Working with clients from all over the world, I often find myself spending time between sessions, researching about their cultures, learning about the history of the place they’re from, thinking about their language, about what it may have been like growing up where they did, as it’s far from what my personal experience is.
I also often include in our sessions, questions related to our cultural differences. I often think about the fact that we often work in a language that’s foreign to both them and me, as fluent as we are, and I think about how it shapes the whole experience of our encounters. I do these thought experiments with myself when thinking about all the clients I have troubles fully understanding at first, even for the clients that come from my own country, but have simply had different experiences or that have acquired a different style of communication, of relating to others, and so on. I take the word culture very broadly here.
How do we define culture?
The term culture itself, is a tough one to define. To me it represents, as I already implied, a lot more than simple ethnicity. When we speak of ourselves or others, we speak about a person (a self) that belongs to various different cultural groups at the same time – they belong to a certain age group, a certain ethnic group, class, religion, social status, etc. All these groups have their own ‘culture’. So, even a person that seems to be ‘from’ our culture – say, our next door neighbor, even in communication with them, we might need a lot of ‘translating’ before we get on the same page where we can understand each other well enough.
All Interactions are Cultural
In the same way, whenever we interact with someone, each and every one of our interactions is mediated and shaped by the culture we belong to, and the culture we carry within us. It’s important to keep this in mind in many contexts, including the context of a psychotherapy session. Every encounter, including the psychotherapist – client encounter, is a moment of intercultural exchange. It is important to keep this in mind, to be aware of one’s own cultural background, to be open in sharing it and answering questions about it, and to be prepared to carefully explore the others background.
Right now I’m thinking about a client that told me she felt uncomfortable at work, whenever she would find herself around people who were different to her, because she’d feel self-conscious about maybe mentioning the said difference and thus offending the person that is different in some way. After exploring this topic during a couple of sessions, we understood that the fear of mentioning whatever it was, only made the fear itself greater, and it only made the imagined uncomfortable situation all the more likely to happen. Anything that is ignored or is taboo, eventually becomes the thing that controls the whole process and relationship, in the case of my client’s situation, and in the case of therapy in general.
What happens when we don’t consider culture?
Ignoring cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings, miscommunications, and negative outcomes in therapy. For example, a therapist who is not sensitive to cultural differences may misinterpret a client’s expressions of distress as a sign of weakness or emotional instability, when in fact, the client’s cultural background may place a high value on emotional expression. Culture and our awareness of culture, cultural belonging and diversity, fully comes into our awareness only when we meet another culture.
Psychotherapy depends on cultural understanding
Psychotherapy is a collaborative process between the therapist and the client, and the success of the therapy depends on the therapist’s ability to understand and work within the client’s cultural framework. Cultural differences can influence how individuals communicate, express emotions, cope with stress, and seek help, among other things. By taking into account cultural differences, the therapist can establish a more empathic and trusting relationship with the client, and tailor the therapeutic approach to the client’s unique needs and cultural background. This can improve the client’s engagement in therapy, increase the effectiveness of the treatment, and ultimately lead to better outcomes.
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Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counselling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
American Psychological Association. (2017). Multicultural Guidelines: An Ecological Approach to Context, Identity, and Intersectionality.
Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2016). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.