Culture and Identity

Reflections of an Afro-Dominicana Family Therapist

Written By: Massiel Abramson

The chaos that comes with change is the chaos that brings us peace.

In these recent times, we are being challenged on how much we are willing to push for change and equality. Those doing the pushing are the courageous souls who no longer want to suffer in silence. As an Afro-Dominicana, my silent torment has manifested in many different ways — from overly proving my worth at the workplace to graciously deflecting unwelcome advances and even chemically-straightening my hair. As a family therapist, I’ve come to appreciate and value the power of our narratives and reflect on those stories during times of transformation. More specifically, the stories that intersect with the different parts of my identity. Through that intersectionality, I’ve come to explore and expand my reflective capacity — the ability to find different ways to process the choices we’ve made and the circumstances we are dealt.

Being reflective and going within yourself should not be seen as self-indulgent. On the contrary, self-reflective exercises help cultivate honesty and empathy with yourself and in your relationships. This change is possible due to utilizing a different medium to think and/or talk, which unlocks new feelings, words and identities. Being reflective allows you to identify your experiences in a situation. How did you feel? What do you like? What don’t you like? What is your style? This then gives you the ability to accurately identify your feelings with a sense of personal acceptance. My reflections guided me through the decolonizing of my hair. Like many Afro-Dominicanas, el desrizado was the answer to all my hair woes; soon enough, I started to wake up and realize the physical and emotional damage of not living my truth. I chopped off my hair and started to grow my ‘fro. During this time, I relied on my journal, paintbrushes and canvas to meditate on the bittersweet feelings that came with settling into a better version of myself. This hasn’t stopped.

In therapy, there are several ways to reflect – some examples include guided talk, self-esteem building, and assertiveness training. You might assess teamwork strategies, trust building, and individual strengths and weaknesses. With children you do play therapy, in which you watch and support the child’s exploration, meaning-making and self-efficacy. However, a common thread with these activities is that they overly depend on talking, just like the stereotypical therapy sessions we see on TV and love to hate. In order to make emotional and behavioral breakthroughs, clinicians must implement different forms of expression that do more than talk.

My ultimate goal is to guide my clients to also become better versions of themselves. I’ve worked as a family therapist for 8 years, but this past year has been my first time working solely with mothers of children under the age of 5. The mothers, like many of us, struggle with current and past trauma. I noticed that the mothers were reflective during family therapy and needed their own space to process their experiences. I also realized that in order for them to listen to their children’s needs better, they needed to look at themselves through a different method other than talk therapy. Art therapy provides a structured process to self-reflection through creativity and exploration. The process creates a level of freedom and tranquility, which provides a supportive environment for emotional growth and healthy identity formation.  Collages are unique because without knowing how to draw or paint, they allow you to apply visuals to big concepts that resonate with you. I discovered in these sessions that creating a collage with a particular framework can support self-awareness and enhance one’s ability to process the trauma, the joy and the unknown that makes up our narrative. Self – reflection through use of color and pictures taps into what cannot be explained with words. This is often an untapped avenue to greater self- discovery and identity formation.
The collage workshops I developed and facilitated were based on trauma-informed therapy, attachment theories, and art therapy. There were four sessions of collaging and an additional session for presentations. Below is a template of the collage.

The collage it divided into four quadrants: (1) My Journey – Reflects on your morals, values and your ancestry. Elicits feelings of nostalgia and melancholy. (2) Self-Awareness – Affirms strengths, makes peace with weaknesses. Elicits feelings of belonging. (3) My Relationships: Explores your attachments. Elicits feelings of empathy and connectedness. (4) My Future: Increases motivation and long term planning. Elicits feelings of purpose and self-determination.

I provided the supplies and a variety of magazines. With music playing I prompted the group with questions similar to those shown in the template and engaged in conversations on self-care, ambitions, and intimate relationships. The combination of art, dialogue, and group dynamic allowed for them to engage in vulnerability, affirmations, and self-acceptance. More importantly, I reiterated the significance of exploring different forms of expression to enhance their coping skills and affirm their identities as mothers, partners, and individuals. They felt an eagerness to explore, which is critical in having breakthroughs. These populations often do not have the structure for creative outlets; therefore, clinicians and educators should be intentional at finding different means to engage with the community. I urge my peers to continuously explore innovative approaches to uncover our narratives.

There is amazing power in yourself to heal by telling your truths, your stories. You become free to accept and understand the chaos and the kinks that come with your history, your family and environment.  Using our stories as the platform, clinicians can forge new therapeutic practices that honor the intersectionality of experiences.

About Massiel:
I was born in the Dominican Republic. At the age of 5, I immigrated to the gateway city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Rhode Island. I have worked in the clinical mental health field for 8 years in different capacities, management, training and direct care. I am currently working with infants, young children and parents providing attachment based therapy.



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