Essays & Confessions / Living / Mental Health In Quarantine

What It’s Like To Be A Black Woman With A White Therapist

By Monday, September 21, 2020

At this point in my search, I was about to give up. This was the fourth therapist’s website that I had visited, and I wasn’t impressed. Anyone who I’d be sharing my deepest secrets and vulnerabilities with had to check off every box on my list, but unfortunately, they all missed the mark. However, there was something different about this last website. While reading the “About Me” section, I felt a connection. This therapist’s comprehensive approach to mental and spiritual wellness spoke directly to my needs. There was kindness and compassion behind those words, and that’s exactly what I longed for. Without hesitation, I called the number that was listed. With each ring, my fear and apprehension grew. I didn’t need a therapist. I was doing just fine solving my own problems. There were plenty of other therapists to choose from. As my list of excuses grew, a voice greeted me on the other end.

I’m not sure what I had imagined her to sound like, but this wasn’t it. With a soft tone and a quick cadence, Mary asked me a couple of questions about why I called, including some questions about major life events and my current emotional status. She reminded me of that one kooky aunt on your mom’s side who has cats and wears sweaters that she crochets herself. While I couldn’t confirm those things, there was something that I could immediately confirm—she was white. No, I hadn’t seen her before, and no, she didn’t mention her race, but I just knew.

As a black woman, there is an immediate sense of connection that you feel when another black person, male or female, picks up the phone or walks into a room. It’s a very familiar and safe feeling, knowing that there’s someone close by who has probably shared many of the same life experiences as you. As I listened to her talk about the mission of her practice, I couldn’t find that feeling. When it comes to my health providers, I intentionally seek out people of color because I’m confident that they’ll understand my concerns and what comes with them. A black doctor knows which conditions may affect me as a black woman, so she’ll be proactive in testing and prevention. A black dermatologist knows which treatments may be too harsh for my brown skin, so she’ll seek other alternatives. As I brought myself back to the present moment, I wondered how in the world would this white, presumably middle-aged white woman be able to relate to my emotional experiences as a young woman of color? Before I could ponder any longer, I found myself setting an appointment for Saturday at 10 am.

“I wondered how in the world would this presumably middle-aged white woman be able to relate to my emotional experiences as a young woman of color?”

As I rode the elevator to the second floor of the office building, I tried to suppress the growing anxiety that was blooming in my chest. While waiting in the lobby, I noticed a short, brown-haired woman walking towards the office doors. In an instant, I knew that was Mary. With a gentle smile, she waved me to the office so that we could get started.

That day, I spilled my guts in Mary’s office. In retrospect, I was surprised by my own eagerness to share so much of my life. She listened carefully while jotting down some notes, which she explained would help her if I decided to continue my sessions. At the end of our session, she commended me on surviving through some of my most difficult moments. She also noted that it took a lot of courage and strength to decide that I no longer wanted to survive, but thrive. I had never viewed my life this way. After a very successful first appointment, many of my fears and discomforts faded. Despite some lingering uncertainties, Mary’s approach to healing matched mine, and I felt that we would work well together. That first day of therapy served as the catalyst for a lifetime’s worth of healing, forgiveness, and growth.

After about a year, Mary and I had made some great strides. However, not every session was the most comfortable. There were days where I didn’t feel entirely seen, and I knew that I had to utilize other resources to get the closure I was looking for. The differences between our cultures did make me hesitant to share certain parts of my life. At times, I found myself explaining more than I cared to about my daily experiences, especially since I knew that a fellow black woman would have understood immediately. To Mary’s credit, though, she always tried to see things from my point of view. Truthful and unassuming, she listened and was always considerate of my feelings, even if she didn’t fully understand them.

“To Mary’s credit, she was always considerate of my feelings, even if she didn’t fully understand.”

A few months later, our nation witnessed the horrific death of George Floyd. Like everyone else, I was in complete distress. I was saddened, overwhelmed, and grief-stricken. As I tried to make sense of my feelings and this senseless death, I realized that I had an upcoming therapy session. I usually looked forward to talking with Mary about the week’s events, but not this time. This week was different. Undoubtedly, she would want to console me, but I didn’t want her to. I didn’t want to talk to her about this. The wound of this incident was too fresh, and I wanted to heal it within the comfort of my own community.

That Saturday morning, I reluctantly joined our online session. Once we exchanged greetings, she cautiously asked if I wanted to talk about this week’s events, to which I quickly and firmly replied, “No.” Sensing my frustration, Mary retreated, and switched topics. However, I wasn’t really paying attention to our conversation. The only thing I could think of was how this would be one of our last sessions. During those moments, I realized that we couldn’t go any further, and at this point in my life, I needed a therapist who not only understood the black experience but was living through it as well.

“I realized at this point in my life, I needed a therapist who not only understood the black experience, but was living through it as well.”

In the back of my mind, I always knew that Mary would not be my “forever therapist.” Sometimes,  I wanted to branch out to try other modalities of therapy. Other times, I just wanted to find a black therapist. Despite my occasional desire for change, I enjoyed my time with her and found each session beneficial and enlightening. She helped me identify some of my biggest challenges and self-beliefs. Mary helped pave the way for my healing and emotional growth. However, I realized that in order for me to continue flourishing, I needed to work with someone who better understood me on all levels. As I continue on this healing journey, I am committed to remaining open-minded while standing firmly on my unique needs as a black woman.

Ashley is a learning and development specialist by day, and a wellness blogger and podcaster by night. She enjoy reading, swimming, and exploring the sights and sounds of Atlanta, where she’s been a proud resident for 6 years.

Image via Pexels

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