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Empowering Inclusivity and Complexity – Why Culture and Context Matter in Therapy

I will never forget the moment that I was first exposed as being “different”.  I was in kindergarten, it was a sunny day, and when approaching a few kids in my class to play, I overheard one of them say to the others “her skin is too dark to play with us”.  I can still see the younger version of myself stop, as if I was frozen.  Feeling exposed, feeling sad, hurt, angry, confused and not knowing what to do about it.  Being a 5-year-old, it had not occurred to me that my skin color would ever be a reason that other kids might not want to play with me, or with anyone.  Other people in my family had even darker skin than me, including my dad and some of my Venezuelan family.  I also did not fully understand at that age how attending a Jewish kindergarten program in the U.S. with mostly White children and teachers, might not have prepared me for those kinds of comments from kids.   

Luckily, I was not in that school for long, but I went on to have experiences in other schools and spaces as I grew older.  I was mocked by peers and shunned for my hair/afro that I had in middle school; not being tipped as a waitress while supporting myself through school; being watched while I browsed in stores.  Even recently, as a working professional in my field, I was questioned extensively and mistreated when my business partner and I searched for office space for our practice.  Was this because we were women in business?  Women of color? I have often thought back to moments like these; moments that had an impact on me, moments that have an impact on other people of color.  And then there are examples of experiences regarding my faith and culture – the thousands of well-meaning “Merry Christmas” wishes I’ve gotten – overhearing countless antisemitic statements from acquaintances or even strangers, who don’t realize my full identity when they see my last name and assume that I must be Christian.  And how do I respond?  Should I correct them, and is it safe to do so?  While it can be exhausting to think of examples at times, I know that these experiences are common for so many, and throughout my life I could not help but wonder what the long-lasting result of experiences like this could be on a person, on a family, or on a community – or even on me.  I wondered if there would ever be room for all the parts of me to exist together. 

Even today, I find myself still wondering these same questions.  Except now, having a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology with a Marriage and Family therapy specialty, I have been able to find answers to some of these questions.  The truth is that people in marginalized groups have been faced with the dilemma of putting aside their own culture and experiences to try and fit in with what “mainstream” society requires, or risk isolation.  In the U.S., people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ individuals and families, people in poverty, all have experiences of not belonging in some way at some point in their lives.  For some there is a daily reminder of not belonging, and for others it is more subtle and leads to second guessing.  These experiences help to shape how people feel about themselves and how they feel about others.  Can these experiences impact a person’s mental health?  The answer is yes – without a doubt.  In studying psychology, sociology, and family systems, I have found that understanding a person’s full context is essential in this work if you are doing your client’s justice.  I would even take it a step further to say that if you are not looking at the context of a person, their identity, their family, their experiences of oppression, their strengths based in their own specific cultural values, you could potentially be doing real harm.  I would also boldly ask: What does it say about you and your own experiences if you are able to ignore this context?  I don’t believe that culture is separate from an individual and I never fully grasped why diversity and multicultural topics seemed to be taught as if they are separate entities.  Similarly, I don’t believe you can fully understand a person without understanding their family.  Families have been doing the hard work of healing for centuries and pulling strengths out of turmoil, which is incredible to watch and to experience and I believe therapy can truly aid this process.  One of the most important things that you can do in therapy to help people who have experienced systemic and interpersonal racism or other forms of oppression throughout their lives, is to help dispel the myth that they are in some way responsible for their own depression or anxiety.  This is deeply rooted intergenerational trauma, and should be treated as such.   

This is why co-founding CORE was so important to me.  I envisioned a place where clients could fully open up, be themselves, and not be pathologized for their experiences.  A place where both clinicians and clients can be understood without assumptions.  I wanted to help create a space for people, for families and couples, to be able to celebrate the unique parts of themselves and not experience any part of their identity as being separate, insignificant, or something to hide.  A place where people can be seen, and where complexity is celebrated.  I adore working with my clients, and it is wonderful to get feedback from them about the ways in which our practice is inclusive in a different way than they have experienced before.  I am a person who believes in community, and that extends to the many facets of my life.  I am proud to be building community at CORE. 

Dr. Amanda Rios, Psy.D. 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist 

CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment, PC 

[email protected]

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