While finding a therapist can be a little daunting, finding one who also understands your background and culture can be an additional hurdle. A good fit with your therapist is the most important factor in your treatment, so finding a culturally competent therapist has long been the aim of therapy-seekers of certain races, ethnicities, or other identities looking for the best therapist for them.
The argument has been made, however, that simply being culturally competent might not be enough. Cultural humility, which is emerging as the preferred term, goes farther than competence. So what’s the difference between cultural competence and cultural humility and which one is more important?
The National Institute of Mental Health defines cultural competency as “the behaviors, attitudes, and skills that allow a health care provider to work effectively with different cultural groups.” Basically, it means that if your therapist or coach has a different background or identity than you, they could attempt to learn about your background, identity, and culture in order to provide you with appropriate care.
However, the issue with cultural competency stems from the implication that one could “achieve” competence in another culture—and be content to stop there. It could be understood as gaining just enough knowledge about another culture that you are merely competent and implies that cultures are monolithic or unchanging, which is untrue. Knowing about one community does not make us culturally competent about all communities. Additionally, communities are dynamic and change over time.
Some argue that cultural competency is either impossible (there’s no way to become competent in another culture because you don’t have that lived experience) or that it’s not enough to be merely competent.
To some, culture humility might be both a better term and a better aim while to others, the concepts are not either/or but both/and—one should strive for both cultural competence and cultural humility.
Cultural humility is a process of reflection and lifelong inquiry that involves self-awareness of personal and cultural biases as well as awareness and sensitivity to significant cultural issues of others. The idea of humility comes from the fact that the focus should not be on competence or confidence and recognizes that the more someone is exposed to cultures different from their own, the more often they will realize how much they don’t know about others.
In a 1998 article on which most of the discussion about cultural competency versus cultural humility is based, Dr. Melanie Tervalon and Dr. Jann Murray-García suggested not only that cultural competency be distinguished from cultural humility, but that cultural humility was a more suitable goal than cultural competence. They defined three points that describe cultural humility:
As the world becomes increasingly diverse and multicultural, health care providers have been encouraged to become aware of cultural differences and their impact on health.
The National Association of Social Workers even states the importance of cultural competence and cultural humility in their Code of Ethics. Social workers should:
A therapist or coach who is not committed to the components of cultural humility—a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, a desire to fix power imbalances, and the aspiration to develop partnerships with people and groups who advocate for other—might not have the mindset to provide the best care possible for someone from a different background.
Again, a good fit with your therapist or coach is the most important factor in the success of your care, so finding the right match for you is key (while keeping in mind that your own needs may change over time and a therapist or coach who is a good fit for you right now might not be the best match for you down the line—and that’s okay!). The best course of action is to do some reflection about what is important to you and then some research by leaning on your community and other resources like:
Remember that it’s not your responsibility to teach your therapist—they have their own responsibility to be culturally competent, culturally humble, and knowledgeable about different cultures and intersectional identities themselves.
“Therapists that provide culturally competent care will have an ongoing process of developing awareness and knowledge of client's racial and ethnic identity development, cultural strengths and values, and experiences with stigma, prejudice, and discrimination,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “It is through this process that we are able to modify and adapt our clinical interventions so they are culturally sensitive for our clients.”
By continually learning and working on cultural competency and incorporating cultural humility as a lifelong practice, your therapist or coach can demonstrate their responsibility and dedication to seeing and valuing the diversity of their clients and offering you the support you deserve.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.