Tailoring Therapeutic Healing for POC

By Lillian Farzan, lovebylill.com

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I feel so honored that Jas has invited me to write a piece for her community. Let me tell you a thing or two about myself before we dive in: My name is Lillian Farzan, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. I’m a first generation Jewish Iranian American with a passion for advocating for marginalized communities. This passion of mine was born out of being a daughter to immigrants that left their war-torn home, never to return. This history, among other things like being told I couldn’t play basketball with the boys in 4th grade, has led me to grow up with an acute awareness of oppression and discrimination since I was a child.

I left UC Santa Cruz--a big liberal granola bubble-- at age 22 thinking I would go on to pursue a job where I would save the world. Easy right? Surely there are simple job descriptions like that. With my Psych and Law class fresh in mind, I was fired up and ready to challenge our country’s less-than-rehabilitative and often exacerbating prison system. With so much institutionalized racism fresh in mind, I thought it would be easy to shine a light on injustice and support the greater good. The truth is that making my mission a reality has been quite difficult to navigate and debatably anything like the straight path I supposed.

I decided that becoming a therapist would equip me to advocate for marginalized communities by providing social support. Alas, I would, “be a change agent for urban communities,” as my grad school essays posed. After graduating with my Master’s from USC, I quickly learned the reality that many private practices and treatment centers used words like “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “feminism,” as buzz words to attract clientele.

I will spare you of the unethical and, in some cases, exploitative practices that I’ve witnessed and say this much: the field needs more people of color with cultural competence. Clients should not be burdened by teaching their therapists the importance of respecting their pronouns, yamulka’s, hair, or history of institutionalized oppression.

Therapy is no longer a healing space when stereotypes such as the “angry black woman” or “cheap jew,” are imposed upon clients by their therapists. While I am all about talking through misunderstandings to create strength in relationships, it’s simply unfair to expect clients to teach us everything there is to know about their cultural history. Though there is no possible way that a single therapist will understand all the cultural nuances there is to know, it is certainly a therapist’s job to shed themselves of their biases, lean in with a gentle curiosity, and respect their clients’ intersectionality.

A word about seeking therapy from the jump: This is often an extremely courageous step made after experiencing days/months/years of grueling distress! The last thing a client wants is to bravely admit they need help only to have their first encounter in therapy ruined by a comment such as, “Oh I didn’t realize you were black when we spoke on the phone! Come on in…”

I’m not here to scare you away from therapy altogether, but I do want to let you know that it’s perfectly okay if finding the right therapeutic fit takes time. The same way we vibe with some friends over others, we vibe with certain therapists over others. Remember, it is normal and healthy to shop around for a therapist that you feel comfortable with. This is a relationship where, over time, you will ideally feel safe enough to share your deepest darkest secrets-- this is going to be damn near impossible if you don’t trust or respect the space. While gender or race may not matter to some clients, others may find it more soothing to seek a therapist with a similar identity. This factor could lead into a natural and unspoken understanding of general cultural taboos, traditions, stereotypes, and family dynamics. Imagine the effortlessness that takes place when you don’t need to explain all of this and can simply Be. Perhaps even more powerful is seeing someone that looks like you in a space you were made to believe didn’t have you in mind.