Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Often, when we get phone calls to our practice, potential clients request a therapist in Fort Lauderdale of a specific age, gender, orientation or culture. There seems to be belief that the more alike we are to a therapist, the better the fit, and the more effective the therapy.
It’s true that there is research to suggest identity factors of a therapist play a role in how good a fit may be; nonetheless, one of the most consistent findings over the past 40 plus years has demonstrated that it’s the quality of a therapeutic relationship that best correlates with treatment outcomes.
“It’s the relationship that heals,” writes renowned psychiatrist and existential therapist Irvin Yalom. So the question is, does the identity markers of client and therapist need to be the same in order for therapy to be effective?
Myths about therapy, debunked
First, a few of the myths and alternatives to consider when feeling attached to choosing a therapist that’s just like you.
- The therapist is too young. If a therapist appears youthful, you might think that they don’t have enough life experience, they haven’t gone through all you’ve gone through, or they could be your child/grandchild. “What can they tell me that I don’t already know?” you might ask.
When contemplating working with a younger therapist, it might be helpful to consider a few alternative perspectives. First, a younger therapist is likely to be very passionate and energetic about their work, instead of burnt out. Further, they were likely trained with the latest and most current research. And of course, a therapist with a different vantage point may offer a perspective you haven’t considered which may benefit you.
- The therapist is too old. If you consider a therapist too old, you may think they won’t understand you and your generation. It could be assumed that they’ll have different values, that they’ll judge you, or it will be like talking to your parents.
When working with a therapist that’s older than you, it might be helpful to consider they’ve had lots of professional experience and wisdom. Remember that a critical part of being a therapist is being non-judgmental. So even if you have life differences, a good therapist will not judge you for it. Further, remember that there are a lot of values that are shared across generational lines.
- The therapist is a different gender or sexual orientation. You may think that a therapist that is different from you in these areas won’t understand you or your struggles.
It’s well recognized that there has been harm caused by healthcare professionals to their patients by way of misogyny, homophobia, bigotry, racism, and stigma. Because of such harm, it’s completely understandable and natural to want to work with a provider who identifies similarly to you. And if that’s important to you, this article is not discouraging that. Instead, the intention here is to offer additional information for your consideration.
Many therapists include in their marketing and advertising materials if they are a safe person to work with. Such clinicians usually make a point to describe their stance as an ally and dedication to principles of anti-oppression. A therapist who identifies themself as an ally should have additional training and experience in working with diverse populations.
All therapists – and allied therapists in particular – should be skillful in their ability to empathize, which is the act of putting oneself in another’s situation. A good therapist does not have to have the same experiences as you in order to support and validate your unique experience in the world. Further, therapy can help clients work through and manage interpersonal differences in a productive way. In other words, you could have a wonderful professional relationship with a therapist that is a different gender, sexual orientation, or other identity marker.
What does science say about therapist-client differences?
A 2019 meta-analysis (aka, a systematic review of multiple research findings) – conducted by a task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) – sought to categorize the effective parts of the therapy relationship.
The results identified the following traits as “demonstrably effective” and contributing to positive outcomes in individual psychotherapy:
- The therapeutic alliance
- Goal consensus
- Collecting and delivering client feedback and positive regard/affirmation.
You may notice that none of the findings listed above were based on similarities or differences between the therapist and client. That being said, awareness and/or issues of differences in age, sexual orientation, background and culture will likely need to be addressed over the course of therapy.
In what ways could working with a therapist that’s different from you be beneficial?
- One, differences may allow for a corrective or healing experience. It allows for an opportunity to create new beliefs and may modify rigid rules.
- Second, there may be more space for objectivity and offer a perspective that you may not have considered or even been conscious of. For example, when I spend time with a younger colleague, I almost always learn something!
- Third, it’s an opportunity for growth and stepping out of your comfort zone.
- Fourth, an individual with a different background may have different knowledge, different training, and different experiences. Differences and acceptance are part of any healthy relationship. Therapy provides a great opportunity to practice navigating those differences!
- Lastly, could focusing on some of those differences actually be a way of avoiding your emotional discomfort? What would it be like to go through the discomfort and have the opportunity to experience it, and increase your emotional tolerance?
If you choose to try and work with a therapist that’s different from you, commit to giving it at least 3 or 4 sessions to decide if it’s a good fit. If you have a trauma history that’s impacting your decision, start with a therapist with whom you feel comfortable and develop a plan to work with someone “different” when you’re ready. And by ready, I don’t necessarily mean comfortable, but more confident in your ability to handle your discomfort. Lastly, if you see your options as either a therapist that shares similarities or no therapy, please choose therapy!
In conclusion, the most effective therapy doesn’t require a therapist that is “like” you. What’s more important is the relationship itself and the ability to address how those differences may impact therapy. As a matter of fact, those differences may push you a bit out of your comfort zone, provide learning, alternate perspectives, and most importantly some healing you didn’t think was possible. At TPG, we have a great group of diverse therapists, and I feel confident, I would benefit from sitting on any of their couches!
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