More than Skin Deep: Finding the Right Support as a POC

Everybody deserves to feel heard, validated, and understood by their therapist. Therapy is already difficult enough, and to share your experiences with someone only to feel misunderstood makes it much harder.

When I first sought out therapy, I went to five different therapists in the span of just a few months trying to find the right match for me. All of them seemed like they were great people, but something just felt off to me during the sessions. It wasn’t until I met a person of colour (POC) therapist when I realized that as a POC myself, something had been missing. There is a deeper level of understanding that other persons of color have of your lived experiences. They can relate closely to your culture, your experiences with racism and even your complex family systems.

I started therapy when I was in university to help me understand how to communicate effectively with my partner. My first therapist was a 30 year old white woman. I thought it would be a good fit because she was young and she could be someone that would understand me. After two sessions, she started to ask me about my childhood and parents. I felt uncomfortable explaining what relationships are like in my immigrant family. I felt as though no matter how much I tried to explain why my parents think and act the way they do, she never truly understood. When I told her about some of the communication issues I have with my parents, she would suggest that I “just talk to my parents about how I’m feeling”.

While this is a logical solution, I didn’t know how to explain to her that I could not just simply talk to my parents about feelings. I also remember an instance of trying to talk to my therapist about a racist interaction I had, and how uncomfortable I felt. I felt as though I could not openly share my feelings about how the racist interaction made me feel. I was scared I might offend her while I recounted the experience. My next two therapists also happened to be white women in their 40s. I soon realized that much like before, it felt impossible to build trust and feel understood.

My 4th therapist was a Black man in his 30s. I was hesitant to do a session with him, because I wasn’t sure if I would feel comfortable opening up to him. In our first session, while I was talking about my relationship with my parents, he understood and validated my feelings and emotions in a way that no other therapist had before. It made me realize the comfort a POC therapist can provide was exactly what I needed from therapy. He helped me relate my experiences back to my family dynamics and cultural differences that one can feel when immigrating to a new country. He helped me understand why I felt the way I felt, and why I acted the way I acted in certain situations. I made more progress with him in one session than I did with any other therapists before. He helped me uncover so many things about myself, in only a few sessions, and it felt like I was unlocking a part of my emotions and brain that I had never known before. We connected over shared experiences with racism and spirituality on a level that I did not know was possible. He connected my emotions to cultural differences sharing his own similar experiences, which made me feel heard and validated. The biggest impact he made on me was being able to connect my childhood and family relationship to other aspects of my life, in a way that my other white therapists had not been able to. He understood and pointed out micro aggressions, when I was unable to recognize them myself. I found myself opening up to him about my experiences of growing up as one of the only Indian kids in my predominantly white school and how that has impacted the way I view myself - something I have never felt comfortable discussing openly with a white therapist.

It was unfortunate when I found out he could no longer be my therapist. To find somebody that understands your experiences and struggles so well and guides you through how to handle them is life changing. His words have had a lasting impact on me and have shifted my mindset and openness towards therapy and vulnerability. His guidance has helped me improve my relationships with family, friends and future romantic partners.

After talking to my POC friends, I soon realized that this is a common issue we face when trying to build a relationship of trust and comfort in therapy. At my university of over 40 000 students, there was only one POC therapist for the entire student body. If there is one thing gained from sharing my story, I hope it is how important diversity in mental health truly is. Not only diversity with race, but diversity within mental health professionals that have different sexual orientations, different childhood experiences, and different mental health struggles themselves. Everybody deserves to feel heard, validated, and understood by their therapist. Therapy is already difficult enough, and to share your experiences with someone only to feel misunderstood makes it much harder.

My last few years in therapy have helped me realize how important it is to talk to someone who can understand the intersectionality of your life and relate to it in their own experiences, especially when you come from a marginalized group.

Paridhi Rukhaiyar's picture
About the author

Having graduated from the University of Ottawa, Paridhi currently lives in Toronto, Ontario and works in the technology sector as a user experience (UX) researcher and designer. Paridhi is a strong advocate for mental health, diversity and inclusion in both her work and real life.