Healing Ancestral Wounds: Six Tips to Finding a Therapist

By Rosa Alvarez

As queer and trans people of color (QTPOC),  living within the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race means that we must often navigate life by dealing with discrimination and hate. For some of us, our identities intersect with issues related to immigration, socioeconomics and xenophobia, among others. We live in a world that was not made for us, but was set up to make us struggle, fail, and perish. We carry the trauma inflicted upon our ancestors through history of enslavement, genocide, and persecution, passed onto us from generation to generation. While our families do their best to care for us in the ways they know how, they may not always have the tools to be fully available and supportive to us in all the ways we need them to be.

I have great respect for my mom, who grew up poor in a small rural town in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. She married my dad when she was very young, had four children, and was the main source of the family’s stability when my dad drank too much and ensued violence on our home. After years of enduring this violence, she gathered the courage to leave behind everything she knew in search for a better life. We came to the United States when I was nine years old, and I witnessed and shared the challenges she faced in settling into a community that never fully accepted her. Despite struggling, she always provided a roof over my head, food on the table, and warm clothing to wear during Wisconsin winters. But there were moments in my childhood and adolescence when life challenges and traumatic experiences did not require shelter, food, nor clothing, but a mother’s embrace letting me know that I was not alone, and that it was okay to feel the way I felt. This was not my mom’s forte. Don’t get me wrong, I have come to understand that my mom loves me very much in her own ways, but the ways she loves me are not always the ways I need her to love me. I have always felt emotionally distant from her, which is something I continue to struggle to understand and come to terms with to this day.

To reconcile some of the pain I feel in working through my distant relationship with her, finding empathy for her experience has helped me understand that my mother is also an imperfect human being with demons of her own and barriers set in front of her that she cannot control. As an immigrant woman she survived domestic violence, economic hardship, persecution, and discrimination. Like me, perhaps her childhood wounds went unresolved, and she was left to manage the pain of life alone. While this does not justify her emotional absence during traumatic childhood moments of my life, nor her negative reaction to me coming out to her in my early 30’s any easier, it does help me put into perspective that she was simply not capable of providing the support that I needed. As an adult, I am responsible for my own healing, for finding professionals and a community that will enable me in my journey, and will be supportive of the person I continuously evolve into. Each of us is charged with the task of caring for ourselves, to heal deep wounds, to parent the child inside of us. While this is no easy task, good news is that healing works in both directions. If we work on healing our own trauma, it not only serves in healing future generations, but it also servers in healing our ancestors’ unresolved trauma.

But we can’t do this alone. With the intersecting barriers that we face as QTPOC, we need someone who has the necessary tools to help us along our healing journey. It can be difficult to acknowledge when we need help from a professional, especially within communities of color where we often hear that therapy is a white people thing. We are taught by society, and our families as well, that we just have to be tough through even the most difficult adversity. But suffering is a part of life, central to the human experience. Believing that we must suffer alone creates more barriers in taking care of ourselves. In fact, therapy is not just a white people thing. The Aztecs had healers called tonalpouqui, who used psychotherapy to help individuals within the community to reestablish emotional equilibrium.While most of the healing methods of the tonalpouqui were abolished and extinguished by colonization, curanderismo and traditional practices survived as a blend of Indigenous, Mediterranean and African medicines. Asking for help, seeking therapy and healing is therefore one of the bravest things we could do to honor the prevailing spirits of our ancestors.

Image: View of Popocatepetl from Iztaccihuatl in the state of Mexico, just outside of Mexico City.

I have been going to individual therapy for nearly two years, and group therapy for over a year. Finding the right therapist, someone who I could trust and build a healthy and secure relationship with, has been key to the growth I have made and will continue to make. When I was searching for a therapist, I remember thinking that it was really important to find someone who could understand and relate to my experiences as a woman of color and could help me navigate the new thoughts I was having about my sexuality. Therapists who can personally relate to all of those things are hard to come by, although not impossible. Regardless of this reality, there are things we can do to find a therapist that has explored their own personal identities in order to serve people who experience multiple forms of oppression.

So, if you are considering looking for a therapist, here are some tips in finding the right person for you!

Think about your goals.

“What brings you to therapy?” This is the first question most therapists ask when you walk into their office. Think about what it is that you want to get out of therapy during your search for the right person, so that you can assess whether they will have the tools needed to help you. Your goals are likely to change and evolve as you progress through multiple sessions, and that’s okay. Sometimes, once we get started, things we never knew were hiding under the surface will present themselves to us, and therapy should provide a safe space to do the work.

Look for the right person.

Communicate the things you most need to potential therapists. Don’t be afraid to state that you are looking for someone of a specific gender, a person of color, or even a queer person as a therapist, especially if that is important to you. For me, it was especially important to find a woman of color as my therapist, so I included this in every email I sent and every phone conversation I had. Some therapists may decide to disclose information about their own identities, especially when this will benefit in building trust with their clients.

Ask about insurance.

If you have insurance, ask if they take it. Therapy can be expensive, so it is ideal if your preferred therapist is also in your network. If you don’t have insurance, or find the perfect therapist, but they don’t take your insurance, ask about a sliding scale. Although I had insurance when I started therapy, my therapist was not in the network, so she offered me a rate that I could afford. You might also want to check if your insurance provider offers out-of-network benefits. Although this may be a bit more expensive, it might be worth it if you find a therapist who is a perfect fit.

Ask about their understanding of oppression.

As people who experience multiple forms of oppression, it is important to find a therapist who understands the way oppression works, even if they do not share the same identities as us or experience oppression in the same ways. Ask questions like, What informs your understanding of oppression? How do you hold space for clients who experience oppression? Don’t take generic answers at face value. It is common for people who do not have a good understanding of oppression to give cookie-cutter answers, so ask for examples or a deeper explanation if you feel like you need it.

Ask about their training and treatment approaches.

There are many different forms of therapy, each of which is helpful in healing different issues. Because different problems require different solutions, many therapists use multiple approaches, which is generally a good sign. The most common forms of therapy are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Somatic methods, among others. Some therapists also incorporate holistic and traditional practices into their own work, or encourage their clients to seek those services. If there is a form of therapy you have in mind, or something specific (e.g. trauma) you are looking to heal, ask about it.

Shop around

The worst thing you could do is settle for someone who doesn’t feel right for you.  Call and visit several therapists before you commit long term. It is also okay to reevaluate your decision after having several sessions with a therapist and realize you don’t like them, are feeling uncomfortable, or are simply looking for something different. Going to therapy involves a lot of trial and error, so don’t give up if you don’t find someone you like right away. Therapy is supposed to be about you, what you need, what makes you feel safe, so don’t worry about making the therapist feel bad about themselves if it’s not working out for you.  Prior to finding the therapist I am currently working with, I would go to three or four sessions with someone, but my interest in continuing quickly dwindled after that and I stopped going all together. In retrospect, I think I would stop going to therapy because I hadn’t found the right person for me.

Of course, this list is not all inclusive, and there may be things you realize you need along your journey that I may have missed. Always listen to and follow those insights. If you are wondering where to even get started in looking for someone, Psychology Today is a great tool to use. The website offers a profile database of Social Workers, Licensed Professional Counselors, Psychologists, and other mental health providers, including a description of their practice, treatment approaches, client focus and insurance. However you go about finding a therapist, I hope you find someone who walks beside you as you navigate your journey.

What are some tips that you have to offer others on finding a therapist? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!