Most of the time when we think of cultural competency, we think about working with people from varying ethnicities. Ethnicities different from our own. I am a White counselor, and so it seems it would be easiest for me to work with other White people. We share the same culture, right?
But that seems too over-simplified.
In the context of rural counseling, I know it is.
There are many definitions of culture. Merriam Webster online offers us these: “the customary beliefs, social norms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group. The characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time. Sets of shared attitudes, goals, values, practices.”
Sounds fairly basic. I don't know about others, but in my graduate program we touched only briefly on what is a truly complex concept. Let's suppose I have a client from India, which would indicate we have vastly different foundational cultures. But the fact that she is a woman puts her in the same sub-culture as myself: we are both women. We share some common experiences. Perhaps, even, common beliefs, life rituals. Due to our biological sex we have some similar wiring in our brains. What if she is a divorced woman? That, too, puts us into a potentially similar group. But what if she lives in poverty? I don't, and upon learning this about her, my need for cultural competency (being in poverty is a culture of it's own) has expanded from simply needing to understand Indian cultural practices, to also needing to understand her life in poverty within the Indian cultural context. I may have an advantage in that we are both women. This similarity may help me build trust and rapport. But to truly understand her is going to take time.
Overall, understanding people's cultures involves innumerable variables. And being culturally competent means a whole lot more than just understanding certain behavioral cues or different spiritual practices.
When I came to live and work in a rural community, I quickly learned the foundational culture was very different from what I was both used to and comfortable with.
Rural communities tend to be politically conservative. As a liberal-leaning counselor, the need for that different kind of cultural competency becomes evident. We are living in a time when many hotly contested issues are at the forefront of the federal government's agenda, the outcome of which may have a direct impact on myself and my family, and therefore may touch me at a very personal level. I'm working as a counselor at this time, and in this place, when the political culture I'm immersed in is not anything like the way I was raised, or how I've come to function in the world as an adult.
It's been a challenge, yes, but also an opportunity for much growth.
During the most recent presidential election, for example, I was keenly aware I needed to keep my political opinions to myself. Not that I'm used to spouting off about those things, but I am used to having at least a few like-minded colleagues I can share with. Without that, the insecurity one may have about being the new kid in town has the potential to deepen. Now you're not only new, but because you're so quiet about your politics, to some you've become suspect as well.
In my initial months here, I also encountered clients whom I could tell were “feeling out” the situation before we were really able to get to work in session. And almost immediately I had to put into practice everything I'd learned about keeping the session focused solely on the client. About leaving my own baggage at home and re-directing any inquiries about my personal values back to the client's presenting concerns.
I've had to do less assuming about appearances and how they may or may not indicate one's culture. I've had to be more open and flat-affected than ever. I've had to listen harder, and more deeply. I've written more process notes about what's gone on in session – which helped me, especially in the beginning, to tease out what was really going on with those clients who were still trying to decide if I fit in here or not.
And I've had to meet, week after week, with clients whose most deeply-held values ran completely counter to mine. I had to summon the same empathy for them as I would others, when their views about animal rights, or gun control, or immigration, or a woman's place in the home, clashed painfully with mine.
Here we get into the territory of working with clients whose way of life is so alien to us, that it is difficult at times to continue that work.
Overall I've had to work harder to build trust – but I did it. And not because I was able to convince these clients I was on their side, or was like-minded about some of these issues. That would have been inauthentic.
The authentic counselor's journey is truly one of tremendous personal growth.
Because these topics can touch us so deeply, they may stir up more personal feelings (and/or baggage). We may need to seek extra supervision. Away from work, it's important we stay in touch with our like-minded circle, so that we know we still have a place and we're supported. At work, we have to resist the temptation to be baited by a challenging client. Because taking that bait means we will then not only self-disclose in a way that may harm our client and/or the therapeutic relationship, but we're also then tempted to bring our values to the session, and may try to impose those on our client, even if unintentionally - which is in direct violation of our ethics.
Making a life as a liberal in a conservative state can be challenging no matter what you do for a living. Building connections with people who are not like-minded is a slow process, at best.
Working as a liberal counselor in a conservative state - learning the intimate details of people's lives, especially those that may reflect the nation's current headlining concerns and which often run counter to your values - hones your counseling skills in ways you can only begin to imagine.
As always, would love to hear from you on issues surrounding cultural competency, and challenging situations you've come up against in your practice.
Stormy Filson is an independently licensed counselor living and working in Wyoming, with special interests in treating trauma, community building, and empowering women. She is also passionate about writing, photography and film.