Can a therapist who is not like me, help me?
Clients need to connect with their counselors and feel comfortable enough to talk about their lives. I think all counselors agree that a strong client-counselor relationship helps therapy be much more effective. But can that relationship form well if the counselor and client are very different in terms of age, sex, race, ethnicity, disability status, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, political views, or gender identity? Do clients need to find a counselor who is very much like them?
There are obvious benefits to having a counselor who is similar to the client. Clients may feel that with a counselor of similar background, they have to explain less and indeed, that may be true. For example, some clients who need help with workplace and career issues, want to work with me because of my consulting experience. Many counselors do not have that experience and there is a whole corporate culture that is difficult to explain to someone who hasn't lived it. This is probably a good example of an advantage of having a counselor who is similar.
There are also disadvantages to counselors and clients being very similar. Here are a few to think about:
- Counselors can't be friends with their clients during, and generally for a long, long time after therapy, if ever. If clients and counselors have too much in common, it might be sad for both the client and the counselor that they can never have a social relationship.
- When a client is very similar to their counselor, the counselor might assume that things about themselves are also true for the client. For example, if you have a counselor and client from the same religious group, the counselor could assume the client has similar religious views when actually, they have a very different perspective.
- Content versus process: Therapists are usually focused on process. We think about how the client is thinking, how they are processing emotions, and how they are behaving. The more content a therapist shares with their client, the harder it is to focus on the process of the client's experience. Usually it's the process that can be improved to help a client suffer less.
Like many things in counseling and life, there is no clear answer as to how similar a counselor should be to their client. Similarity can help the client and counselor build a good working relationship, quickly. That said, it can also be a distraction and a good counselor will work extra hard when they're working with a similar client, to keep themselves focused on process and to constantly remind themselves that they have to be every bit as curious, inquisitive, and open-minded as they would be with a client who is completely the opposite.