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How to Do Therapy With Founder of Brown Girl Therapy, Sahaj Kohli

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Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash (Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash)

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.


If you don't feel comfortable with someone you're not going to want to put in the work that goes into healing and growth with that person. And that's just going to be a waste of your time and theirs.

When you do find that therapist who feels right for you right now, it really is life-changing. I don't say that lightly. I personally have experienced that. I don't think that the therapist I saw when I was in New York would be a good fit for me right now. But at the time, it was the perfect fit and it was life-changing for me.

Side note: When you're looking at therapist databases don't be scared to look at credentials. There are licensed clinical social workers, licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists. And there are therapists with a Psy. D, which is a doctorate in psychology, Ph.D., which is a doctorate in philosophy, or an MD, which would be a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication. You want to make sure that you're seeing someone who is licensed. I think databases do a good job of screening for that, but I think it's important because you want someone who has gone through extensive years of training and supervision and is studied in identifying patterns, dealing with mental health issues or specializes in what you’re looking for. On that note, I think a lot of people actually benefit from supplementing therapy with another type of healing, like coaching or Reiki. There is never one way to get the kind of help you want, but it's more of a matter of not feeling deceived by what you're looking for. If you're looking for a licensed therapist, then make sure that you're actually looking for a licensed therapist.

Break Down Your Own Stigmas

Three of the big reasons that I hear people are hesitant to start therapy are the stigma in the community, the cost and questioning whether it is even for you because it doesn’t look like you. So the stigma is a societal and cultural issue that we just have to continuously deconstruct. And that happens by normalizing therapy and mental health care, and by talking about it just in the same way that we would talk about going to go see a doctor when we have the flu.

Cost is a very real factor and I think that it can be one of the biggest barriers to seeking therapy. I urge people to ask for sliding scales. Therapy is a product and it's a service that you are asking to hire someone for. Feel comfortable asking if they will offer sliding scales.

  • Ask about cost and sliding scales during the consultation process or try to find if it's available on the therapist's website.
  • If you have insurance, call to get a list of people in the network (this can also help narrow down the list)
  • You can also consider finding a new therapist — someone fresh out of graduate school or a clinic that may be a part of a graduate program where the cost can be more accessible.
  • Also, group therapy can be cheaper and you will work through a program with other people who share in your identity or struggle.

And then lastly, I mentioned questioning whether it's even for you. I know firsthand how white the counseling and mental health spaces are. I've been in it from all sides — as someone who has seen a therapist for years and as someone who is studying to be a minority therapist AND someone who's actually looking for a therapist right now. As I said before, don't assume that your therapist will be more effective if they come from the same background as you, and it's really important not to rule anyone out because of that.

All therapists should be curious about how your identity, culture and struggles affect you regardless of whether or not they share in them.

With that said, though, I know mental health care is such a personal, vulnerable, scary and stigmatized thing still, that a lot of people feel more comfortable when they know that the person helping them or the person that they're about to share their deepest secrets or vulnerabilities to can relate in some way.

Have a candid conversation during the consultation process. Some questions you can ask are:

  • How does multiculturalism inform your practice?
  • Have you ever worked with someone from my background?
  • In what ways have you done your own identity work?

I think in a lot of Eastern cultures and communities where collectivism is a big part of the belief system, seeking therapy can be seen as a failure, whether it's you failing to help yourself or your parents' community failing to help you. It's important for Asian Americans and our communities to deconstruct these beliefs and reconstruct them as therapy not being something to be ashamed of.

Trying to be the best version of yourself is not wrong. Seeking support for something that is hard for you is not wrong.

Therapy essentially nurtures a person's sense of self-help and self-actualization. And this does not mean that you don't care about your community or are selfish. It just means that you want to be better in touch with who you are.

The Western style of therapy is called individual therapy, and it’s not always aligned with the values people from Eastern cultures hold. They may urge you to individuate from your family unit, to set harsher boundaries than you're comfortable with. And that's a part of the process of looking and finding the right therapist, because there will be therapists out there who will take your culture into consideration, who will be curious about what finding an agency looks like for you within the system that you live in, and there will be therapists who don’t get it sadly.

Mendoza: I'm seeing in my social media normalization of talking about trauma. How do you figure out when the practices and rituals are no longer serving you and it’s time to consider therapy?

Kohli: That’s a very valid question. It’s easy to get inundated on social media, especially with therapists on Instagram sharing all of these tips and techniques and things to consider.

I'm a therapist-in-training, but even on Brown Girl Therapy, I try to provide resources and reflections for folks to be able to engage in this healing work on their own. A part of that, at least for me, is because mental health isn't totally accessible to everyone. I think these resources can be really great for trying to do the work on your own.

But social media and Google are not a replacement for therapy, nor is information on these platforms individualized enough to be prescribed advice for people following them.

The actual act of having that release, building that rapport or that relationship with a professional who is trained in this work is very different. You can find all the coping skills on the internet. But when you're seeing an actual therapist, you're learning much more than just the coping skills. You're learning about where your behaviors stem from, where they're rooted, how you could change your perspective on certain things, how you can live more and show up more authentically in different relationships, and why certain relationships are harder for you than others. It's just not the same thing.

Mendoza: Do you have suggested language for folks to use when they're in a session and may feel like they need to advocate for themselves?

Kohli: I encourage people to feel comfortable speaking up when something doesn't feel right, especially immediately in the session. If a therapist says something that made you feel bad in the moment or felt shamed (even if you have been working with them for a long time) it's important to be communicative in the moment because that's the only way to really repair that. Also remember that 1. Therapists are human and 2. A lot of the ways we engage with our therapist can reflect how we engage with the outside world, so use that relationship as a practice ground to speak up and advocate for yourself!

I also want to remind you that you are paying someone to provide services and if you don't feel like the services that you're getting are useful or helpful to you, you deserve to bring that up. So you can say, “Hey, I just want to take a second because you said X, and that made me feel Y and I don't feel good about that. Can we talk about it?”

You could wait until after the session and send an email, which I have done before. I don't like to bring stuff up in the moment face to face. And then my therapist had said that we can talk about it in the next session and I appreciated that she made room for it. The one thing you don't want to happen is you don't want to not say anything and then just bite your tongue and it becomes something that festers throughout. If you're not comfortable and find you don't have that trust and rapport with the therapist and then you're not going to get everything that you should be getting out of it.

Mendoza: If it gets to a point where you feel as if you low-key need to break up with your therapist, how do you do that?

Kohli: I was very nervous when I had to break up with mine. It's hard. People break up with therapists for different reasons, right? Either you feel like you don't need it anymore, which is totally OK, or you don't feel like it's a right fit anymore. There are other reasons, too, like inaccessibility, which I think are easier because you can point to something and say, like, I can't access this anymore. But when it comes to the first two, it's OK if you got such a good experience out of it for six months and then realized you don't feel good in this relationship anymore.

It can be really scary because you've been so vulnerable and this person might know really deep things about you that maybe you haven't shared with anyone else. It can feel even harder because you're like, ‘Oh, I don't want to upset this person,’ or ‘I don't want them to feel bad.’ Your therapist should always support your journey. What we like to say in the mental health field is, as a therapist, we're trying to work ourselves out of a job.

But the whole point of seeing a therapist is so that the therapist can help you enough that you're not going to need to see a therapist anymore. And so when it's time to end your time with the therapist, it's OK if it brings up emotions — it's the end of a relationship. They should never make you feel like you're wrong. And if they do, then I think that says more about them as a therapist than it does about what it is you need at that moment.

Sahaj Kohli, is a first-generation Indian American and founder of Brown Girl Therapy.


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