Therapists Need to Check their Privilege to Serve their Clients Better. This is How to Do It.

Jeff Guenther on Mar 18, 2018

I am a white, male therapist. And if I want to be the best possible therapist for all my clients, I need to check my privilege. And you probably do too.

I have all sorts of privileges as a white, heterosexual, male. And if you’re a white therapist, chances are, you do too. Now that’s not to say that non-white therapists don’t have their sets of privileges. They do. But it’s probably not as exhaustive of a list. It’s also not to say that I haven’t had my share of struggles and disadvantages growing up. Because I have. Everyone has. And it’s important to acknowledge that. However, my experience moving through the world is vastly different compared to my clients. Especially my clients of color. And if I don’t understand how my differences may be influencing my clinical work, then I’m not being a very effective therapist.

After learning everything I can about privilege (and acknowledging that there is always more we can learn), I have developed a therapeutic tool to examine my own privilege, while also taking into consideration my client’s individual circumstances. It’s a simple fill-in-the-blank form that I’m sharing to help other practitioners improve their awareness of privilege. It works for you and/or your clients. Maybe you can fill it out together. It’s a great way to get important background and context on your client and keeping the potential differences between the two of you in mind will make you a better therapist for that client. You can view and download it by clicking here. It’s free. Save it on to your computer and start using it!  

An example of how I check my privilege in session

Along with being a therapist, I am also an entrepreneur. I have started several different businesses in the last ten years, many of them of successful. I feel like I am especially adept at analyzing financial risk and predicting financial success. A client was recently talking to me about a business she has been wanting to launch for quite a while. She saved the money and has a solid business plan. Now she needs to take the next step and start the business. As part of that, she’ll need to invest all the cash that she saved up. 

As you can see from my personal results on the worksheet (posted at the bottom of the article), I grew up and experienced the world from a pretty privileged place. I was raised in an upper middle class environment with financially successful parents who encouraged me to take big risks with money so that I could make even more money. 

My client and I filled out the privilege worksheet a while ago. I knew that she grew up poor and was given messages by her parents that it’s very dangerous to be risky with money. So when my client is hedging on starting her business and is consumed by fear, there is a part of me that just wants her to take the plunge already. My instinct, based on my own background, is to encourage her to move forward. I want to root her on and tell her she’ll do great and be a huge success! And if it doesn’t work out, then oh well, you tried your best. Dust yourself off and try again. 

As supportive as that may sound, I have to check my privilege before I say any of that. The above narrative works for me. But that doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone —  especially clients that have had a different experience than mine. 

In this case, I opted to take a gentler and more mindful, but still encouraging, approach. We talked more about her upbringing, including messages she received about money, and examined together how that was impacting her current life choices. I also decided to open up and self-disclose about how some of the encouragement I received from my family around taking financial risks positioned me to take risks in business. My families’ financial situation created a safety net that provided me with the luxury of feeling like I’d land on my feet if the business failed. That’s a pretty privileged situation. 

My client, on the other hand, experienced scarcity around money and didn’t develop a feeling of “everything will be okay no matter what.” If her family took a financial risk and it didn’t go well, recovery would be tough. We explored what it would be like if she decided to take a huge financial risk. We talked about how her parents might not understand or support her. They would see her as careless and reckless. 

By approaching her situation from a place of awareness about of how our privilege impacts how we approach financial risk, I was able to help her see what was driving some of her anxiety and fear. Armed with this powerful knowledge, she was able to make specific, deliberate and mindful steps towards moving forward. In this case, using a “privilege lens” made me a more nuanced and effective therapist. 

Other examples of therapist privilege effecting clinical work

Have you ever worked at a company where all the executives are a different race than you? Keep that in mind if you’re treating a client of color and you’re talking about issues in the workplace. That might be happening at their place of work. As a therapist you should research what that might be like and the psychological effects it could cause. 

Do you have the privilege of not being called a terrorist based on your skin color? You might have a client that’s not as lucky as you are. Research and think about what it might be like walking through this world being seen as a possible terrorist threat. What’s that going to do to someone’s psyche?

Has there always conveniently been a place of worship that matches your religion in every town you’ve lived in? That’s not the case for many people. Is this something one of your clients has experienced? If so, you should examine and research how that effects a person’s feelings of belonging and community. 

The list of examples goes on and on. And I know I keep plugging the worksheet I created, but it’s an easy way to start to keep an eye on all your possible blindspots and how your upbringing and experience in the world is different than your client’s. 

And if you’re a client that’s reading this blog, I would encourage you to print it out and bring it to your next session. You can use it as a way to bring up some of these subjects with your therapist and even ask them to fill it out as well. 

What to do next

Being aware of your privilege is important as a therapist. And it’s just as important to be aware of it as you move through your life on a daily basis. Feeling guilty about your privilege is incredibly normal. If you want to do something about it, then I encourage you to put in the time to educate yourself about what you can do to recognize injustice and start acting in a way that fights and challenges the unfair and undeserved advantages that privileged people currently get. This article about the anti-racism movement is a great first step.

I can’t tell you what to do in order to fight the system. We are all going to have to figure that out for ourselves. However, being actively aware of your privilege and using that knowledge to provide the best possible care for your clients and community is a start. 

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

Recommended Articles