Diversity Matters in Psychotherapy

This post was written by guest blogger, Dr. Arielle Schwartz, and was originally posted on her blog. Dr. Arielle Schwartz and Barb Maiberger, MA, LPC will be presenting on “Embodied Culture: A Somatic Approach to Diversity Awareness in EMDR” at the 2014 EMDRIA Conference in Denver, Colorado. Visit the EMDRIA Conference website for more details.


 Culture and Psychotherapy

What makes you unique? Perhaps you or your parents grew up in another country. You might learn differently or have grown up speaking a different language. Possibly you have two moms or two dads. Maybe what makes you different is the color of your skin or your religious beliefs. If you sometimes or often feel that you don’t belong you are in good company. One third of the people in the United States currently identify themselves as a member of a racial or ethnic minority, an estimated fifteen percent of the U.S. report being inter-culturally married, and approximately four percent of the U.S. identify as LGBT.

This week I have the honor and opportunity to be a presenter at the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) conference with my colleague Barb Maiberger, MA, LPC, author of “EMDR Essentials: A Guide for Clients and Therapists.” Our topic, Embodied Culture in EMDR: A Somatic Approach to Diversity Awareness in EMDR.


“Why address diversity in therapy? Because failing to acknowledge cultural differences in clients ignores critical information necessary for competent psychological practice.”  ~ Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Embodied culture

Why embodied culture and not simply culture?  As human beings we live life through our senses. Embodied culture looks at how aware we are of how culture shapes us and how culture is inscribed in our bodies. Embodied Culture is the marriage between the field of somatic or body-centered psychology and the study of multiculturalism.

  • Somatic psychology studies how our bodies express our experiences in the world, for example recognizing where you hold your stress in your body or the relationship between your posture and your emotional state.
  • Culture refers to factors such as ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, disability, and religion that make each of us different and unique. Culture provides us with a set of shared experiences

Our cultural contexts give meaning, attribute values, and provide emotional and somatic modeling. Embodied culture is acquired over time and is both consciously adopted and passively “inherited.” We adapt to and are shaped by the groups that we are a part of. For example: We observe our family members, their body language, and their mannerisms. We behave, adopt gestures, and mirror postures as a way to experience our belonging in the world. Overtime our repeated behaviors become our routines; our habits. Our habitual ways of being in the world shape how we perceive the people around us.


Addressing diversity in psychotherapy

As part of my doctoral studies I looked at practicing psychologists’ beliefs and practices related to multicultural competencies. This study helped us learn two things:

  • We don’t always do what we know to be important to competent practice
  • Clinicians are often aware of multicultural skills but may still avoid addressing cultural issues in therapy.

As a result, we identified a significant blind spot within the field of psychotherapy; the need for clinicians to increase their self-awareness when it comes to multicultural competence.

What does it mean to recognize or take responsibility for your own cultural conditioning? As therapists if we are uncomfortable with difference we may inadvertently avoid discussing cultural differences in therapy. We have our own comfort zones, our own biases, and our own insecurities. It is very tempting to disregard difference and as a result we may over-emphasize similarities with our clients. Being culturally competent does not mean that you are perfect, it means that you are willing be in the conversation about difference, and are willing to acknowledge and repair mistakes when they occur.

A case example

This example is not an actual person but a composite of several cases I have seen.

My client is a Hispanic woman in her early 20’s who is the first member of her family to graduate from college. She lives at home with parents who are first generation from Mexico and do not speak English. My client grew up here in the states, spoke English, and sought to live on her own and get a job. However, she felt guilty separating from her parents and was ambivalent about leaving them. She was in a cultural limbo. She reported feeling increasingly anxious and each time she got closer to applying for a job she would have panic attacks.  She said she can’t talk to her parents about her feelings; that they would not understand.

In this case we can see how the differing levels of acculturation between 1st and 2nd generation family members can be a significant issue. While this client may have come into therapy for her anxiety, her treatment is best understood in the context of her cultural dynamics; her beliefs about her ability to feel capable and independent were highly interconnected with her experience of being bicultural.

As her therapist, I keep in mind that psychotherapy itself is imbued with a set of values such as differentiation which is not a shared value among other cultures. It is not my role to impose my values on others that I work with. My goal is to ensure that therapy is a safe place to explore discrimination, prejudice, or systemic barriers when they exist in my clients’ lives.

Embodied Culture in Action

The model that we offer takes embodied culture beyond the therapy room and into the world.

  • The first step is to build your capacity for self-refection and to recognize your own embodied cultural identity. In what ways are your postures, use of space, use of eye-contact, and use of gestures a reflection of your culture? In what way do your habits shape your perceptions in the world?
  • The second step is to take responsibility for your perceptions, biases, and assumptions. Be willing to explore the edges of your discomfort with difference. Begin to challenge yourself by being curious about another’s experience of the world. Notice how your body responds when you initiate dialogues about difference. Sensing and taking responsibility for your uncomfortable “edges” is what we call embodied ownership.
  • The third step involves appreciating diversity by recognizing, accepting, honoring and celebrating the unique cultural attributes that exist within you so that you may do the same for others.
  • The fourth step is integration which involves taking meaningful steps to bring your embodied cultural awareness into action such as teaching tolerance, being an ally or an advocate for others, or  attending to group dynamics to support participation by people who feel marginalized.


About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook to stay up to date with all her blog posts.


Original Blog Post: “Diversity Matters in Psychotherapy” written by Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Image Source:  “[183/365] Culture Clash” by Pascal [via Flickr/CC]