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The Challenges of Counseling in a Multicultural Society

Rise of the Multicultural Society

Growth of multiculturalism is not limited to any country in particular but is fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon with the rapid onslaught of globalization. As a result, cultures from various parts of the world are often found existing together in the same geographic location.

Culture encompasses a wide variety of constituents and may even determine morality and law. “Culture […] is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor, 1974).

This definition establishes beliefs, customs and habits as a major part of culture.

In a multicultural society, varying beliefs, customs and habits lead to different forms of behavior and reactions to the same events.

Often the diverse behavior that may arise as a result of multiculturalism must be dealt with in a different manner, depending upon the culture in question.  It is no longer prudent or accurate to assume that all situations requiring psychoanalytical assistance can be dealt with in the same way.

Meanings and actions that may hold one interpretation in one culture may hold an entirely different interpretation in another. As a result, all members of such as society must develop sensitivity towards each other’s culture

Although multiculturalism adds to richness in the experience derived from a country, it also presents a set of challenges that must be overcome in a variety of areas.

 Psychodynamic Counseling

Psychodynamic Counseling is based on the principles derived from the theories established by Sigmund Freud’s school of psychoanalytic thought.

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The underlying belief of psychoanalytic counseling is the assumption that there are present certain principles that govern the association between thought, or mind, and action and that these principles can be used as a source for healing intervention.

At first, psychoanalytic counseling derived its principles exclusively from the work of Sigmund Freud; however, it is now influenced by a number of schools of psychoanalytical thought. Freud (1923) was of the view that the individual’s ego, which is at the center of all psychological processes, is constantly fighting with three forces: the “id”, the “super ego” and the outside world. Freud’s model was based on chemistry and physics, particularly the works of Brücke, Meynert, Breuer, Helmholtz, and Herbart (Bowlby, 1999).

Psychodynamics refers to the analysis of human behavior with regard to motivation and drives. It is based on the assumption that human being’s actions as well as his persona are the result of the contact between the conscious and unconscious mind, genetic structure and the environment.

Memories and exposure to events that take place early in an individual’s life, therefore, hold great importance in psychodynamic counseling. Klein in particular contributed greatly to the effects of earlier life on later behavior and emotions (Jarvis, 2004). Current problems are assumed to have roots in the individual’s earlier life and uncovering the relationships and mechanism so developed within the individual are considered to be key in unlocking the ability to control actions and responses.

One of the main principles in psychodynamic counseling is the belief that once we are aware of the motives behind actions, we would be in a better position to reduce conflict within the self. These important motives are, however, unknown to the individual and the individual is often opposed to recognizing these hidden drives. Psychodynamic theorists have termed these unknown motives as “unconscious” motives. As long as these unconscious motives remain hidden and unchanged, the individual is compelled to repeat past behavior.

The repeated behavior is said to occur due to the individual’s earlier experience where the said behavior was able to help the individual deal with or contain difficult events or emotions.

The behavior may now not be suitable for handling current events and emotions, but the individual has set an unbreakable pattern within. Psychodynamic counseling attempts to bring forth the individual’s true feelings so that he is able to feel them and understand them before resolving the emotions.

Psychodynamic counseling deal with determining the reasons behind an individual’s inability to change set behavior patters, the reasons causing this inability and how they affect the individual’s life.

Often the repressed feelings are too painful to be faced and this causes the individual to create defenses in order to protect the conscious mind from realizing the feelings.

The psychodynamic therapist must adopt the attitude of unconditional acceptance of the patient, withholding judgment in all forms.

A trusting relationship is formed between the therapist and the patient where the patient feels that he is able to relay all experience to the therapist without be looked down upon, ridiculed or judged in anyway. In this way, the patient is able to dig deeper and relay a greater depth of emotional experience and emotions.

The therapist now interprets the patient’s experiences and emotions based on how they feel with patent during the therapy.

Understanding the patient’s environment and reasons for reactions to various events is crucial for correct interpretation and resolution of harmful emotions and behavior.

 Psychodynamic Counseling in a Multicultural Society

It is now felt that many current theories and schools of counseling and psychotherapy insufficiently portray, predict and handle the rising culture diversity we see in most areas of the world, “it is evident that psychological models of counseling have yet to seriously incorporate cross-cultural dimensions” (Rawson, 2001). It is generally agreed that while cultures may be diverse and highly complex, they are not frenzied or irrational. Most customs and traditions have roots that can be determined with careful examination.

As this phenomenon of growing multiculturalism is increasing at a rapid pace, it is likely that therapists in the near future will have to deal with more clients who come from ethnicity, race or culture different from their own. Jung may have been the first in psychodynamic school of thought to point out the difference in psychology that may arise due to difference in culture, “Jung proposed innate differences between the psychologies of different ethnic groups” (Jarvis, 2004).

Currently it is felt that mental health professionals are not prepared to deal with such a diverse range of clients but it is essential to prime the therapists to deal with such diversity as quickly as possible. Multiculturalism is growlingly considered by many to become the fourth force (Pederson, 1991).

It is currently being accepted that mental health is dominated by cultures promoting individualism and action orientation. This causes the therapy for Asian, African and community centered cultures to be played down and misinterpreted.

However, a shift in paradigm is occurring with the belief that learning will result from identities formed as product of a particular cultural background. Lack of understanding of various cultures may lead to unintended racism. Unintended racism is, nonetheless, as harmful as deliberate racism. Pederson (1999) interprets the statement “[…] given these characterisitcs of culture, it becomes possible to define it simply as the totality of whatever all persons learn from all other persons” (Segall, Dasen, Berry and Poortinga, 1990) as ecological forces shape culture, that, in turn, shapes behavior.

Sensitivity to different cultures adds to the counselor’s range of skills and outlooks. Understanding the patient’s social, political and cultural context increases the therapist’s ability to accurately interpret and assess the patient’s behavior.

While the therapist’s self awareness is the preparatory point in the progress of multicultural aptitude, acquisition and retention of pertinent knowledge on various cultures is essential for perceptive cultural consciousness which, in turn, is vital for correct understanding and interpretation of the patient’s emotions and behavior.

It is a matter of concern that clients from ethnic minorities are the most unlikely to use therapeutic services. One rationalization for this observation is that most therapists base their interpretation on the standards of middle class white culture. This may estrange potential clients from other cultures.

The supposition that one form of dialogue is applicable to all patients is now being challenged.

 Multicultural Counseling and its Challenges

While most counselors believe that each patient is unique and that the differences between individuals are diverse and must be accepted, most performance shows that most counselors generally practice the same interviewing techniques on all their clients.

While no form of therapy can be entirely devoid of cultural influence, “No therapy, however, can (or indeed should) be culturally neutral” (Rawson, 2001), certain therapeutic frameworks are considered to be effective for minority cultures (Van Deuzen-Smith, 1988). Kareem and Littlewood (1992) have endeavored to create a model for Intercultural Therapy, and have generated exciting and astute insights, but this work is still very small compared to the more popular models of therapy.

Bronfenbrenner (1976) differentiates between the levels of systems used in therapy. According to Bronfenbrenner, the two systems are the micro-system and the macro-system. Therapists using the micro-system chart factors between the patient and the relationships in their direct environment such as relationships with family and work-mates.

The macro-system, on the other hand, takes into consideration the dominant cultural foundations such as social, economic and political structure. Although the macrostructure is often thought to be external to the span of counseling, it, nonetheless, has a significant impact on the more influential micro-system.

Therapists and counselors who are not familiar with the patient’s macro-system will be unable to effectively help the patient resolve psychodynamic problems.

While most mental health therapy practitioners are eager to show themselves as having moved beyond cultural effects, the truth of the matter is that mental health therapy still needs to go a long way in developing a framework to work in a multicultural society. Many mental health authors are of the view that the conventional approaches used for therapy are white middle class and operate on values held by this sector of society (Lago & Thompson 1996, Ridley, 1995, Sue et al, 1996 and Sue & Sue, 1999).

Wrenn  (1962 and 1985) is of the view that this has led to such approaches to therapy becoming “culturally encapsulated” while “the majority of traditionally trained counselors operate from a culturally biased and encapsulated framework which results in the provision of culturally conflicting and even oppressive treatments” (Poneterotto and Casas, 1991). Certain individuals or groups may be considered outside the boundry of fairness and may be considered undeserving (Opotow, 1990).

Needless to say, cultural encapsulation can not be excused in the world today, regardless of the complexity of cultures and difficulty in measurement, “The toleration of ambiguity can be productive if it is taken not as a warrant for sloppy thinking but as an invitation to deal responsibly with ideas of great complexity” (Levine, 1985).

Sue et. al (1996) propose that all therapists and counselors conduct a “critical and independent audit” of all current assumptions used in counseling practice today.  Mahoney and Patterson (1992) were of the view that counseling is now undergoing a major change and is at a “pivotal period” where all the rules of the popular approaches will be called into question. Geilen (1994) put forward a set of questions that must be asked concerning the development of a new approach. Smith, Harre and Van Langenhove, (1995) believe that tolerance for ambiguity is one of the new rules for therapy in a multicultural society.

Pederson (1994) stated the following to be part of multicultural counseling; “ethnographic variables such as ethnicity, nationality, religion and language; demographic variables such as age, gender and place of residence; status variables such as social, educational and economic; and affiliations including both formal affiliations to family or organizations and informal affiliations to ideas and a lifestyle” while Ivey et al. (1997) describe multicultural counseling as a ‘meta-theoretical approach that recognizes that all helping methods ultimately exist within a cultural context’.

Sloan (1990) is of the view that already a culture centered perspective is growing popular in recent years. However, multicultural counseling presents a set of challenges that must be dealt with in order for the therapy to be effective.

Increasing Self Awareness

Before one can understand a different culture, one must be fully aware of one’s own culture. This has been advocated by many multicultural counselors and theorists who believe that the first challenge faced by counseling in a multicultural society is to identify the dominant values faced by the therapist himself or the dominant culture in which the therapist practices.

            Bimrose (1998) is one of the theorists who have presented several exercises to develop understanding of the self through self examination. Locke (1992) has created a series of questions related to cultural heritage, cultural groups, and impact of culture on the therapist’s beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions.

            The object of these exercises is to help the therapist understand what underlying perceptions held by the therapist can hamper the therapist’s ability to accurately interpret the emotions and behaviors of clients from various cultural backgrounds. It allows the therapist to figure out his own biases and predispositions that the therapist may not even be aware of.

            Truly increasing self awareness is difficult and involves commitment on the side of the therapist to sincerely examine oneself and determine predispositions without defense.

Understanding Factors that Lead to Difference in Culture

Recognizing the various aspects of culture that can vary between ethnicity and race is imperative in understanding the context of the patient’s behavior. The norm in one culture may seem exceptional from the point of view of another.

Jackson (1995) developed knowledge acquisition exercises that would help in developing empathetic understanding by what it experiencing the life context of a person from a different background. Jackson believed that through acquiring knowledge and filling the gaps in understanding, counselors would be able to increase their effectiveness in dealing with clients who come from cultures different from their own.

Ivey (1994) and Ivey et. al. (1997) propose that culturally fitting nonverbal behavior greatly increases the chances of achieving the purpose of therapy and in order to do so Ivey suggest that counselors must “’begin a lifetime of study of nonverbal communication patterns and their variations” Ivey (1994) including how “eye contact, posture, touching, vocal tracking” vary from culture to culture.

Understanding the factors or aspects of culture is a challenge as it requires spending a lot of time acquiring knowledge and observing and also in developing a sense of when to use the correct interpretation depending upon the patient’s cultural background.

Non-verbal Communication

Once the counselor understands the difference and significance of various forms of non-verbal communication, they will be in a position to interpret not only the patient’s disclosure of emotions but also the various actions that the patient may be performing during the therapy sessions.

In counseling in a multicultural society, the counselor may be faced with a number of non-verbal reactions to his interviewing. Where the counselor expects the patient to cry, the patient may hold silent, or may cry when least expected to.

Hand and eye gestures may also differ from culture to culture and being able to accurately gauge their meaning may be difficult for the counselor due to the diverse probable interpretations.

Creating Rapport

Creating rapport with a client from a minority culture or from a culture different from the counselor’s own may be difficult. The patient may feel that the counselor will not understand him and will not be able to understand his thoughts and actions, psychodynamic counseling “[f]or many […] clients belonging to a different and minority cultural group may be an alienating and disadvantageous experience” (Rawson, 2001). This may lead to the patient mistrusting the counselor

The Move towards Effective Multicultural Counseling

Practitioners have as yet to be given opportunity and training in working in a diverse cultural setting. However, the growing multiculturalism is putting practitioners in a position of having to deal with multiculturalism without being given adequate training. But training counselors in understanding cultural diversity have led to criticism of counselors as being psychological tourists simply touring their patient’s cultural experiences (Krause & Miller 1995).

The solution appears to be in developing multicultural sensitivity (Tien & Johnson 1994).

Opening to the possibility if multicultural sensitivity allows the practitioner to enhance his professional skills, “Counseling operates within a cultural context. Failure to respond sensitively will inevitably lead to a negative view of the profession. Through cross-cultural work, the counseling profession has the opportunity to take a significant part in leading…towards a more integrated multicultural society, not just to pick up the pieces when it goes wrong. This perhaps is its greatest challenge.” (Rawson et al, 1999).

However, this must be done very carefully as it should not lead to the therapists feelings as though they are to be blamed for being culturally encapsulated. Furthermore, the purpose of multicultural sensitivity should not be confused with political correctness. The purpose is to develop as sense of respect and acceptance of all forms of culture.


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