There’s sort of an insider story among therapists about how your specialization is usually some part of your own story. My personal work on owning my assertiveness, learning to set compassionate but clear boundaries, and managing a degree of anxiety about the perpetual drive for improvement (it’s great in small doses!) makes me excited to work with other folks who are generally aware of similar patterns in themselves but aren’t sure how to shake them loose. Other times, the link isn’t so obvious.
People expect you to have a really specific answer when you work with such a specific niche. When I introduce myself with my pronouns in certain situations and mention my focus on transgender health, people will give me the once-over and assume I must be trans (I’m not). My response to the assumption is usually to give some version of, “I do this because I know what gender-based violence feels like, and as a cisgender woman I have it relatively easy,” or “so many people of trans experience have become really important in my life over the years and I support this community,” or “the more aware of oppression I become, the more I want to further the mission of equity and service to some of the most vulnerable people.” While all true, none of those really satisfies people. Or maybe they don’t really satisfy me.
I was talking recently with a colleague who owns a medical clinic serving the transgender community, and we were trying to explain to each other something we both intuitively knew. She said something that resonated with me. “This is one of those callings that just finds you.” That comes pretty close to describing it. You just keep practicing and learning what you care about, and somehow you end up there.
Some of my other specialties (like working with first-generation Americans) are more obviously connected to me. My sister were the first in our family to be born in the US after our parents came here from Afghanistan. I usually pass for white (commonly among my friends of color), but among white people I’m considered the geographically incorrect “middle eastern.” It’s a strange feeling to both benefit from white privilege and to be seen as an outsider, depending on the circles I’m in. In many ways, embracing my heritage now feels like an attempt to distance myself from the whiteness I wished for so badly when I was growing up.
Similarly, as a queer-identified woman married to a man, I’m typically seen as straight. In the most obtuse terms, I was always the “straight one” among my queer friends, and always the “gay one” among my straight friends. Ironically, when I started coming out to people in my life, none of the people in either of these groups was surprised. I learned that regardless of their much needed support, what mattered most was knowing who I am.
In all of these areas, there are times when I am misidentified, and times when I’m navigating my own identity. For a long time it all felt like a strange version of impostor syndrome. But I learned that the more myself I can be, the better partner, friend, and therapist I will be.
My specializations as as therapist seem pretty different from each other on the surface, but there is a common thread. And as the story goes, it does have to do with my own experience. When you aren’t seen for who you truly are - when you’re dismissed, erased, ignored, attacked, or denied - it can cause you to question yourself. It can cause you to feel angry, to feel defeated, to get overwhelmed, to test people, and to feel like you have to prove who you are to yourself and others every day.
While always learning, I’ve made peace with a lot of these questions. I’ve been fortunate to have a great support network in my life. And I recognize that on the spectrum of identities I have an enormous amount of privilege.
Someone recently asked me if I was always this sure of myself. I had to stop and think about how I figured all this out: I did a lot of questioning; I had to work to ensure that my feelings weren’t reactive; I went to my own therapy.
I realized what I needed during those tough times was a version of what I’m able to provide my clients now. If there’s one thing I want my clients to know, it’s this:
Even if no one else believes you, I do.
Prospect Therapy welcomes individuals and couples of all genders and orientations. If you are navigating your own identity journey and want to talk about how therapy can help, call (562) 704-4736 for a free consultation.