It is now widely considered to be an old-fashioned view that therapy somehow transcends culture, and that we can practice effectively as therapists if we put aside the cultural experiences of therapist and client.
To meet the demands of this contemporary view of therapy, it is essential for therapists to cultivate cross-cultural therapy skills, cultural sensitivity, and socio-political awareness. This is true whether we identify with a dominant culture or a minority culture.
One reason to cultivate a multicultural orientation is that we risk causing harm – especially to those belonging to minority cultures – if we do not practice in ways that are culturally sensitive. We may unwittingly cause clients to feel in therapy the same sense of exclusion and alienation that they feel elsewhere in their lives.
Another reason to cultivate a multicultural orientation is that doing so appears to increase the potential to help the vast majority of clients. Research by Owen et al. (the results of which were published in their 2011 Psychotherapy article, “Clients’ perceptions of their psychotherapists’ multicultural orientation”) suggests that clients’ psychological well-being benefits to the extent that they perceive their therapist as having a multi-cultural orientation.
In the Owen study, clients were asked various questions relating to their therapists’ attitudes towards multiculturalism, such as whether the therapist seems comfortable with and respectful of differences, aware of his or her own cultural heritage, aware of the current sociopolitical system and its impact on the client, and aware of limits placed by cultural differences on the counselling relationship. These and other questions were derived from the Cross-cultural Counselling Inventory (CCCR-I).
The results of the study suggest that clients who perceived their therapist as having a multicultural orientation tended to have increased psychological well-being post-therapy. This is true whether the therapist and client shared cultural identifications or diverged culturally. In many cases, perceiving the therapist as multiculturally-oriented led to the formation of a stronger working alliance in the dyad.
Therapists who engage in self-reflection to better understand their own cultural identifications and work to overcome potential biases will likely be perceived by their clients as multiculturally-oriented. But therapists will also need to be open to discussing culture as part of the therapeutic process. Experts in multicultural therapy suggest that clients may be reluctant to broach the topic of culture, especially if they identify with a cultural minority and they are seeing a therapist in the cultural majority. They may feel that the issues raised are taboo, or fear that their viewpoint will be rejected.
As therapists, we regularly confront the realities of culture and cultural difference, and there is increasing evidence that if we seek to avoid these realities we miss out on opportunities to contribute to clients’ psychological well-being.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA