The Integral Role Of Multicultural Identity In The Counseling Relationship
Whether aware of it or not, we all have a cultural identity. Our cultural identities influence how we view and interact with the world around us and how others view and interact with us. This identity follows us everywhere we go, and that includes the counseling relationship. A therapist’s ability to recognize their client’s multicultural identity, reflect on their own, and consider how it may impact the counseling relationship can make or break the therapeutic alliance.
Despite graduate programs including classes on multicultural considerations, not all therapists apply practices that make space for discussions of cultural identity or consider how it influences an individual’s experience of the world and of therapy. Oftentimes, we can become insulated in our own culture and unaware of differences. This is called cultural encapsulation and can lead to biases standing in the way of seeing others holistically. Mental health issues do not exist in a vacuum, and our cultural identities affect not only how we perceive mental health but also how we treat it.
Our cultural identities show up everywhere, including in what is often labeled as a safe and nonjudgmental space – the counseling room. We all have biases, including clinicians themselves, and that’s why self-awareness and reflection is so important. Therapists who haven’t taken time to reflect on their own cultural identity may make assumptions about others and apply universal themes or treatment practices to the nuanced experiences of their clients. Multicultural identities can show up in counseling in many ways, including but not limited to how we show emotions (gender identity, cultural norms, etc.), what coping tools we use (spirituality/religion, collective care, etc.), how emotions manifest in our bodies, whether or not we feel comfortable with our therapist, and in our own lived experiences that we are bringing to the room.
Some issues linked to multicultural identity include identity development, stress, self-esteem, generational trauma, intergenerational conflict, race-based trauma, couples + family issues, interpersonal conflict, grief, immigration + acculturation, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
The therapeutic relationship is one of the greatest predictors of successful therapy, so it is important to find a therapist you connect with and who values your identity. It is essential to feel that all parts of you are seen and that you are welcome. Here are some questions to consider when looking for a therapist:
- Are they affirming of your identities (LGBTQIA+, antiracist, feminist, anti-diet, anti-fatphobic, etc.)?
- Do they identify with or have an understanding of your pieces of your cultural identity?
- Is their office space accessible? Do they offer virtual sessions? Do they have gender-neutral restrooms?
- How do they incorporate antiracism and advocacy into their work?
- Do they challenge their cultural biases? Are they aware of privilege and the intersectionality of identities?
Ruby: Cultural identity is a nuanced but omnipresent influence in day-to-day life, yet it is rarely given the focused attention it deserves. What’s more, both the beauties and the complications that arise from multicultural identity are very personal in nature and often hard to express. I was drawn to multicultural identity work because it is a true joy to witness people step into their most authentic versions of themselves. I also come from a diverse background and actively participate in my own evolving identity, so this work feels like a natural and collaborative extension!
Vinci: A part of it is rooted in my personal experience in not having any space to discuss and explore the effects of my cultural identity on my own sense of self. Another part of it is the general gap and invisibility around AAPI mental health which motivates me to fill that gap and create more spaces for others to explore those parts of themselves that are so important and impactful to who they are.
Ruby: Cultural identity work involves recognizing, validating, and exploring what it means to associate with multiple cultural backgrounds, and using that new perspective to dive even deeper into past, present, and future experiences. This is particularly relevant when wanting to better connect with oneself and others. Personally speaking, I strive to reconcile expectations with my elders, define my personal heritage as it manifests in my current relationships, and reflect on how I want to shape my long-term legacy. At the end of the day, this process will look different for each person, but I always encourage everyone to be gentle with themselves and stay curious about their inner and outer worlds.
Vinci: Personally and professionally the work is messy, complicated, and grieving a lot. At the same time, it’s also highlighting strength, resilience, power, and community.
Ruby: The emergence of self-compassion. Some facets of multiculturalism can pose difficulties in attaining a healthy state of body and mind. This includes internalized criticism, acculturation, conflicting values, identity crisis, and struggles with extreme stress and pressure. Enabling people to create space for themselves, and give grace to themselves, is one of the most rewarding aspects of the helping profession. It is always a great honor and privilege to assist in nurturing this newfound, holistic sense of self-appreciation.
Vinci: My favorite part is when clients own their culture and identify the power and strength of it.
Ruby: I think everyone can benefit from learning more about their unique cultural identity. I believe cultural factors are subtly woven into almost every decision and aspect of life, so it may not stand out as an obvious avenue to consider. Dissatisfaction in relationships, unhappiness at work, life planning and goal setting, and even the role of self-care can all have deep roots in the multiple cultures we were exposed to growing up. Intergenerational and ancestral healing takes time – it’s not a one-time destination but a practice to carry with you as you continue navigating different chapters of your personal identity and collective narrative. Add in sociopolitical events, immigration history, or the implications of epigenetics, and you may find yourself seeking additional support to understand and process your journey. If this feels familiar or resonates with you, therapy could be a great option to look into!
Vinci: This is the trickiest question because I think cultural identity is something that every client should address at some point in their lives. Culture shapes a lot of what we do, how communities are formed, etc. Some clients are very open to exploring culture and some aren’t ready. Generally I broach with all clients how it impacts them and if that is something they would like to be more curious about and go from there.
GETTING STARTED WITH THERAPY
At Autonomy Therapy, we understand the impact that culture has on our identities and how it shows up in the counseling process. If you’re ready to connect with one of our multicultural clinicians who value what you bring to the room, use our book now page to set up an initial consultation call with one of our therapists, or contact us directly for more information.