How Much Do You NEED to Have in Common With Your Therapist?

Do you need to see someone of the same race? Gender? Sexual identity? From the same region? Are these dealbreakers, or just preferences?
Publish date:
April 29, 2016
therapy, mental health, race, gender, identity

Therapy changes lives. Therapy saves lives. Quality, professional therapy is a privilege in some lives and a necessity in others, and much of the potential benefit is determined by your individual practitioner.

In situations where you can choose your therapist, how much do you consider what you have in common? Do you need to see someone of the same race? Gender? Sexual identity? From the same region? Are these dealbreakers, or just preferences? How much do you feel they affect your experience of therapy?

I’m always intrigued by intake questionnaires or health insurance website multiple choice options, and how present that option of gender is. It’s so often the second or third thing you can choose, which speaks both to its importance and our patriarchal society that has inflated that importance.

Prioritizing certain options in choosing a therapist is necessary by virtue of their practicality, like proximity to your home or speaking the same language. But thinking of language in a broader sense, how might having characteristics in common with your practitioner help you to be figuratively “speaking the same language” from the outset?

Shared experience can be an immediately accessible way in, and even crucial to dealing with trauma and the healing process in certain instances. To a certain extent, that’s something that happens all the time right here at xoJane. And if certain shared experiences can be communicated in instantaneous shorthand through someone’s identifying characteristics, how much faster and farther might the floodgates to personal progress fly open?

Thinking of the fact that there is such hideously unfettered abuse and violence aimed at so many of our trans sisters and brothers, it could potentially do a world of good for a young trans person who is having a hard time to see a trans counselor, and simply be around someone like themselves who is thriving without the resources of, say, a Caitlyn Jenner.

Then again…

No two people’s stories will ever be exactly the same, no matter how many boxes they could simultaneously check off on a census form. No one group of people is ever a monolith. For example, not every Black woman’s lived experience will look exactly the same because she’s Black, and a well-educated and trained professional would be able to address issues around marginalized experiences without having to be a member of that group.

Still, it is important to “click” with your therapist, and there is a shorthand that can come with one’s identifying characteristics that it just might help to have in common, particularly for the disenfranchised.

I was ping-ponging back and forth between these ideas, so I decided to seek professional help on this topic around seeking professional help. Quinn Gee is someone I connected with on Twitter, a mental health care practitioner who is also a Black woman who identifies as bisexual, and she has recently opened the Healing Hearts Counseling Center in Memphis, Tennessee.

I really appreciate the way Quinn uses social media to affirm the importance of mental health, and I especially admire how present her personal identification along intersectional axes is front and center in these conversations, so I reached out to her with the question of how those things come into play from the practitioner’s perspective.

Quinn is in a relationship with another woman who also identifies as bi, and Quinn tells me that has enhanced her experience as a practitioner, making her, as she says, “more relatable to so many women here who cannot live their truths so openly sometimes. I have been fortunate to work in [many] environments that supported sexual and gender diversity, and when I wasn't, I made my stance clear and I left. And it shows the community I'm most passionate about working with, the LGBTQIA community, that I understand directly some of their challenges.”

Quinn’s partners at their brand-new private practice are three other Black women, and they all have at least a master’s level education in a mental health-related field. Quinn is currently a PhD candidate with a focus on Advanced Human Behavior, and while her professional partners, all straight married women, bring their expertise to a wide range of specific areas, Quinn offers a unique perspective in addressing sexuality. That way, as she says, “we can service all kinds of clients, from a young transgender woman struggling with addiction, to an older Christian man dealing with marriage issues.”

Speaking of differences between herself and her partners at the practice, she continues, “I'm the youngest, the newest in private practice, bisexual, engaged in social media, and the only one not religious. So, my stance on things will be a lot different from theirs, and that's what I like. We all complement each other so well, and we have a [shared] vision of the collective goal, as well as our own individual ones.”

One major thing they all have in common is being Black women, and I asked Quinn how much that affected her personal experiences as a practitioner, and if having that in common should be a priority for a client.

She said, “Until late last year, my race had not been an issue in counseling for me. I went to a PWI [predominantly white institution], so I was used to being the only minority in the room, but one day at a Reconstruction (a psychodrama, or experiential therapy graduation of sorts), I came in and realized that in a room of 100 people, clients and counselors, I was the only minority. And I couldn't breathe.

I had to go to my car to cry, and I couldn't figure out why it was affecting me so much at that moment—I had been at that clinic for over a year. I told my supervisors on the spot and they offered emotional support and I felt slightly relieved. One way I always dealt with being the only minority in the room was to focus on things I had in common with the people, other than what was so different.

Later, at the same clinic, I was confronted with coded language and blatant disrespect by clients I was transporting, and I felt like that support I had felt at the Reconstruction had evaporated. It felt like, ‘You been Black your whole life. Deal with it. Take care of the clients.’

Also, I had just started working at [a hospital with a largely Black staff], and it was nice to be around all Black therapists, which was a contrast from the clinic, where ALL the patients were white and only 3 practitioners were of color. I felt supported, loved, and accepted. It was different. I knew at the next staff meeting I no longer wanted to be [at the clinic]. So I quit and called up one of the Black therapists from there and asked her to start our own practice together.”

Private practice was always a goal, but Quinn says that experience pushed her toward opening Healing Hearts sooner than anticipated, and she proudly declares, “Now, as an owner, being Black is the cornerstone of my counseling. I want to help bring healing to ALL people, but I also am proud to be labeled as a Black therapist. There are not a lot of us out here, especially in community counseling.”

Then there is Womanhood.

Quinn offers that being a woman makes counseling easier in some situations, and acknowledges that we are the more sought-out gender in therapy: “Women are stereotypically seen as nurturers and caregivers, so when a lot of clients are seeking help, they look for a woman practitioner. It is only amongst my male colleagues, psychiatrists and psychologists, that my womanhood seems to be a liability, especially when my diagnosis may be different from theirs. Because I also work with sex addicts and sex offenders, there have been times where my gender has made treatment difficult, and in those cases I have to staff with other therapists about what the appropriate action should be.”

In most iterations, therapy is still a business and even the most altruistic providers need to turn a profit, so, as Quinn puts it, “unfortunately, many therapists take on clients they can't effectively counsel.” Even if their intentions are scrupulous, it is still crucial to connect for the most beneficial counseling, and having things in common might help achieve that.

Ultimately, Quinn tells me, “When it comes to finding a therapist, my biggest advice to clients is to look for someone who is competent, and then look for similarities, especially when you are going to therapy for specialized issues like race based trauma, sexuality/gender identity, and addiction.”

Quinn herself has benefitted from seeing an “amazing” therapist, who was dissimilar in being Russian, when she was a married undergrad and her marriage started “falling apart,” as she puts it. Even in less traumatic times, Quinn asserts, “I think all mental health professionals should have a therapist or some sort of dedicated wellness resource, be it religion or music, etc. The toll that it takes, especially in heavy cases, can be unbearable, and mental health providers have soaring rates of alcoholism because the job gets so heavy sometimes.”

You know I advocate talking (not texting) to a professional therapist for everyone, and choosing your therapist is an area where you get to sort of “discriminate.” As long as your preferences are issues of comfort rather than prejudice or bias rooted in judgement or hate, I say go for it.

Get as specific as you’d like about your therapist, as long as you’re doing it.

Quinn and her partners all offer phone and Skype interviews for people who are not local, and they can be reached at (901) 343-0346 or their website.