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What's a "Social Justice Oriented Therapist?" My Interview with Adentro

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

Read below for a portion of Adentro's Edition 002 - January 2019  and my interview with the newsletter's founder, Marguerite.

a mental health newsletter.

hi. happy 2020. 

i first launched adentro in the fall of last year. a major step for a project i thought about and worked on for years before. though it was so exciting to read every single piece of feedback and congratulations, it was incredibly scary to start again on another edition. but — here i am, starting again. 

i also went through some growing pains. i moved out on my own for the first time and a small wave of depression really took over me while i was getting used to the change. everyone i reached out to about how hard it was to be alone told me 'this is normal, you're going to feel so much stronger once you get through it.' 

it was comforting to know that my friends felt similarly to me, but what i really wanted to feel was happy. though happiness can be so fleeting, and there are so many ups and downs to life, i thought sadness and guilt were wrong ways to feel in something that was such a move forward for me.

cue the frantic search for a therapist. i found one, finally after calling everyone listed in my insurance provider and leaving a ton of messages on voicemail (ew) a friend recommended a service that she had a great experience with. they got back to me and i've had 3 sessions so far. (TBD if i like her style yet) it took hearing that what i was going through was actually grief for me to accept all the feelings that overtook me. 

grief is a part of normal life. and doesn't have to always refer to death.

i had to grieve. i had to grieve being comfortable. grieve my mom not being close. grieve knowing what aisle the hot cheetos are in at the grocery store. 

even though there was so much good happening, there were a lot more endings than i expected. in all change, there is a loss.

that means all those resolutions we make, we're going to have to lose something (good or bad). i don't really do resolutions but right now, im just trying to be more accepting of myself at all stages. whether it's grief or fear, the feelings are real and deserve some space in my life. just not all of the space. 

right after i launched adentro the first thing that people told me they wanted adentro to help them with, was therapy. soon after i launched, i was introduced to lillian farzan, an associate marriage and family therapist focused on racial identity development and working with minoritized communities. casual job title much?

while therapy is a concept that i am pretty comfortable with myself, i know it is something that lots of people have little to no experience with. i knew i wanted to talk to lillian about therapy and the work that she does.

a natural therapist from childhood, (shout out fellow children of divorce) you can tell that helping others and giving them a space is at the root of everything she does. we spoke about the work she does, what to ask a new therapist, and her method of 'gentle curiosity' when it comes to her clients. listening to lillian talk about why she does her work made me so happy and encouraged that there are people like her out there in the world, for us. 

*this interview has been condensed for clarity. read a longer version of our conversation.

marguerite: tell me about yourself & the work that you do and are trying to do, always.

lillian: i am a social justice oriented therapist passionate about working with minoritized communities. whether that's black & brown people or the queer community, these marginalized communities  are the reason why i am in this industry. after i went to uc santa cruz for undergrad and learned more about systemic injustice, i was like, ‘okay, this is who i want to advocate for.’

marguerite:  what extra work are you doing to make sure you're catering to minority communities?

lillian: i am always leaning in with curiosity. i immerse myself in conversations surrounding social justice and intersectionality and i learn a lot about different cultures that way. however, i can't be imposing stereotypes on all of my individual clients. and i could never be able to know everything about every culture. so, when a client talks to me about, let's say, a custom or tradition or spiritual belief, i ask. i ask them about it. and then, i do my own research about those topics.

if i am working with someone who identifies in the gender and sexuality minority, i have to be open and honest about where my limitations are and lean in with gentle and respectful curiosity, and ask questions.

marguerite: curiosity is a good way of framing it. the teaching is just hard because you don’t want to spend your entire session educating someone on your culture. 

lillian: your therapist should be the last person to make you feel like you are a harmful stereotype, you don't want to have to teach your therapist lessons that are basic to you. the service is for you at the end of the day, not a learning opportunity for your therapist.

for instance, i'm persian and stereotypically in persian culture, there is this thing around keeping everything on the down low. there's this term that is sort of like, keep your business to yourself. on the outside we are showing to society that we drive a mercedes benz, and that our sons are doctors and lawyers. no one is gay. no one talks about sex. no one dates outside of their community. these are the unfortunate stereotypes. it would be wrong to impose all of that on a client of mine, because of where they come from. yes, that could be part of their history and it's a stereotype and it's often true, but let's say they come from a specific family like mine whose subculture is very different. i like to go in with a base knowledge and keep from projecting stereotypes.

marguerite:  what kind of questions should people be asking a new therapist? how would i know if it wasn't a good fit?

lillian:  this really depends on what the person is looking to get from the experience. for someone who is a survivor of sexual trauma, for example, it would be really important to find someone who has experience and training with that population. 

in another scenario, if a client is polyamorous or in the kink community i would encourage them to find a therapist who has at least a baseline knowledge about the community, or is at least open to learning about it. let's say, i'm polyamorous and i have a certain fetish. i might be scouting for a therapist and a great way to approach a professional might be to ask, "what is your perspective on polyamory and kink, i'm looking for someone that does not pathologize my lifestyle." 

besides the specific presenting issues, trust your gut. when you know, you know, i tell people the way that we click with certain friends and don't with other people could be similar in finding a therapist. 

i tell my clients that i'm trauma informed because i think that is a special specific skill set that not every therapist has. ideally clients need to be comfortable enough to tell therapists all of their secrets, that’s what you’re there for. you're coming for this really intimate space and if there's some sort of block: talk about it. there will be blocks regardless as there are in all human relationships.

with my clients that are of a different background i will ask them, “how do you feel, talking to me about said topic, being that i am not black or pakistani, for example, or being that i don't identify as queer, how do you feel about talking about this with me?” i think that speaks to the gentle curiosity that i was referring to.

marguerite: i think it definitely speaks a lot to who you are and why the work you do is so important. all of my past therapists have been all white women. not that i have ever had issues with that, but i've never been asked that question. for a long time, i disentangled my identity from what i was going through, and i never thought that they would be paired at all, because i couldn't even think about the extra layer. but in reality, my identity and my culture are completely tangled together.

lillian: it is so valuable to have a space that is yours. yeah, it’s different than having a really good friend listen to you because that is a reciprocal relationship. you are both giving time to one another, and your friends are biased and they're going to tell you to break up with your man. and that's great, it's important to have those friends.

but therapy is something entirely different. it’s to have an unbiased professional to speak to. and when i say unbiased it's like, “i'm still human.” but that’s the ideal and the objective. 

it’s really unparalleled to have that attention and not have someone judging you regardless of how many times you've gone back to your man, or help with how to deal with unhealthy relationships at work, or your parents for example, you don't have to listen to your therapists personal life, so it's just a really valuable mirror. to do something like that for yourself is as important, if not more, than going to the gym, eating healthy, or going to the doctor. despite popular belief, your mental health is as important as your physical health. 

marguerite: i know that many people experience feelings of shame when it comes to therapy. what can we do?

lillian:   we can talk about it. the difference lies in me telling my friends that i'm going to see my therapist today rather than an ominous, "i've got an appointment." discussing therapy can mitigate the long standing stigma.

i think suggesting that friends go to therapy in a non-shamey way and talking about the progress they experience themselves can work against this unfortunate idea that something must be wrong with you in order to take care of yourself.

marguerite: definitely and being like, “hey, have you thought of maybe going to talk to someone about this? i'm always here to listen but i'm also not as equipped.” or “i don't want you to feel any guilt for putting this on me, i want you to talk to someone that you can release all of this onto, and not have to feel any type of way.”

lillian: i also want people to know that they can and should ask all the questions that they might have when searching for a therapist. if you don't have any questions at first it's always okay to ask down the line. i'm a very relationship centered therapist. so that means that i place the value on the therapeutic relationship: i think change happens in safe and supportive environments. if i say something to one of my clients that rubs them the wrong way or they need clarification around that, i'm always inviting feedback. i love when my clients ask “what do you mean by that?"

it hasn't happened in a long time but i think there are situations which could lead to ruptures in therapeutic relationships. if you and your therapist can move beyond that, it could make the relationship even more solid, and it could be a great model for our relationships with other people. there's always going to be confrontation in relationships.

but therapy is an opportunity to model healthy communication. and consistency. your therapist is going to be there next week and that’s a great thing to count on and feel contained by.

Access all that adentro has to offer here:

Follow adentro on Instagram at @adentr.o

View Adentro's Edition 002 - January 2019 here.

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