Nadine Sylvester, a leading Psychotherapist, works with her clients to overcome personal barriers with therapy. She took some time out of her busy schedule to tell me about her work and why black people shouldn’t ‘shy’ away from using therapy too…
Tell us about you and your background – what made you decide to become a psychotherapist
My background is in Local Government. I spent over 20 years managing people. Managing relationships was a key element of my role. I decided to build on my experience and thought about studying psychotherapy. I saw an article in a newspaper about volunteering as a Counsellor in a school. I trained for a year and I was placed as a volunteer Counsellor in a primary school, the following year. The experience was incredibly moving.
Every week, I looked forward to hearing from the children, listening to their stories and with some of them, seeing them play for the first time; which is the whole point of Art Therapy. It was an exciting thing to do. While doing the placement, I made the decision to do my degree in Psychotherapy.
Where you inspired by people around you (e.g. friends or family) or from life experiences?
I believe the inspiration came from the sense of wanting to work with people. I was already doing this in my nine-to-five job, but the inspiration was something that just happened. While I was in the school, the Supervisor really encouraged me. I loved the way she worked and there was so much to learn from her. She also encouraged me to study further, to go for my Masters. I’d really like to be able to thank her for motivating me. We all need people like that.
Your journey to becoming a psychotherapist, tell us about any difficulties you faced? Were any of these challenges due to being a black woman?
When I was studying, I remember the difficulties of being in the classroom. I was one of two black women studying Psychotherapy in the first year. The majority of the students were white, middle-class, mostly white middle-class women, and there was one white middle-class male. Their perception of life was completely different to mine. Firstly being black, and then secondly coming from the Caribbean and living in England. When the class was discussing things like growing up or different life experiences, it was like I was from a different world. Their experiences were so different to mine. I may as well have been from another planet.
When I first came to this country, I was seven years old. I remember being teased and being the only black child in the class; I was quite shy. So coming back to the classroom, in a very similar scenario, brought me back to being alone, within a classroom setting, as a seven year old. This brought up a lot of emotions. The other students showed interest in my experience of coming to England from another country and coming to the cold, but I don’t think they could relate. Further on in the course, I gained confidence and began to challenge their (my fellow students) perception of things. It gave me a voice. At first it was me flying the flag as black person, but I realised that I had to fly the flag for me, fly the flag about my life and my experiences.
How exactly has does your therapy help your clients?
Although I studied Integrative Therapy, with Psychotherapy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. When I am working with a client, this is a personal relationship. The client and Therapist relationship is one that is totally built on trust and transparency. Without trust you cannot move on. From establishing and building a level of trust, people will begin to feel secure enough to talk about what they came into therapy to talk about. They may not even be aware of this at the time.
When I come away from meeting with a client, I start to think about specific theories relating to what the client has come into the therapy room to discuss. I think about what it is they are holding onto, then I think about how painful and shaming it might be, to speak about the difficulty. The sessions are about understanding what someone may want to discuss, the fact that it may be something they may feel ashamed of, or have been made to feel ashamed of; and being able to work with that person, to enable them to move forward.
As a black Psychotherapist, I recognise that I must be open about differences. Not making assumptions about black people I work with. We may both be black, but we are different. Our differences can be brought into a safe space of a therapy session, to be discussed. When I work with males or people who aren’t black, we openly discuss differences in our lives and what can be challenging for that specific individual.
Black people have never had a history of seeking therapy, are you seeing changes in our generation?
Most definitely, especially with people in their fifties and younger. This age group have gone through many complex experiences. It may be their own way of parenting, or perhaps they way they were parented. Therapy brings things to light. More black people are entering into therapy, which is good.
Particular at Christmas and New Year, people are sometimes at a loss or dealing with loss. The loss may be bereavement; it could also be dealing with loss in a different way, such as redundancy, loss of a job or a business failing, because of what is happening with the economy. You can talk to your family and you can talk to a friend. But nine times out of ten, the advice given back will be that ‘you should’ be doing something. With therapy, there is no such thing as ‘you should’.
My role as a Therapist is to walk alongside an individual. Younger people have different experiences to life. They may be more integrated with other cultures and communities; this might be through school, or work, or in their neighbourhood. They may even relate to people who have accessed therapy, who may be more open to talking about it.
I cannot generalise, but I believe that it is predominantly black women who are accessing therapy. There is still a stigma about accessing or going through therapy within black communities. There is the sense that people do not want other people to ‘know their business’ and instead, they hold onto things.
The good thing is that there are more black men are wanting to become Psychotherapists. This may also mean there is hope for black men getting help and support they need. We have a wider issue with some black men needing therapy or support. For black men wanting to become Psychotherapists, there will be the challenge of training within a system which is predominantly white-middle-class. When these men are training, they will have to judge and measure whether they would want people to know about their own struggles as a black male and open up to others.
Several years ago, I made my first trip to Ghana, to support an organisation setting up counselling services for women who suffered from different forms of abuse. The services were there to help women regain a sense of confidence and rebuild their lives. It was extremely rewarding to help another organisation supporting women, this was very inspiring.
It is harder for black women to access therapy than for European women. Culturally, when you have worries, you speak to someone in the family, or you approach an elder. But again, it is all about the level of trust and the judgement, which may stop women from coming forward to really say what is really going on.
How could your therapy help black women today, with so much to do – e.g. running businesses, studying, raising families etc.
Therapy is a form of support, but it is more a form of being you. Therapy gives you the platform and the permission to be yourself. You have permission to be. You can take off the mask; you have someone listening to you; someone listening to you, for who you are. They are not looking to you for who or what you should be or achieve, or how you should look. You don’t have to look a certain way, or have to be a certain way. Therapy looks at barriers you may have.
I look at what is holding you back and this is all done in a safe environment. It may be difficult to look at what is holding you back, what you may have gone through; but there is a safe space prepared, just for you. As a black woman, going into therapy while I was training, was the best thing I did. It wasn’t just the usual chit-chat with a family member; therapy for me was about someone holding my vulnerability. There was someone to hear and listen to what I had gone through and how I was moving forward.
Therapy allows you to discuss the things that were never talked about. Sometimes you need to reach within, to work out what’s holding you back, relationships, in work, or in business.
Post-natal depression can affect a number of women. That sense of loneliness, that feeling as a mother that ‘I can’t do this motherhood thing’, or do I have that ‘maternal instinct’? We don’t discuss the maternal instinct. Yes we all love our babies, but we don’t always discuss not having someone to talk to, if that maternal instinct doesn’t kick in.
We need to talk about how we are really feeling before or after giving birth. We need to talk about those questionable feelings about whether we are going to be ‘good mothers’. In the latter years, it might be thoughts about ‘were we good mothers?’, ‘could we have done better?’ It may be that separation from our children at different times, not seeing them for a while, that brings up anxiety. I have worked with people who have gone through different forms of separation; from their parents and as parent from their children. This may be the story for people in their fifties, as a child, their first experience of coming to this country and being separated from their parents; or as a parent, being separated from their children. Therapy allows you to work through these emotions.
This time of the year can be a dark time for many people. There are a number of factors which can lead people into depression or deeper depression. Depression is a clinical terminology, we cannot see depression, and it is not a visible wound. For black women, if we say we are feeling down or feeling sad, someone in the community will respond with ‘come on, girl…buck up’. Then they’ll tell us that there are other people out there with real problems and that we just have to ‘carry our load’. What happens is that we internalise these feelings, that’s very sad. There are times when the phone is not answered or that text message is not responded to. Or that response, which is I’m alright, I’m ok’, may not truly be the case.
At the beginning of the year, we sometimes dwell on what we have not been able to achieve: getting married, that partner who won’t commit, or having a child or that career promotion. All of this can form sadness in our lives. We won’t go to the GP about this, we hold onto this, sometimes because there is an element of shame. We think about how we will be judged by others, so we hold onto this and ‘put on that smile’. Holding onto this will manifest into something physical or emotional and can form deep sadness or depression.
Resolutions and promises are great, but who are you really being accountable to? Going into therapy can be a form of release and accountability, without judgement. Therapy can definitely help you move forward in life.
How do you want to inspire other women and black women in business?
As a Psychotherapist, you can run your own practice by being professional, abiding by the ethical conducts and standards in our profession. For me, continuous learning is essential. You don’t stop learning once you become a qualified. The same should apply for all women in business.
For women in business, I would encourage you to get connected to a network for the specific business you are in. It can be lonely running a business. So it is good to have others around you in a similar business. In my profession I have peer support and fortnightly supervision.
If you are thinking about going into business, tell yourself that you can do it. That first step can be daunting. There are lots of unknowns about owning your own business, rather than being a paid employee. But having trusted people around you will be good encouragement. Just get going and do it. Don’t keep asking others opinions. Sometimes it is good to go with your own gut feeling. For me, the main thing that helped me was through prayer and my faith. My faith has supported me through the business decisions I have made.
What your hopes for your business in the future?
My hopes for the business are to own a practice or a centre which houses other Psychotherapists, so that people can access and receive different types of support that will nurture their mind, body and spirit. I will be running workshops this year for women dealing with loss and bereavement, also pre and post-natal depression. I want to work with women who see themselves as ‘not being good enough’. I plan on running a retreat. Fully taking time out from your environment is more freeing than a one-day workshop. I’m also looking forward to speaking at some conferences and events.
Any advice for black women who want to become Psychotherapists?
Go for it! The training is quite expensive, but it is worth it. It is an investment in yourself and other lives. The experience for you as you are studying can be challenging, as you may be dealing with some of your childhood and adult difficulties, but this also a beneficial to your personal growth and for working with clients in the future. Think about what you, your family and your community will gain from this. It will definitely give you a new perspective on life, in how you relate to others.
Additional information about Nadine Sylvester:
Nadine holds an MA in Integrative Arts Psychotherapy from the Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education and a Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling. She is a member of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), the Health Care Professional Council (HCPC) and the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT).