(This post originally appeared on MAX Ottawa and has been reproduced here with permission)
Content note: the link “toxic masculinity” below directs to a CBC article that talks about suicide
It took me a few tries before I found a therapist that worked well with me. Between trying to find something that worked with my budget, being put on (sometimes year-long) wait lists, and looking for services that were close enough to me, I sometimes wondered if it was worth it. Finding a therapist can be an overwhelming process, especially when you realize that it’s not a good match. These are my thoughts on three things that counsellors have said to me that they should have kept to themselves. I’m sharing these comments to highlight the importance of informed and competent care. I also want to illustrate the ways that these counsellors reinforced normative ideas about gender, sexuality, and relationships and ultimately created a space where I didn’t feel comfortable or willing to speak openly and honestly. It’s crucial that we have safe and positive space to process, heal, and grow. Without further adieu:
1: “SOMETIMES YOU JUST NEED TO TOUGHEN UP A BIT.”
No, I don’t. One counsellor asked me to describe myself as a child and compared me to her sensitive seven-year-old son. She lightheartedly expressed annoyance by his sensitive nature and told me that “sometimes I need to just tell him to toughen up a bit.” Wow, that hit a nerve. I was a very sensitive child and I was often told to toughen up when I expressed sadness, frustration, or fear. I told her that was likely the worst thing she could say to her sensitive son. Telling us to toughen up perpetuates toxic masculinity; it disconnects us from our feelings and encourages us to express emotion through aggression, humour, or indifference. We learn reaction instead of reflection. I still struggle sometimes to understand my emotions and express them in healthy and conscious ways, and I still hold a lot of internalized shame around being feminine. That was my last meeting with that counsellor.
2: “YOU DON’T USE CONDOMS?!”
Talking about sex with counsellors has always been hit or miss. I have heard from many people that they don’t ever discuss sex in therapy, and I’m learning that therapists don’t often ask explicitly about sex. When I started seeing my partner we used condoms and only slept with each other. We went to Gay Zone after three months (window period) for STI and HIV testing and dropped condoms once we heard back. Before PrEP, the decision to have condomless sex with my partner was based on trust that we used condoms with other partners. I trust my partner, so this was never an issue for us. When I casually mentioned this in a session, my counsellor at the time lectured me about the AIDS crisis and the importance of condom use. Another counsellor raised her eyebrows and asked if I could really trust my partner. Why do we perpetuate this notion that queer men are untrustworthy and dishonest? Certainly, I think that counsellors should ask about the ways that we negotiate the sex that we want and what that looks like. But, there is already enough shame and stigma woven through queer sexuality. Leave it at home.
3: “WHY ARE YOU EVEN IN AN OPEN RELATIONSHIP THEN?”
I think that this is a fair question, and something that I asked myself regularly at the time. Being in a relationship can be tough, and nurturing a healthy relationship is a lot of work. Part of the reason I was seeing a counsellor at the time was to talk about things like jealousy and gain a better understanding of what jealousy is and where is comes from. Instead of talking me through some of these thoughts, my counsellor asked me why I would want to have this type of relationship if it brings up so many intense feelings. Jealousy taught me a lot about my insecurities, fears, and anxieties. Being vulnerable to these feelings provided me with an opportunity to learn about myself and grow – personally, and in my relationships. For me, part of being in a queer relationship means that I can think beyond monogamy and deconstruct the impact of heteronormativity in the structure of my relationships. It was important to me that I found a therapist that could help me navigate these thoughts and feelings without imposing their values or ideas of what a healthy relationship looks like.
I’m sharing these thoughts because I want people to know that there are some great mental health service providers out there. It can be frustrating to have to spend therapy sessions explaining or justifying yourself to a therapist. Continually having the same experiences with different counsellors can be discouraging, and can make it difficult to find the motivation to keep looking. Part of my work is to help reduce barriers to accessing mental health services (and the frustration that comes with it) by connecting GBTTQ+ guys to informed and competent care. We should never be made to feel judged, shamed, or stereotyped by mental health service providers. We are more than what we do with our genitals, we are more than a box that you can tick on your Psychology Today profile, and we deserve care that heals us so that we can feel healthy, connected, and resilient.