The psychology program at my college requires that we take core classes in different areas of the field: Developmental and abnormal psychology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology. Theoretically, this gives us a decent background in all disciplines before we move on to graduate school or whatever unrelated job we take on. This summer I decided to take my third required class, in cross-cultural psychology, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. Professors often post their syllabi, or at least their basic outline for the class, ahead of time, but this particular professor didn’t. I walked in on my first day with no idea of what it was going to be like.
My professor began the class by pointing out that most clinicians will go on to see patients without ever taking a class in cross-cultural psychology, and he decided to devote the action-packed summer quarter to explaining to us why that’s a problem. Basically, the gist is this: When you have a therapist and a client from different cultural backgrounds, particularly if the therapist is from a more dominant cultural group than the client, the therapeutic relationship is impaired. And in research, which lately has become the guiding influence in the practice of psychology, cultural unawareness can produce evidence-based practice that only has an evidence basis for a small portion of the population.
All this is true and right and good, and it seems self-explanatory when you hear about it in a classroom setting. But when you’re confronted with the fact that, as a well-meaning person from a dominant cultural group, you might be uniquely unsuited to guide people from certain groups through the therapeutic process, it gets a bit harder to process. I see myself as a basically good person. I try to go out of my way to do the right thing, even if I feel like an idiot in the process. And to hear that even my best intentions can harm someone I want to help is a hard thing.
This class and this particular professor has had me on the defensive since day one, because I feel like at the same time as I’m being asked to fix my own biases towards other cultural groups, I’m being forced to accept biases about my own identities. I feel like I can’t become a good and compassionate clinician unless I let go of parts of my own identity, that I can’t use my own experiences to inform my interactions with future clients.
It hasn’t made me question my desire to be a clinical psychologist. It hasn’t made me think that I wouldn’t be good at it. But it has made me think that I need to use the next few years of my life to become stronger in my own identities, to not feel threatened every time someone fails to acknowledge my own culture and history. I’m a senior in college, and even if I went straight to graduate school to become a certified mental health counselor, I still have another two years before I’ll be seeing patients.
Cultural psychology hasn’t changed my worldview that drastically. But it has showed me what I need to do in order to succeed in my chosen career. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, and it doesn’t always leave me feeling warm and fuzzy – and that’s OK. Change isn’t supposed to be easy.