Race and healing: Expanding the conversation (Panel 2)

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Written by and featuring S. Kent Butler, Gail Parker, Monnica Williams, and Zachary Taylor 

This conversation is the second in a two-part series. Read “Starting the conversation (Panel 1)” for an introduction to the series and a discussion about the importance of addressing race in the therapy room.

Panel 2: Moving Toward Healing

This panel included Lambers Fisher, MS, LMFT, MDIV, marriage and family therapist specializing in multicultural counseling in private practice, nonprofit, and ministry environments; Amber Flynn, MA, LCPC, NCC, private practitioner specializing in race-based trauma, behavior analysis, and Internal Family Systems; Deran Young, LCSW, founder of Black Therapists Rock, who works with Brené Brown and does training on the topic of diversity, inclusion, and equality; and Zachary Taylor, MA, LPC, NCC, director of Psychotherapy Networker.

Lambers: After the killing of George Floyd, which affected me and my family deeply, I’ve been trying to stay boundaried-up, so I can be truly present for my clients who are wrestling with it too. Many of them are trying to figure out: How should I feel my grief? How should I feel my anger? How can I express it at home, at work?

I have other clients who are just now thinking about racism in this country for the first time. And I have to be just as present for them, without judgment. My challenge is to stay true to who I am as a Black man while helping them come to their own conclusions about what their role in this conversation should be. It’s a juggling act of emotions and professional obligations, and I’m glad that I get a chance to do it.

One client recently discovered that beneath her attempt to maintain a positive view of everyone was a harmful assumption: that bad things only happen to bad people. So every time she’d heard about police shooting a Black man, her mental picture had been of a violent and aggressive victim. Witnessing the death of George Floyd challenged this assumption and caused her to reflect on some past comments she’d made dismissing police brutality as an unfortunate overreaction or misunderstanding. Although admittedly unnerved by her previous lack of awareness, I admired her willingness to question her own beliefs, which I told her.

Amber: In my graduate program, they didn’t talk about how to wrestle with co-occurring, collective trauma. But with COVID-19 and then George Floyd’s killing, and so many others, that’s what’s been happening. As a Black clinician, I’ve been giving myself permission to recognize what I need to heal—that’s how I’m making sure I can still meet the needs of my clients. I make it a priority to be in nature every day. I’ve started a small victory garden, bought bikes to ride with my family, and I walk the dog around the block between sessions.

I’m no longer apologizing for creating that kind of space in my life. In fact, an art therapist and I have started a weekly group for women of African descent to help process our communal trauma. It’s our own journey to learn to anchor our inner parts, rather than demanding someone else soothe them for us.

Deran: I don’t think you can hold compassion for someone else in a time like this until you’re able to do that for yourself. And I believe that starts with accepting every part of who you are: your experiences, your privileges, your ability to tune in or tune out to certain things. That goes for everyone. As a Black woman, I’m deeply tuned in right now, and I believe that’s a privilege.

Lambers: I’m hoping this type of conversation about race isn’t just a fad. This could easily become, “You remember that time in 2020? Yeah, it got real serious, but things went back to normal.” We don’t want things to go back to a “normal.” Let this be the spark that increases understanding, reduces ignorance.

As a mental health professional, your willingness to not only allow but encourage discussion could result in any number of small but significant changes, like helping a parent facilitate healthier cultural conversations around a dinner table, or a teacher to have healthier cultural awareness for students. If your client is a politician or law enforcement officer, the impact you make could be even more immediate.

Amber: But the conversation has to start with White therapists asking themselves some questions. What are your implicit beliefs about Black people seeking therapy? What are the sensations that come up for you with a non-White client? What are your fears around being their therapist? What does it look like to develop a healthy White identity and culture?

Zach: Robin DiAngelo claims in “White Fragility” that a lot of White progressives are doing damage to people of color by letting a sense of defensiveness stand in their way of recognizing their implicit biases, even as they call themselves antiracists. I’ve got to tell you—as a White progressive, I’d never thought about that being true until a few weeks ago.

Lambers: For a lot of people, the challenge of that exploration is the fear of its implications. Owning the fact that you have biases, or a skewed perspective—everyone does—does not make you a bad person. The goal of the exploration is not to feel horrible about yourself, but to recognize how you can have an impact on someone that you didn’t intend to.

It’s like what you might hope for in couples therapy, when one partner says, “What you said hurt me,” and you see a lightbulb go on for the other partner. That lightbulb may not take away the pain, but it’s a genuine step toward healing. The next step is, “Now, are you going to take the time to learn how I need to be loved? How I need to be treated? How to not hurt me?”

Deran: This concept of good and bad people is deeply rooted in shame. I can hear a lot of those internal messages within myself: “I’m a good person. It doesn’t matter what someone says about me, because I’m a good person.” But rather than stay stuck in “good” and “bad,” it’s more helpful to reflect on my relationships. We all have an impact on each other. We’re all mistake makers, and there’s no shame in that. If I can hold compassion for myself, knowing I’m not always going to get it right, then I can commit to being in relationships with others who are like me and not like me.

I had a harsh childhood, and sometimes my inner critic can get really loud and forceful about protecting me from being hurt by “bad” people, or coming across as a “bad” person myself. As a natural caretaker and bleeding-heart social worker, it’s easy to help others with self-compassion, but I’ve had to work hard to give that to myself. It gets tricky when I catch myself making a judgement about someone else based on something they did or said, especially on social media, where I spend so much time. In those cases, I try to do what we call a “U-turn” in Internal Family Systems, coming back to myself.

That means asking the parts of me that are annoyed or angry or resentful what they’re protecting me from. Typically, if I dig deep enough, it’s feelings of shame and unworthiness. Then I give those younger, vulnerable parts of me some nurturing and care. So as a therapist, a friend, even as a single parent with big career dreams, the work is to say, “I’m a mistake maker, and I’m going to show up fully present in who I am today.” There are systems of racism and patriarchy all around us, but doing this inner work allows me to bring my full self to fighting against them.

Amber: There are parts of me that are people pleasers and fear making mistakes, too. So it’s easy for me to see the fear in White culture of saying the wrong thing in discussions about race. But it’s kind of like when you first started practicing as a therapist: There was always that fear of making a mistake with any client, getting it wrong. We all had to learn how to sit with that, how to have the confidence in yourself that you can learn from the mistakes, how to recognize what’s going on internally.

Deran: Given the Black experience in this country from the beginning, one of my own biases to work through now is the belief that White people don’t care. In my family, for generations, they’ve carried that burden and believed, “It’s on us. We’re going to have to take care of ourselves.” After all, White-supremacy culture is a part of every system: education, healthcare, police. It’s deeply rooted in the mental health world, too.

A big part of the marginalized experience in this society is being silenced. So my healing began when I started using my voice and being really honest about my experiences, especially about the microaggressions and discrimination I’ve experienced as a mental health professional. Because I thought there were only compassionate, empathetic people in this field, I tried to tell myself all through graduate school that it was all in my head, and that I was just too sensitive. But some of the comments students and staff made around social justice, welfare, and national policies were truly appalling and hurtful.

The pain of remaining silent continued into my career. As a therapist in the military, which predominantly comprises White men, I felt excluded and isolated to the point that I experienced a deep bout of depression after only a few years. It forced me to consider how race-based stress might be impacting my well-being—and my son’s. Would I be passing that legacy burden of silent depression in the Black community on to him?

After retiring from the military, I started Black Therapists Rock, a nonprofit to advocate for healing, increased resources, and awareness around race-based stress and generational trauma. Listening to other people talk about painful experiences that were similar to mine allowed me to understand it as trauma versus a failure to thrive on my part. I was able to identify negative racialized messages as coming from an external source—society.

This process has given me a legacy gift to share with my son: helping him talk to me about ways that racism has hurt him. We normalize it as a painful yet external challenge. I share affirmations and stories of our ancestors that help us feel proud and confident. I talk about the connection between oppression and privilege, and how important it is to be anti-oppressive when we meet others who seem different from us.

Lambers: Helping people of color give voice to their experiences—without minimizing them, without pathologizing them—is one of the things therapists can do for their clients. So if a Black client tells you in a session they were passed over for a job because of race, don’t immediately say, “Oh, maybe they were just looking for someone with different qualifications.” No, validate that feeling. Give it some time, consider it.

Maybe someone in an interracial marriage feels their partner’s family doesn’t really accept them. Don’t immediately counter with, “Well, did they actually say anything? Did they yell at you? Did they call you a name? Is it possible you’re overreacting?” You might say it in a soothing, positive tone, but it’s still invalidating someone’s experience because it doesn’t fit with your own.

Hopefully, more therapists will start to pause and say, “Maybe this is more common than I thought.” It doesn’t mean you don’t play a professional role in the room or have a valuable perspective to offer; it just means you know enough to own what you don’t know.

Amber: Owning what you don’t know means asking questions like, “What is that like for you? What’s it like for you to be in an interracial relationship? Teach me about how you identify. As a Black woman? A multiracial woman? A person of color? Do you identify as Dominican?” Black people aren’t monolithic. Be a student of the client’s life experiences.

Zach: I know there’s no manual for this, but how do I send the message to my Black and Brown clients that I want to listen to their experiences of racism? My feeling is that they might still feel uncomfortable talking with me about them.

Deran: Brené Brown recently said in a meeting, “Now’s not the time for White people to be comfortable or quiet.” And I was like, “Amen, sister!” So maybe it’s important to ask yourself why you may be feeling uncomfortable. What is it that might stop you from saying something to a Black client like, “I’m feeling some energy in the room that it might be uncomfortable for you to really deeply talk to me about certain things. What do you think?” You can share that experience. It’s not on them, it’s not on you. Let’s do this together. That’s my perspective, anyway.

Amber: Sure. But since it’s kind of a trend now to ask about the Black experience, I think it’s important to look at what you’re asking and why. Recently, a group of therapists asked me to be a part of their podcast. I believe they’re well-meaning therapists who just wanted to hear from a Black woman, but the way they asked me made it feel like they were fetishizing my pain. Here’s what they wrote: “We’ve been reading and watching news related to George Floyd’s murder and the killing of other Black citizens, and it led us to think we’d like to have a panel of Black African women talk about what it’s like to constantly fear for the lives of their sons, males, partners of color, and themselves from police violence.”

There’s nothing about healing in that statement. They just wanted me to share my trauma. They weren’t seeing me as a professional and then asking me to give of my time freely. It felt like they were fetishizing the pain by assuming I live my life in constant fear.

Lambers: Some therapists might be frustrated with this conversation. I can imagine them saying, “Fine, I get it in theory, but when I have my very next counseling session, what do I actually say? How do I broach the topic of recent events, of racial stress in general, without making it seem like I’m assuming I know how they feel? If I say, ‘I imagine you’re feeling pretty bad,’ is that going too far? If I say, ‘So how’s it been since the last time we met?’ is that not going far enough?”

Everybody’s trying to find their own voice, and it’s not like there’s a script to follow. But I might advise trying something like, “Hey, Amber, we’ve been hearing a lot of things on the news. I’m not sure how that’s affecting you, if at all. Is that something you’d like to talk about?”

It’s not saying, “Be my educator, be my professor.” It’s not saying, “Be completely vulnerable.” It’s an open-ended question. If they respond with, “You know what? I got other things going on that I’d like your help with,” at least they know they can come back to it. You’re giving them an invitation with some type of soft acknowledgment, and you’re not pushing your agenda on them. Just having you lob it out there could be a very pleasant surprise. It could be therapeutically beneficial for both of you.

Lambers Fisher, MS, LMFT, MDIV, is a marriage and family therapist specializing in multicultural counseling in private practice, nonprofit, and ministry environments.

Amber Flynn, MA, LCPC, NCC, is in private practice and specializes in race-based trauma, behavior analysis, and Internal Family Systems.

Deran Young, LCSW, is the founder of Black Therapists Rock and works with Brené Brown, training on the topic of diversity, inclusion, and equality.

Zachary Taylor, MA, LPC, NCC, is the director of Psychotherapy Networker.

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Psychotherapy Networker

For nearly 50 years, the Psychotherapy Networker magazine has been celebrated for its incisive and heartfelt articles on the challenges of clinical practice, the therapeutic innovations shaping the field, and the extraordinary experience of being a therapist.