory and BDSM love and lifestyle.” 

As a pastoral and mental health counselor and sexual health educator, Henry has also been an advocate for proper mental health services in the BIPOC community.

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“We talk about the barriers for men and therapy and especially for men of color," he told me. "It's up to us to break the cycle and want to be better for ourselves, our loved ones, and our legacies.”

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Mozelle, age 60.

The first time Mozelle saw a therapist was at age 27.

While she feels there's a bit of a greater connection with a female counselor, the most helpful professional she ever worked with was a man.

“It ultimately comes down to work philosophy, I think. I like Adlerian therapists.” She didn’t have a pleasant experience with one therapist who she says “just wanted to talk about my grandfather. I have no idea why. He was just a cranky old man. I think she was convinced there were repressed memories or something. It was the early nineties, so nearly every mental health professional had repressed memories in their playbooks, but I didn't have any that included my grandfather and it got tiresome.” 

Mozelle believes there’s still some stigma regarding therapy, “but it's not like it was. Same for use of antidepressants and anxiolytics. I just wish insurance companies would catch up with the times because there's definitely a coverage disparity."

I reached out to Dr. Summer, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles who also works at a treatment center and a group practice, and asked if ageism or colorism affects her ability to provide counsel effectively.

“I've learned over the years when it comes to clients, what they really want to know is 'how can you help me?' So I try to focus on that instead.”

In her private practice, most of her clients are POC of all genders.

I advertise myself as an African-American, LGBTQ-Affirmative, Spanish-speaking psychotherapist with an emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity. I think it's important that these things are 'visible' so clients who identify with them know that they too will be seen.”

Dr. Summer's clients range in age from three years old to 87. “I am proud to effectively be able to offer services to whomever may need them.”

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It used to be difficult to find a therapist who looks like me and understands the cultural struggles I face. Unpacking these thoughts has been quite tough, and at first I felt that my thoughts were prejudiced.

However, I’ve finally realized that it’s my right to want to connect with a POC therapist in my age range because maybe they may be able to relate to me more.

But unlike the past, finding such a person is not the challenge it once was. The vast amount of therapists available online and through a growing number of services like the Black Mental Health Alliance, I believe I’ll come across a good fit with a bit of patience and time. 

If you’re struggling, there’s a plethora of resources out there for you, from the American Psychological Association, Healthline, and therapists who specialize in working with those looking for tailored help  from LBTQIA clients to people of color.

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Chanize Thorpe is a lifestyle editor and writer, who's spent over two decades traveling the world and contributing to both national and international publications.