We believe Truth Be Told is the space where Black, Indigenous and people of color can talk to each other about identity and find wisdom within our own communities. We get questions from our listeners all the time, but we can't answer them all in our podcast. So we are trying something new by introducing “Conversations with Wise Ones.”
You may have noticed on the show that we consistently say therapy is the answer to many of our listener questions. Now, we want to break it down a bit, specifically, how to find a therapist, how therapy sessions work, and when it’s time to close out of Instagram and find a therapist to support you.
We talked with Sahaj Kohli, founder of Brown Girl Therapy, the largest wellness and mental health community created for first- and second-generation immigrants. Brown Girl Therapy began as a passion project while Kohli was working full time as a journalist, and now, it has grown into a newsletter, conversations clubs, gatherings and workshops that Sahaj creates and facilitates herself. Kohli is also a therapist-in-training at George Washington University. She joined Truth Be Told engagement producer, Isabeth Mendoza, for a conversation on the difference between scrolling to find coping skills versus seeing a therapist, and how to navigate the search process.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Resources mentioned for multiculturally competent and affirming therapy are Open Path Collective, Asian Mental Health Collective, Inclusive Therapists and National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network.
Isabeth Mendoza: How did you figure out you needed therapy and how did you find a good fit?
Sahaj Kohli: When I was in college, which was over a decade ago, I saw my college counselor because therapy is free and accessible on college campuses. So it was one of those things where I was like, ‘Why not? You know what? What do I have to lose?’ As a South Asian, and a child of immigrants, I grew up in a family where we were really enmeshed, and I was always expected to put my family first, even if I had other plans. So going to counseling in college, during my formative years and even just for a few sessions, really helped me self-actualize that I am an individual outside of my family.
The second time I pursued therapy was after I experienced something traumatic in my early 20s. I was living at home, and I was not in a good place and my parents were as supportive as they knew how to be (which is something I was only able to acknowledge years later). But I knew that I needed professional help and that was really new for them. They immediately saw it as something that was a reflection of their parenting or something that they did wrong and can fix on their own. So a lot of that process was trying to help them understand that what I was going through had nothing to do with them and is not a reflection of them failing me. Unfortunately, it didn't really end with me getting the help I needed at that time. Thankfully, I had a solid support system outside of my family that allowed me to begin the healing journey.
When I moved to New York a few years later, that's actually when I sought therapy for myself. Again, at that point, I was privileged enough to be financially independent, to be physically away from my family, and to be able to make these decisions for myself. I initially found my therapist through a referral from a friend’s therapist because she specialized in trauma.
It never really crossed my mind that maybe I should consider looking for someone who understood my upbringing or shared background with me or anything else. I looked at it the way a lot of people seem to look at therapy, which is, this is a health professional.
They should know how to work with me no matter what. I got lucky and worked with my therapist for three years.
I got really lucky. My therapist was really helpful, and I was with her for three years. It was a really good experience for me in self-actualizing and learning to explore my own emotional needs, my own relationship struggles, my own everything.
While we ended therapy for other reasons — I felt ready and was in a season of change — there did come a point near the end of my therapy with her (she was a white woman) where I did start to feel like there was a little bit of judgment and a little bit of misunderstanding about my culture. I would always write it off because at that point it had been a few years and she had helped me so much. But now, looking back, I think that that is what is one of the biggest fears for Asian Americans and South Asians and people of color: ‘Why go to someone who will probably never be able to relate to my experiences and who will probably judge me or shame me for them?’
It's a very real fear. And that's why I think the process of looking for a therapist is really important. It's really important to be intentional, to be really curious, and to remember that that process is as much about you getting to know the therapist as it is them getting to know you.
Mendoza: What advice would you share with a listener who’s question is: How do you even start looking for and finding the right therapist? We are all unique hybrids and we share our parents' past and traumas whether we like it or not.
Kohli: Unfortunately, finding a therapist is a daunting process. Still, I am a strong believer that therapy can be useful for everyone when you find the right fit. Therapy can be utilized for dealing and healing from trauma, but also it can be used to be a personal development tool. For Asian Americans, especially children of immigrants, a therapist is a great way to learn and build the toolkit for effective communication in relationships, boundary setting, navigating our identity struggles, navigating our learned behaviors and mindsets that might be a product of intergenerational trauma passed down from generations before us, and ultimately exploring the agency that we do have within the systems that we live in and work in and love.
Get Clear on Your 'Why'
The first thing people really need to consider before seeking therapy is getting clear on why:
- Why do you want to go to therapy?
- What are you hoping to gain from it?
- What are your current struggles that you are hoping to manage after you've been in therapy, say, every week for six months?
- What is the goal?
I think it's important to get clear on the why because if you don't know why, it will be really hard to find the right fit. If you can confidently speak to what your needs are, it'll be that much more helpful in finding someone who can help you with those specific needs.
Get Clarity on What It Looks Like
I think it's also important for people to view finding a therapist as a contractual agreement. You're looking for a professional to provide services for you. So the consultation and the first few sessions are as much about you getting to know the therapist as it is about them getting to know you. During the consultation, ask what therapy looks like in the room with them. This will give you an idea of their approach. Every therapist does therapy in different ways. Some therapists might be really engaged, talkative, give you homework, be action-oriented and be more directive. Whereas other therapists may be more passive, not ask that many questions or might focus just on your past and not your future or present.
- If you know that you are someone who wants to go to therapy and wants to be given homework between sessions, you want it to be really collaborative, then you can say that. The therapist will say that is or is not how they practice therapy.
- If you’re someone who isn’t sure what you need, tell them that, too!
- It's really important to bring forth all of your fears, or anxieties, or reservations because you can learn a lot about the therapist by how they engage with you about these concerns and questions.
Statistically, the number one indicator of success in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and client. So, it’s very important that you are comfortable with your therapist. For folks who might have not had a positive experience in therapy before or maybe they had their first consultation call that didn't really go well, I want to say I'm sorry you didn't have a good experience. I do encourage people to keep trying. It is like dating in that way. You're going to find people who you might click with just for a few sessions and then it doesn't feel right anymore. You might find someone that on the first consultation call, you just didn't get a good feeling. Trust your gut. Trust your instinct.