July 18, 2016

What I have learned about race from being a therapist

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One of the privileges I have as a psychotherapist is that I get to know people in a uniquely personal way. In the therapy room, people often pour out their hearts as they seek change and relief from their pain.

We all have misconceptions


When I came into this work, I came to it with all of the preconceptions and notions about race that my particular background lent to me. Some of those notions were examined through my coursework in graduate school. But, I could never have learned to truly appreciate the complexities of what it means to grow up Black in America without all of the hours I have spent listening to my client's experiences.

As a therapist, I am called to bring empathy to a client's experience. I am a naturally empathetic person so it was not hard to listen, to care, to feel the pain. Empathy creates a safe place for my clients to be able to explore, process and to discharge their pain.


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It is impossible to truly know someone until you have listened to their story


I can think of one client whose background could not have seemed more different from mine. He is a Black man who grew up poor, in a dysfunctional and sometimes abusive family. He is also a single dad. As he spoke, I quickly found out we had more in common than I would have originally guessed. This client,  whom I will call Robert,  was struggling to know how to parent his children well. He was a very devoted father and family was a strong priority in his life.

I remember one session in particular that really brought home to me one of the disturbing realities of what it means to be Black in America. This was shortly after the teenager Treyvon Martin lost his life at the hands of George Zimmerman. Robert shared that he has had to educate his boys that they need to act differently because they are black. That they need to be more careful, more above board.

He instructed them for example, if they are stopped by the police in their vehicle, that they should have their registration and divers license on the dash of their car and their window rolled down ready  to hand to the police so that there is no appearance of reaching for a gun. What Robert has had to teach his boys that many of us have not, is how to stay alive. How to not be the victim just because they are Black.

There are more commonalities between us than differences


I have had hundreds of sessions with Black clients in my time as a therapist. Some of their experiences were completely different than Roberts. These clients have come in for all the same reasons as my clients of other races.  There is more commonality than difference after all.

It is this broad experience of listening to my Black clients, of empathizing, and of caring that has taught me that their is not one monolithic "Black experience." Sure, there are some threads that may run through the lives of many black people, but if you only focus on those generalities, you miss the human being behind it. You miss the most wonderful part.

I will always be grateful to my clients for their bravery in opening up, in being vulnerable. They have taught me how important it is to approach every individual as an explorer who has found a new treasure. Each life is deeply varied, deeply valuable. Each life matters beyond measure.

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We are all in this together


 If I had to distill some of the lessons I have learned about race by being a therapist, I think they come down to these 5 points.

  •  It is almost impossible to know someone until you have truly listened to their story 
  • We are not as different as the world would have you believe
  • Sometimes things that seem crazy make sense once we understand people's backgrounds
  • We are enriched by the diversity that people of different races bring to our lives
  • Walking with someone who is racially different from you in their pain is one of the best antidotes for racism

I have only begun to understand the unique plight of Black Americans who experience the dehumanizing effects of racism. I don't pretend to know what it is like to walk in their shoes, but the wisdom my clients have shared with me through their stories have shaped the way I see the world. When I think about my clients, I am hopeful that we are all part of one big human story. We are all in this together. 

#ListenFirst

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