Deciding to go therapy was the easy part. Opening up was its own battle.
April 27, 2022
A brown girl’s guide to embracing vulnerability.
By Aleenah Ansari, Contributor
Whenever I was in a moment of crisis, one of the common pieces of advice I’d hear is, “Go to therapy! It’s helped me a lot.” First off, I’m lucky to be in a community of other Queer BIPOC folks who have open and honest conversations about mental health and embrace rituals of self healing like reflection, meditation, and support groups. I also had the privilege of being able to support myself financially, and my employer offered free counseling sessions to its full-time employees. All that was left was to find a therapist who was right for me.
I forged ahead in pursuit of bettering my mental health with the encouragement of friends and family members and an awareness that I had trauma to work through. In my mind, the hardest part was over — I just had to find a therapist who could help me solve my problems, process my trauma, and be on my merry way so I wouldn’t pass on my own insecurities to my future children. What could go wrong?
But once I started meeting with my therapist regularly, my problems didn’t disappear overnight.
In every session, my therapist asked me what I wanted to get out of our sessions. Part of me wanted to look at her and say, “Isn’t it your job to tell me that?” In reality, I wasn’t willing to have tough conversations about why I struggled to discuss my feelings or the trauma I had experienced during my childhood. I just wanted to leave the past in the past with my eyes set on a brighter future.
But until I opened up about my feelings and what I had struggled with, and how my past had turned into insecurities and a fear of abandonment, I realized that therapy wasn’t going to get me very far.
I decided to get an expert’s opinion about how I could open up in therapy.
I spoke to Sree Sinha, the co-founder of SASMHA (South Asian Sexual & Mental Health Alliance) and a doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Denver. SASMHA also serves as Kulfi's community partner in its giving program to promote mental health, self-expression, and exploration of identity for People of Color.
“We wanted to create a community space where people can be real and authentic without taboos,” Sree says of SASMHA’s mission and work. “This was created for us, by us.”
Through her work at SASMHA, she encourages folks to have conversations about identity, culture, mental health, and sexuality, topics that probably are not being brought up at your South Asian dinner table.
Sree says that therapists play a unique role from other close relationships in our lives, because they can offer their perspective in an objective and neutral way, using their education and experience to help clients meet their goals. They don’t know what your partner looks like, and they’re unlikely to run into your family or know the intricacies of living in your hometown. That removal from your day-to-day life might be exactly what makes it easier to open up to a therapist, even if you might be embarrassed to tell your best friend or cringe at the thought of being vulnerable with your parents.
So, how can some like me open up to a therapist while still having a clear path forward in my life? This is something I’ve struggled with — I’m a natural-born problem solver, which leads me to turn everything into a math problem. If I knew what triggered my anxiety or where my fear of abandonment comes from, I’d do something to fix it. Instead of focusing on what problems I need to solve,
Sree encouraged me to focus on what I want to change or gain insight into.
In the process of working through those questions, other aspects of your relationships, family, emotions, and career will naturally emerge.
Sree explains, “It’s easy for clients to get caught up in trying to figure out their own goals and treatment plan, but their ask can be as simple as saying, ‘I want my relationship with my family to look like this’ or ‘I want to understand why I express my frustration in this way.’ That can be enough.”
Another common misconception is that therapists will solve your problems or tell you what to do. I know I was in this boat; I desperately wanted my therapist to tell me if I should move to New York, take on a new job, or reach out to friends who were no longer in my life. In reality,
Therapists are not mind readers, but sounding boards for you to understand yourself more deeply.
“Reflect on yourself first, whether it’s through journaling, talking to a friend, or recording voice notes about what’s on your mind,” Sree says. “From there, therapists can hold up a mirror back to you and invite you to understand yourself more deeply.”
It’s equally important to provide feedback to your therapist about what’s working. In my case, Sree encouraged me to talk to my therapist about the pressure I feel to solve my own problems in therapy instead of sharing what’s on my mind.
“Don’t be afraid to share what you need,” Sree notes. “That provider is there to support you, and their work is different with each person.”
My conversation with Sree was an invitation to be easier on myself. Rather than coming to every therapy session with all the answers and an eloquently stated origin story that wraps everything up in a nice bow,
My new goal is to be more honest about how I’m feeling and what I’m struggling with.
Then, my therapist can be a guide who walks alongside me as I try to understand myself better. This can open me up to a more vulnerable version of myself that’s always existed inside of me — even if I don’t have all the answers.
About — Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is a marketer at Microsoft, aspiring creative director, and journalist at heart. She’s also passionate about helping early-in career professionals and entrepreneurs feel more confident in telling stories about their identity and work by offering 1:1 coaching and webinars on storytelling, personal branding, and navigating the job search. You can usually find her searching for murals around Seattle, providing dessert recommendations to loved ones, and planning her next trip to New York. To follow along with her journey as a writer, check out her Instagram and website, or book a 1:1 session here.
Cover photo credit: Aleenah Ansari