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Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast in Therapy Settings

Today, I want to pay homage to the topic of culture in working with psychotherapy and consultancy clients.

Many of us – clients and clinicians alike – are what is called carriers of multiple cultures. In my work with clients, I have come to honor culture as a source of guidance, strength, a repository of ancestral wisdom to be recognized and utilized for the benefit of the client. I have learned that culture eats strategy for breakfast in therapy!

Meaning: any strategy – clinical or business – needs to be executed with close attention paid to the impact of the client’s culture.

At the age of two, I was once told, I came home from daycare one day finally speaking my first words with fluency and in complete sentences – in a different than my own language! This was because even then I was living in a new to me culture due to my family’s travels.

Time flew by. One thing stayed constant: my love for languages and cultures. As a high school student, I began taking foreign language classes – just for fun. With each language, I discovered a new culture, a new mindset, a new way of seeing the world. Speaking new languages transplanted me mentally into distant lands and made me wonder what it was like to live there.

Our wonderful planet is a home to so many languages and cultures! A lifetime is not enough, it seems, to study them all and immerse oneself in all there is to learn! Our beautiful state is a home to dozens of languages and cultures. We are able to vote in many languages and take a driver’s license examination in many as well!

Ideally, mental health services, such as psychotherapy, are rendered in a language that is matched to the client’s needs and preferences, whenever possible. This congruence helps the flow of things during the discussions and deep sharing that goes on.

Frequently, however, this is more of an aspirational goal than reality due to an overall shortage of providers, especially during a pandemic or a natural disaster, when the need for services skyrockets and we “build a plane as we fly it”, so to speak.

No quick solutions exist with regard to how to train a therapist to be culturally fluent, culturally humble, and culturally sensitive. Therapists study this topic in depth, on an ongoing basis, and strive to improve themselves with regard to being able to serve from a place of humility and sensitivity. Some may be fluent in two-three extra languages – but what about all the others that are out there, one might ask? On top of that, culture is so much more than different languages!

Culture will always trump strategy and eat it for breakfast. What can change is our ability to open channels of communication with regard to sharing feelings, thoughts, behaviors, habits of the mind, daily routines, and dimensions of our multiple cultures with our therapy providers in a more free-flowing fashion, without holding back.

It is a risk of sorts, but taking it will allow us to step over any perceived barriers and move with confidence into the therapeutic realm of naming problematic phenomena in a familiar language. We can bridge any gaps if we bravely cross the invisible line that holds back full cultural immersion and cultural sharing in therapy.


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