On being the therapist in your family

Nicole De Khors / Burst / Used under licenseIf you didn’t know this about me, I’m a white woman. Most psychotherapists are white women. (See the demographics of psychologists as an example.) When I sat down to write about how families respond when a family member starts down the road to becoming a therapist, I knew that culture and family background would have a lot to do with it. So instead of just focusing on my own experience, I decided to also interview some of my colleagues, to see what it was like being the therapist in their families. The differences surprised me.

My experience

When I started my therapy career, I noticed that I was gradually treated differently by my family. As the youngest in my immediate and extended family, I was always treated in a way that was consistent with the role of the “baby” in the birth order. My family was lenient with me, and in return, I was “the life of the party.”

As my education progressed and I moved to job titles in the mental health field, slowly the dynamics in my family changed. My role was redefined to the confidant and keeper of family secrets. My relatives started opening up to me about their own mental health. I learned things about members that they hadn’t made known in the rest of the family. Some relatives said that they felt like “the oddball,” and I was able to provide them with a sense of understanding and acceptance.

If my extended family were open with each other about their mental health history, they would see that we’re all actually very similar. It’s not unusual now to be contacted by friends of my family members that they had referred to me for recommendations or advice. I have a new sense of respect, and am seen more as a wise adult than a forever baby. That feeling is unfortunately not shared by the colleagues I spoke to from different backgrounds.

My colleagues

A few friends of mine come from families full of mental health practitioners. This may come with some competition or feeling like constantly having to prove your competence. Others are the first and only therapist in the family, which comes with its own challenges.

I have a female friend who moved to the United States from the Philippines at age 10. She reported that her family always had high expectations for her to do “something big” with her life, like become a doctor or a lawyer. She said that when explaining her career as an MFT, there was a lot of confusion from her family. The main questions she got were, “Why didn’t you get your PhD? Why are you not called ‘Doctor’?” It didn’t help that the length of time for her to complete her master’s degree and completing her 3,000 hours for licensure was the same amount of time it could take to get a PhD. There appears to still be a stigma in her family because they make passive comments like, “You should have pursued a real science.”

A male colleague of mine is a second generation immigrant from Syria. He shared that his family has always been supportive, and they are open to the concept of mental health. They were, however, perplexed by the outcome of his educational investment, saying comments like, “You went to grad school, why aren’t you making more money?” Regardless of his degree, he is still expected to somehow take over his family’s business (which is not related to mental health). They treat his passion for therapy as a side job, or worse, a “hobby.” He reported that his family expects him to fully financially support his future wife and family when he settles down, something that is often difficult for a therapist to do alone.

Another male friend of mine who I had a discussion with said that his family is pretty “Americanized,” and race was not as much of a factor as his gender. He is an MFT in a family of accountants and lawyers. He described their reaction to his career choice “as if I got a degree in fingerpainting.” He reported that they are supportive of him for pursuing his passions, but they have a lack of interest. He feels like they ask him about his life quickly to “just get it out of the way.” They often change his conversations about social justice into drier, and perhaps safer, discussions about economic policies.

Our work as therapists is deeply challenging, even when our families are open and supportive. The events we address with our clients every day can be traumatizing to the average person. So it’s understandable that some therapists’ families would not understand why we would do this work, when other fields are available that might pay better. One thing that I’m grateful for is the added sense of kinship that we can develop with colleagues through our school cohorts, workplaces, and in the online community. We provide each other with support, understanding, and empathy because of what we do. Still, this kinship we experience as professionals can never fully replace the experience of having a supportive family to come home to. Where I faced some transition in family dynamics over time, my friends from different backgrounds faced dismissal, judgement, and rejection.

We don’t often talk about family support as a diversity issue for therapists, but these conversations with colleagues helped me see an uncomfortable reality. Here was just one more way, among many, where my colleagues faced hurdles to becoming therapists that I simply did not.