It’s common to have strong feelings about something your therapist has said. Having difficult conversations is a part of therapy—but therapists do make mistakes. When the statement is related to your culture or identity, it can feel hurtful, insensitive, unfair, and inappropriate.
These experiences can leave you feeling defensive, angry, and confused. You might be wondering if it’s okay to criticize your therapist for saying something inconsiderate and unfair.
What does racism look like in therapy?
Anyone can say something racist, even if they’re a good therapist in other ways. Here are some ways racism can show up in a therapy session:
- They are dismissive. They make you feel like you’re not supposed to feel the way you do. Telling you your feelings or experiences aren’t real or valid can be a form of verbal abuse called gaslighting.
- They label your behaviors without considering cultural norms and expectations. For example, a therapist might label your family relationships as being “enmeshed” or “codependent,” even if those relationships are normal in your culture. Or, they may label you as being “too angry” when your anger is justified.
- They avoid discussing race, even when you bring it up. Race, ethnicity, and culture affect the ways we experience the world, and that affects our mental health—a good therapist will acknowledge this and help you work through those feelings.
- Color blindness: They deny that race is important, or say that they “don’t see color.”
- They deflect from conversations about race and privilege by bringing up something irrelevant (whataboutism).
These are all examples of microaggressions: day-to-day examples of racism and bias, which may not seem extreme or obvious but still have an impact on mental health. They make it harder for you to trust your therapist and talk to them about your feelings and experiences.
Does this mean it’s time to find a new therapist?
Maybe—here are some things to consider:
- How long have you been with the therapist? If you’ve been with them for a long time and feel like you’ve made a lot of progress, you might be willing to consider it a one-time incident. If you’ve just started seeing them and red flags are already showing up, it might be easier to cut ties and start over with someone new.
- Do you feel attacked by your therapist? Are you having a hard time trusting them and opening up to them? If so, it may be time to find a new therapist.
- If you’re not quite ready to leave your therapist, maybe you can find additional support elsewhere. Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Or, ask a question anonymously on an online forum, like Inspire or Lyf. (Even if you decide to find a better therapist, having more than one support system is always helpful!)
- If you like your therapist, you might consider addressing your concern with them. Say, “Hey, when you said this… That felt really racially insensitive.” A good therapist will apologize, not give excuses, and promise to do better. They will do the hard work to improve their own understanding of your identity and culture. This kind of confrontation can actually be very positive, and can set the foundation for a more open and honest relationship.
In the end, remember that therapy is for you. You don’t owe your therapist anything. Your therapist is there to help you. They are being paid to help you.
If you decide to cut ties and try someone else, try to make the transition quickly—don’t go too long without a therapist if your mental health is at risk. If you continue to have bad experiences with therapy, it could make it harder to reach out for help altogether. Don’t get discouraged—there are more culturally responsive therapists out there!