Psychotherapy East and West: Mentoring Across a Cultural Divide

Closeup of office desk with city view from beyond windowAs a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and yoga therapist in New York City, I work with a wide variety of diverse individuals—a kind of smorgasbord of humanity of all different ages, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds—and I love it. I love how we, despite our uniqueness, are still connected.

I am also a member of the Chinese American Psychoanalytic Alliance (CAPA), an organization that teaches psychoanalysis and psychotherapy to students in China via Skype. To be accepted into this program, students must be experienced therapists who are also proficient in English. When, several years ago, I was first asked if I would like to be a supervisor for CAPA students who are psychotherapists in training, I said no, immediately. How could I supervise students via Skype? Students whose main language was not English, whose culture was so different from mine? Though it seemed a bit intriguing, it also seemed impossible. After saying no, I forgot all about it and busied myself with other things.

Then I was asked again, and this time I said yes, thinking supervision seemed like it might be all right, after all. When I didn’t understand something, I could simply ask, and I knew I would be very careful. What’s more, the techniques of psychoanalytic psychotherapy transcend cultural differences because they are concerned with core emotional experiences common to all humanity.

I supervised my first student, whom I’ll call Tiffany, for about two years, until she graduated. Through CAPA, I had the chance to travel to China and attend her graduation. Although we had known each other well, our relationship was conducted over the internet, and this was our first offline meeting.

Before beginning my work with CAPA, I had always considered the internet a cold medium and thought it would be very hard to relate, that I would miss not being able to see the person “in person,” so to speak. And that’s true, I did miss seeing and being seen in real place as well as time, but nevertheless, we developed a deep, warm collegial relationship. I was thrilled to see her graduate, and she was equally thrilled that I was there for her. Our first “person-to-person” experience was moving—in fact, we both cried.

Since that time, I have supervised other CAPA students and worked as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist for several people both in China and the United States. I have found it to be a blast! Over time, as I’ve gotten to know people better on an individual basis, I have come to a greater awareness of the ways in which Chinese culture and American culture differ and coincide. As a result, I’ve found the work increasingly rewarding. Working with people who are studying to be psychotherapists is a bit different than working with people who need help with their lives but are not interested in psychotherapy as a subject to be studied. Students are interested in learning how things work, so they, in turn, can work better with the people they will treat in the future.

What do I get out of it? I like the challenge. Working with people who are studying to be psychotherapists is a bit different than working with people who need help with their lives but are not interested in psychotherapy as a subject to be studied. Students are interested in learning how things work, so they, in turn, can work better with the people they will treat in the future. They also frequently make references to what they have just read, drawing inspiration from theoretical writings to further their own personal development. This can be a hindrance, at times: some people use theory to hide from their emotional lives. Some students, like student doctors, begin to think they have every symptom they read about and have hypochondriacal reactions. Other students may get caught in their heads and need help managing their feelings. But regardless, this inspiration is often beneficial to students.

Why does China need American psychotherapists? There is a shortage of mental health workers in China, and the CAPA program helps address this deficiency. In a few years, American teachers will no longer be needed. The goal is for CAPA to become staffed by people from China who studied at CAPA and similar institutes.

I find the people who choose to study with CAPA to be remarkable. They read about 120 pages of theory per week, theory that is all in English. Theory can sometimes be difficult to read even for those of us whose first language was English—imagine how challenging this reading would be in your second language. All of my students have demonstrated talent and persistence, been eager to understand themselves and others, and have worked hard—all prerequisites for work in a mental health field.

In China, family histories and connections are of high importance. By choosing to study at CAPA, students are stepping outside family boundaries, but they tell me they are following in the footsteps of their grandparents and parents. How is this so? Psychoanalytic psychotherapy was not widely known in their parents’ generation. I find this remark to be a comment on the adventurous spirit of past generations, who moved from the countryside where they were born to larger villages and cities that offered greater opportunities. CAPA students move professionally, and as they devote themselves to the demands of psychoanalysis, they may feel as if they are part of a long line of adventurers, both linked to their family chain and part of a larger community as well.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Terrence

    April 26th, 2017 at 7:24 AM

    What a challenge this must be, and I admit not one that my cultural tunnel vision has even allowed me to think would ever be an issue! But now I see that this does present its own set of challenges and we must all do a better job at addressing and understanding diversity across the board.

  • Lynn

    April 26th, 2017 at 11:48 AM

    Glad you think so!
    Take care,

  • Ellis

    April 26th, 2017 at 1:22 PM

    I wish that there was a part of me that could only be this adventurous and daring. I am much more of the conformist and even though I know this about myself it’s not that it makes me happy.

    But I do what feels like it will be safe even though I am mad at myself for usually making that choice. I don’t always want to make the safe move. I want to be able to make that daring move and to know that I am doing the things that I am invested in and not always just what others expect from me.

  • Lynn

    April 27th, 2017 at 5:29 AM

    Hi Ellis,
    Thanks for writing. It’s hard to identify your true self and what it needs–I think you’ve identified something important. Deep change comes slow, as it often should.
    Take care,

  • Horatio

    April 27th, 2017 at 10:26 AM

    There are so many more people today who are much more open to the ideas of diversity and cultural acceptance. It is a lot more wonderful place to be when we can actually embrace and be thankful for those small and sometimes large cultural things that make up the fabric of our lives and indeed our community.

    To look upon them disparagingly, well, that’s when you get those who think that the only way to maintain their own cultural sameness is to keep others out.

    That’s not quite frankly the leaning that I or most of the people with who I am the closest feel.

  • DJ

    April 28th, 2017 at 11:41 AM

    I love it when I can access different perspectives from across the cultural broadband so I find all of this to be fascinating.

  • Lynn

    April 28th, 2017 at 12:28 PM

    Me too, DJ!
    Take care,

  • Kelvin

    April 30th, 2017 at 7:43 AM

    I think that there is a tendency today for us to forget about the things that make us different. I think that since we have become such a global community there are many of us who don’t even see these types of differences anymore , just the things that bring us together.

    Personally I like that feeling, like there are far fewer things that separate us than there once were. But I know that we must also use caution and preserve the things that have made up our pasts and created the people that we are today.

  • Lynn

    May 5th, 2017 at 5:45 PM

    It’s good to know where we come from. I agree Kelvin.
    take care,

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.