Reflecting StrengthTherapists of Color Unravel Power from Whiteness

Christal Yuen, a writer and senior editor at Greatist (Courtesy of Christal Yuen)

The Power issue cover featuring Meech, a Black woman with short hair dressed in a black and gold embroidered jacket and a Shakespearean ruff adorned around her neck, arms crossed in front giving a commanding look and demeanor.
This article was published in Power Issue #88 | Fall 2020

People start therapy for different reasons. When I started, I found myself in a room full of West Elm chairs and picturesque plants, sitting across from a bright-eyed clinician because I’d been given a free consultation; and thanks to my editorial background in the mental-health space, I knew exactly the kind of therapist I wanted. Even when the clinician suggested I reconsider my criteria that my therapist be a woman of color, I refused to budge. It was irksome that this healthcare provider in a marketed-to-millennials clinic questioned my need to be matched with a nonwhite therapist. “I don’t think I would feel comfortable hearing a white person or a man telling me what my feelings mean,” I said.

I said that not because I was expecting therapy to help me change into a better person, but because I was so burned out from navigating a world built on male power and white privilege. I wanted a truly safe space where I didn’t have to educate someone about the systemic pitfalls that women of color are constantly navigating. It took the clinic more than four weeks to match me with a woman of color therapist, but the wait was worth it: I was paired with a half-Japanese, half-Black woman therapist who specializes in childhood trauma. It turns out that the stringency of my request is more common than you might imagine, especially given the way that conversations around power are impacted by a multitude of dynamics, including race. “Power dynamics exist before the client enters the therapeutic space,” Melody Li, a Texas-based psychotherapist, told Bitch. In 2019, Li, a Canadian immigrant from Hong Kong, created Inclusive Therapists, a mental-health directory and community that centers the needs of marginalized identities.

“The most obvious dynamic is the therapist as the helper, and the client as the one seeking help,” Li said. “Without the therapist’s awareness, willingness to do their identity work, and openness to feedback [without expecting the client to educate], it’s easy for the therapist to perpetuate institutional oppression in the therapy room.” For therapists who are actively aware of this dynamic, the way sessions are conducted is important for determining how clients interpret and react to power. “We explore power from the smallest of interactions: from how a client refers to you to how often they seek our approval or validation for their choices because we’re the ‘experts,’” says Jor-El Caraballo, a licensed therapist and cofounder of Viva Wellness, a holistic health center in Brooklyn. Many of the therapists interviewed for this piece said that the way people tell stories can signify how much power patients hold or believe they hold.

Global Fund for Women

“For some clients, this lack of power manifests in relationship difficulties,” Caraballo said. “They’re not having their needs met due to feeling like their emotional experiences don’t matter, or that they can’t positively impact their situation by taking action.” And to maintain normalcy, patients may either deprioritize their feelings, also known as emotional numbing, or start to accept the idea that they’re powerless; these are both common survival tactics for people who’ve experienced racism and/or trauma. “It’s not just about race,” Caraballo said. “These same reactions and negative moods are also faced by people with lower socioeconomic status or [who] otherwise live at more than one marginalized identity.” So the more marginalized and layered your identity is, the more complex and knotted your journey to rediscovering power may be.

But however difficult your journey may be, there are a few (albeit cliché) truths you can start with: One, power comes first from within, and two, power is not an identity. It was a wake-up call when my therapist said, “I didn’t ask how they felt. I asked how you felt.” I still didn’t innately recognize my own disempowerment, even after spending multiple $190 sessions talking about how to manage other people’s feelings because I believed their happiness was permission for my peace of mind and safety. I didn’t understand how this connected to power until my therapist used the word to describe an ex. “He’s gone,” she said. “Take back your power.” I fumbled in my expensive seat, speechless. Until then, I had never considered that I was relinquishing power by allowing other people to influence my emotions. 

I wanted a truly safe space where I didn’t have to educate someone about the systemic pitfalls that women of color are constantly navigating.

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This behavior stemmed from a twisted survival technique that had been passed down through generations: Make other people happy and they won’t have a reason to hurt you. But history and present-day realities have only shown that obedience is an exception, not the rule—after all, being a model minority doesn’t prevent racism or hate crimes, and catering to someone else’s emotions doesn’t prevent hurt. It just puts me in the position to relinquish power, over and over again. “People of diaspora often feel they have to ‘give up’ aspects of their cultural identity in order to fit in, belong, or succeed,” Li said. “On the other hand, if they hold on tightly to their traditions, they may encounter rejection, ridicule, or silencing. I validate the seemingly impossible nature of these binds, hold space for my clients to express their feelings, heal the underlying historical and intergenerational traumas, and write a new authentic and empowering narrative so they can navigate these binds with more clarity and confidence.”

My therapist has employed a method that encourages me to practice reclaiming power in spaces outside of our weekly hours. Of course, therapy isn’t accessible to everyone, but people can still tap into their power by investing in their own emotional strength. Dr. Kali D. Cyrus introduced me to the concept of “protective factors,” which are emotional and socioeconomic ways a person can stay resilient during hard times. Some factors are naturally aligned with power as the world defines it: class, genetic health, living situations, and identities. But there are also other factors you can control, build, or manage: affirmative social networks, strong coping skills, a meaningful sense of purpose, healthy thinking, and radical self-esteem.

“The more [clients can use] ‘protective’ factors, as we call them in our field, the more power I assume the client holds,” Cyrus said. Let’s reimagine power as the practice and action of validating our own feelings, and then use this reimagining as an emotional tool we can access to take actions that service our needs. When power is spread evenly across multiple feelings, it’s less likely to fall if one foundation slips. It also becomes easier to hold multiple definitions of power in a single space without downplaying other people’s experiences. It’s how even when someone feels alone, they can find the inner strength to know their feelings are still valid and worth expressing. People of color may not have access to certain types of power, but through safe spaces, particularly with POC therapists, we can learn how to redefine power to serve us in a way that allows us to be true to ourselves.

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Christal Yuen, an Asian woman with short, brown hair with blond highlights, looks over her shoulder at a tan dog standing on its hind legs
by Christal Yuen
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Christal Yuen is a writer and senior editor at Greatist. Whether it’s creative fiction or essays, her work focuses on the intersection between emotional health and wellness culture. Find her on Twitter @dearskye, where she talks about therapy.