Knowing Your Rights in Therapy: Part One
This three-part series is about mental health therapy with QT BIPOC communities, what it looks like when its accessible, and what to look out for when you feel that something isn’t quite right. My hope is that this information can help you balance the distrust that you may naturally feel about therapy with some knowledge about your rights, or what you are allowed to do, say, feel, or ask.
In this first post, I will briefly explain therapy from my perspective as an intersectionally marginalized person. The second post is about the specific types of issues that individuals from marginalized communities tend to process in therapy. The last entry in the series is about the concept of “therapeutic” states of mind.
Knowing your rights helps balance distrust
Therapy is a way to examine the repeated patterns of our life in an effort to better understand ourselves, other people, and the world we live in. It involves talking about three main things: 1) our day to day lives, 2) our most important relationships, and, 3) the relationship we have with our therapist. These topics require a high caliber of trust and professionalism in order to be handled safely and effectively.
Trust is an intimate bond between two people; it means: I know that if things go upside down, you’re not going to leave me or hurt me. Trust is the foundation for all of our relationships, and in particular, the delicate “healing relationship” of therapy. A healing relationship is one in which we feel safe to share the parts of ourselves that we typically hide from the world. These hidden parts can be younger versions of ourselves who have been harmed, or an aspect of our life or personality that we feel a lot of shame around.
However, you have the right to not trust your therapist. You do not owe anyone your trust, not even your therapist. Trust is earned over time; it develops out of experiencing how your therapist responds to you, your stories, your emotions, and most importantly, how they respond when you tell them they’ve said or done something hurtful.
For queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, racialized and disabled folks, and other similarly marginalized communities, it can be difficult to determine when someone with authority has done something to hurt you, unless its obvious physical harm. Many marginalized people have had to find ways to disconnect from their intuitions about harm done to them in order to stay safe and prevent further harm or losses. That’s because when folks speak up against injustice, it typically invites more harm, scrutiny, debate, dismissal, or disbelief. Over time, you learn that you cannot do anything about your predicament safely, and it may seem that the only acceptable approach to continue living your life is to ignore it. After practicing many moments of ignoring harm done to us, without being able to speak about it openly, the stress becomes internalized both in our minds, and in our bodies.
Internalized stress can lead to chronic inflammation in the body, and negative self-concepts in the mind, such as “I don’t matter,” “I don’t deserve respect,” or “No one can help or understand me.” Internalized stress can also lead to behaviour changes: for example, offering emotional labour instinctively, taking care of others and habitually ignoring your own needs, over-functioning with a full schedule so that no one will know that you feel down or bad.
An important step toward healing and justice for marginalized individuals is reconnecting with their bodies, with their guts specifically, the part of us that is connected to our intuition about what is right and wrong. When this happens, it causes disturbances in our relationships because others who have relied on our ability to stay quiet while in pain begin to become inconvenienced. When it comes to therapy, your therapist ought to celebrate moments where you are thinking, feeling and acting on the core of your gut instinctive realities, rather than engage in a debate about your experience or gaslight you. Knowing your rights can help you inform your gut, which will help you determine when trust is broken and also identify moments when trust is being formed.
Here’s a short list of some of your rights in therapy:
1. You have the right to be heard and treated respectfully, as a whole person, with any therapist you see.
2. You have the right to attend therapy without educating or doing emotional labour for your therapist.
3. You have the right to ask your therapist to research topics so you do not have to explain it to them.
4. You have the right to have your words believed at face value, without debate or question.
5. You have the right to ask for a specific need to be met by your therapist. If your therapist declines a request you’ve made, you have the right to hear an explanation of their decision making process.
6. You have the right to not trust your therapist.
7. You have the right to tell your therapist that you do not trust them.
8. You have the right to leave your therapist.
9. You have the right to report your therapist to their regulatory College.
10. You have the right to talk about your past therapists with your new therapist
About the Author
Ronnie Ali (they/them/their) is a Registered Psychotherapist, consultant, coach, and founder of Leaves on a Stream, a consulting practice that centers mindfulness, ethics and relational integrity in supporting social systems such as workplaces and community initiatives. They're a non-binary, trans, queer, able-bodied, immigrant-settler, person of colour. They live and work in the place called "Toronto," T'karonto, where the trees meet the water, the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, Seneca, Petun, Chippewa, Anishnawbe, Haudenosaunee, and Mississaugas of the Credit. To learn more about their work, visit http://www.leavesonastream.ca/