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The first time I met my therapist I was filled with feelings of anxiety, apprehension, and curiosity.  I sought therapy for several reasons and hoped I would find ways to understand myself better.  I regarded the therapist as an authority, who would instantly get who I was and how I could make changes.

I have spent a long time wondering how my preconceived ideas about therapy were so different from reality.  My expectations were not met, and I think it is due to how therapy is shown on films and TV programs.

I started to consider why my expectations were not met and why the therapeutic relationship was challenging.

We are the same, but different

We are all unique individuals with some shared characteristics and life experiences.  My therapist is a woman in her 60s, with a husband and adult children.  I am a gay male, in my late 30’s with a long-term partnerWas it realistic to expect the therapist to be able to instantly understand me? 

Due to our differences, I had begun to feel confused and disappointed with the therapy.  I decided to end the sessions, as I felt our differences were too great.

Thinking about my therapist, I can identify we both grew up in the UK, we both live in Yorkshire, we are both white British.  However, even within our shared characteristics, there are many differences including our views on politics, religion, relationships, and experiences growing up.  This can be described as our intersectionality.


Intersectionality helps us recognise our individuality by building awareness of our social and political identities.  It is one way we can think about our differences and diversity and where aspects of our lives sometimes overlap with others and where they do not.

Intersectionality can help us be aware of the times we also hold privilege and the ability to discriminate or disregard others.  For instance, I could share some similar experiences to a late 30’s South Asian male, who attended the same school, but I cannot assume I can understand how religion, politics and finances affected their experiences compared to mine.  By disregarding their differences, I stop seeing them as an individual and even oppress them with assumptions that they had precisely the same experiences as I did.

Take a moment to think about your background:

  • Were you raised within a religion?
  • What political party do your family vote for?
  • Do you identify with a specific class (e.g. Upper, Middle, Working)?
  • Are you an only child?  Or do you have siblings?
  • Do you and your family support a sports team?
  • Were you raised with cultural influences?  What are they?

Intersectionality is important because it can help build and support a therapeutic relationship.

Meeting in the middle with empathy

Imagine you are approaching the intersection of a crossroads.  On the other side, your therapist appears and although you have met in the middle, each of your journeys has been different.  You can stop and share your experiences, or you can walk past each other.

If you and the therapist can meet in the middle, and share journeys, it can lead to a transformative experience.  A willingness to be curious and to learn about each other creates an opportunity to build a strong therapeutic relationship.

My own experience has taught me if the relationship is not strong, then there is room for misunderstanding, shame, and judgment.  I recognise I was holding back discussing more sensitive or vulnerable subjects with my therapist because I did not want them to learn more about me.  I stuck to safe subjects in therapy and did not get the best out of the sessions.

Empathy and a willingness to expand our frames of reference, to learn from each other without judgment will enhance personal therapy and any relationship we have with others.  Being comfortable with ourselves and other people will build trust. 

If someone does not understand our point of view, it can feel like a risk to share more details about ourselves.  However, creating an understanding of the journey and experiences that have shaped who we are today, can support a shared empathy towards each other.

Tips on how to talk to the therapist

  • What do you want the therapist to know about you?
  • Let the therapist know what is important to you.
  • Be curious and ask the therapist if they understand what you are thinking and feeling.
  • If the therapist misunderstands something, try to explain the context to make sure you are understood.

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes you and the therapist might not be best suited to work with each other.  For example, if you are looking for a therapist with specific experience or background, it is important to keep this in mind when you start making enquiries.

Finding ways for you and your therapist to meet each other is a valuable tool in supporting a therapeutic relationship.  Being aware of our differences and diversity can empower us to get the best out of personal therapy.

This blog was written by Matthew Ruane – Placement with the UK Counseling Network CIC

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