Finding the Right Therapist: Should you Seek Counseling From a Desi?

by Rupali G 

As a sexual assault counselor of Indian origin, a desi client walked in saying,

“You know, I almost canceled on you. Once I heard your name on my voicemail, I knew you were Indian.”

I validated my client’s concerns.  But, I explained to her that I have an open-minded and non-judgmental counseling style. I reassured her that I honor confidentiality. I can’t disclose her identity and life story to anyone in the South Asian community.  

While providing therapy, I also don’t believe in exerting control over how a client chooses to live their life.  I can’t blame my client for feeling the way she feels because many of us desis are conditioned to not let our “personal business” leak out in the community. We also know how unpleasant it feels to be judged for not adhering traditional values. Growing up, you may have been told very hurtful comments for questioning your culture.  

 Therapy is supposed to be that emotionally safe place where you are offered an empathic ear to explore what you’re going through.  The last thing a prospective client would want is to feel criticized or treated like you’re not good enough. If you wanted to hear someone pointing fingers at your flaws, you can just go talk to an auntie for free, instead of dishing out a $20 co-pay (lol just kidding).

Anyways, this brings us to the question whether desis should seek out a desi therapist.  I have heard some desis say that a white therapist won’t understand our culture, or how a therapist will push us to discard our identity.  These are reasonable worries because you may run into therapists that aren’t culturally sensitive.

It’s not just desis that may shy away from therapy, but statistics show some minorities are hesitant to seek counsel from someone who may not be well-informed about their background. 

Some minorities may ask, “What’s the point in getting counseling if it may not work? ”

If you reach a point where you truly do need to talk to a professional, does this mean that a desi therapist will ALWAYS be your best bet?

There is no black and white answer to this. While my client realized that she was okay seeing a desi therapist, I didn’t have the best experience seeing a desi psychologist in high school.  

When I was 17, I was having chronic anxiety and difficulty focusing in school.  Sure, I tried to ignore it and let it go.  That’s what my parents and other Indian parents suggested to do.  But, bottling things up made my anxiety worse.  When I told my guidance counselor about how I was silently struggling, he suggested that a therapist from the same culture may be able to help me and get on my parents’ good side.  

So, my parents grudgingly agreed to check out the desi psychologist that my school recommended. I will admit that I had the same fears that my current client had. What if this woman is a judgmental and old-fashioned auntie? What if she’s going to babble to other people? What if she tells my secrets to my parents? What if she tries to get me to act like an Indian girl from the 1970s?

My white friend told me, “Don’t worry. She can’t break confidentiality. Whatever you tell her can’t be told to your parents.”

The desi psychologist was definitely a nice woman, but our real counseling sessions didn’t seem productive or helpful to me. Since she was raised in Pakistan, I felt like she didn’t understand what my experience in America was like.  I also felt like she was more conservative than my parents. For example, she would stare me down when I would wear dresses, and then would talk about dressing modestly.  She didn’t realize my Indian-Hindu mom was okay with me wearing American dresses. Even my cousins in Mumbai and Delhi wear dresses and skirts.

She would make dirty and angry faces when I would talk about dating (at least I perceived it that way!). Believe it or not, my mom allowed me to safely date Indian guys and my cousins in India also had boyfriends. If you’re going to share your problems with someone and build trust, it’s important to sense that they are making an effort to understand where you’re coming from. With all the talk about teenage dating and boys, guess what she suggested?

The desi psychologist told my mom in front of me that we should buy a vibrator. Yes, you read it correctly.  A middle-aged desi woman was telling a mother and her teenage daughter to walk into a sex shop together to buy a vibrator.  She even gave the name of the specific shop to go too. Her logic was that a vibrator would keep me away from boys.  I suspected that she was imposing her conservative relationship values on me, which I and my parents didn’t agree with.

The psychologist may have meant well, but my mom and I found the advice given discomforting. As a 17-year old, what I truly needed was someone who could help with my anxiety and teach me coping-mechanism skills. I didn’t need someone to prescribe me a vibrator.  At 33, I can’t imagine telling my clients to do that. Therapy and self-exploration (no pun intended) are so much more than buying something at a store.

[Read More: How I Found the Strength to Cope with the Loss of my South Asian Parents]

I stopped seeing the desi psychologist for obvious reasons. Luckily, I did find a white psychologist who was able to effectively help me. She had worked with Indians before, which helped her gain an understanding of where I was coming from. She was also liberal and a bit sassy, where I could feel more comfortable with being open and authentic with her.  She respected my opinions, feelings, and decisions. She allowed me to explore my inner voice, without ordering me to follow her authority.

Since she was a good fit for me, I made significant progress and credit her for where I am today. It was interesting to reflect on how different her counseling style was from the desi psychologist that I saw. It goes to show that the right therapist can make the difference for you.

Choosing to see or not to see a desi therapist is up to the client. Skin color alone doesn’t predict what your relationship with your therapist will be like. As you can see from my experience, seeing someone from your cultural background doesn’t always mean that they will be a good fit for you or better than a non-desi therapist. 

Qualities like warmth, trust, excellent listening skills, genuineness, sensitivity, being non-judgmental, empathy, and being willing to receive feedback, are what good therapists are made of—which are qualities that can be found in any race or ethnicity.  If a therapist of any racial background is genuinely willing to listen to what you have to say and is willing to help you reach your goals, it can lead to successfully achieving the results you’re looking for. 

rupali-g-headshotRupali G is a licensed clinical professional counselor, who holds a masters degree in clinical psychology. She currently specializes in working with children and women who have endured sexual assault. Her counseling style is gentle and empathic, but solution-focused towards what the client wants.  She is passionate about helping both survivors and desi women feel less alone and more hopeful towards creating the life that they want.

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