Sahaj Kaur Kohli

A Q&A with the founder of Brown Girls Therapy

You founded Brown Girl Therapy, the first and largest community organization for children of immigrants, in 2019. What has been most gratifying about building this community, and what have you learned most from your followers? 

The whole process has blown me away. I never expected Brown Girl Therapy to grow the way that it has. The most gratifying part of building and sustaining this community has been proving my previous held beliefs wrong. I used to think that no one could relate to my experiences. I used to believe that there was something wrong with me—and that I should hide it from the world—since I didn’t relate to the self-help content I was consuming. I am so grateful and honored to be able to create and be in a community that allows people to truly reflect, engage with, and heal all parts of themselves.  

On a personal level, it’s even been healing for me. I initially started the community because I was searching for community and for support from people who shared and understood my experiences. Every day that I am sharing my knowledge or my own growth, I learn from others.  That is the power of community care; it’s not one directional. It’s reciprocal and it’s mutual and it’s just really incredible.

Having built this community, why did you think that the book was the next natural step? What inspired you to begin writing? 

I have always been a writer. It’s what helped me process my own experiences growing up when I didn’t have any sources of support in my family or otherwise. And then fast forward to me having a career in media, and it was there that I really started to learn the value and power of storytelling. 

Over the years, since starting BGT, I have always gotten so many messages and comments from people about writing a book. Nothing like this community existed yet, and when I would post about a very precise cultural struggle; or breakdown a complicated issue; or provide language for something that isn’t otherwise discussed in mental health, I would always get these messages and comments from people asking for, and seeking, more. There came a point where it became obvious that a book was needed, and I never doubted that I could write enough words to fill a book on being a child of immigrants. I often struggled to shorten content or write less for social media. And now, with a 400+ page book finished, I think my work is a testament to how important and underserved this population is. If anything, I have so much more to say in future books!

In the new book But What Will People Say?, you explain how traditional mental health models are largely euro-centric and focused on individuality. Can you speak more on this lack of additional perspectives in mental health resources?

It makes sense. If you think about the history of Western wellness and therapy, it was created by White people (mainly men) who historically were members of communities and cultures that espouse individualism. This means that embedded in the foundation of research and mental health knowledge is the idea that there are specific and “right” ways to heal and exist in your relationships and life. For example, enmeshment is considered bad in Western narratives around wellness but enmeshment may have been a protective factor for immigrants who relied on being insular with their family and cultural community to protect themselves from assimilation and harm from the dominant society.

Yes, boundaries are great, navigating guilt is important, reflecting on your people pleasing behaviors is wonderful. But this doesn’t look the same for everyone nor are the same factors at play. So if you are reading and consuming content, or working with a therapist who isn’t culturally-inclusive, then you may constantly feel like you are the problem or are unworthy of quality mental health care.

How do you challenge these practices to create an inclusive space where everyone can begin to heal?

While I believe in the power of therapy, there’s still a limit. Talk therapy, the act of talking about your feelings and experiences, can help people to process but only under the systems they still exist in—the same systems that may be causing harm, discrimination, historical oppression, and so on. Simply put: The work can only be done on an individual level up until a point. 

Thankfully, there’s a rise of diversity and representation in mental health and a part of that work is infusing culture into these conversations. In my work, I aim to focus on and highlight the importance of culture, heritage, ancestry, and community in taking care of ourselves as individuals. 

Not everyone has the same background, family dynamics, narratives around wellness, or privileges, and these are all important factors to consider when exploring what “being well” means. These factors at play can be as general as gender and socioeconomic class, and as specific as birth order and city of origin.

I encourage people—clinicians and laymen—to be curious about their understanding and practices around wellness. Why is it assumed that one has to verbally state a boundary to set effective boundaries? Why does it make sense that a therapeutic practice around working with trauma will be effective for every client who has trauma? 

Where do these practices come from? Who created these practices? Who does it serve? Who was used in the research when developing these practices? I think these are really important questions to ask and by having curiosity I’ve been able to explore and challenge whether or not these practices are culturally informed or have been useful for serving children of immigrants or anyone straddling more than one culture. 

What is the best way to use this book? 

I foresee this book being a guide that people return to over the course of their lives. There’s so much in this book and no matter where a reader is in their life, career, and relationships, they will find something useful in this book. 

Readers should read as quickly or as slowly as they need. I would encourage people to read it through at least once, and then return to chapters and themes that are salient for them as they need. 

The book integrates your own personal narrative with formal and poll-based research. Why was it important to include your own experiences in the text? 

Personal storytelling is important to me. As someone who has turned to self-help for my whole life, I found practical advice to be more or less the same. It’s often oversimplified, or commodified—i.e. ‘Here are five things you should be doing to take control of your life!” The reality is much messier. Also, many people who dole out advice, come from it with an authority that feels so inaccessible for the regular reader. Yes, I have worked hard, and yes I have built an expertise around my work and passion, but I also am a human who has struggled. Who didn’t learn certain lessons fast enough. Who tried various methods in my own life only to be surprised by what actually helped. I don’t want to just tell people what to do. I’d rather meet people where they are and show them how I have navigated different struggles.

In essence, by being vulnerable, I hope to inspire others to do the same. If I am not willing to go there about my own life and self-examination, how can I expect readers to trust me to lead them there? 

In the book, you include reflection questions and conversation prompts. When do you know a relationship is able to handle this type of honest discourse?

Everyone’s in a different place in their journey which is why my tips, reflection questions, and prompts vary in language and in foundational knowledge. Some people may not be able to have the big hard conversation about their mental health issues with a parent yet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t begin to approach the way they communicate with their parents slightly different. Nothing changes unless something changes, and my hope is that with all the tools and tips I offer in this book, a reader will find something that can help them look at their life and relationships from a different and new perspective. 

What was the emotional impact of writing this book on your own life and relationships?

Oh man. Confronting the reality of my past, my relationships, and my self has been no small feat.  Writing this book is the hardest thing I have (voluntarily) done. I excavated a lot of my own childhood and young adult wounds, and I have had to really interrogate what I remember, what I still carry, and what my own role in my life story has been. 

I write as honestly as I can in this book. I don’t sugarcoat what I have lived through, nor my own shortcomings and mistakes along the way. With that said, I was very intentional and mindful of what needed to be in this book versus what I need to still process in my own therapy and healing journey. I do still have a relationship with my family. I love them dearly. So holding two truths—that they have hurt me/made mistakes and I love them—throughout this book was very important. My dad has been so loving, encouraging me to write whatever I need to. My mom has trusted me, but has had a little more difficulty with the reality that there are things about our family dynamics that now others will be privy to. Both my siblings read this book and gave honest feedback and while I didn’t necessarily change things, we were able to have deeper conversations about our childhoods and lives.

When all is said is done, I am proud of still choosing to show up fully in this book. However, I recognize that it’s a privilege to have the support of my loved ones, too. This book led to a lot of deep and difficult conversations in my relationships and I do believe it’s strengthened my intimacy with my loved ones.

What is your advice to immigrant parents who may pick this book up? 

It’s important to carry nuance while reading this book. This book is not categorizing immigrant parents as antagonists and if anything feels triggering or like an attack, I encourage you to sit with and reflect on that more deeply. Often, when I write about the complicated, messy reality of immigrant family dynamics and cultural norms and expectations, some people’s first reaction is “you don’t love your parents” or “you don’t understand what we—immigrants—lived through.” I do love my parents, and I do try to have empathy and compassion for what I don’t know/didn’t live through. Many things can be true at the same time and I really hope that this book, when read with an open mind and heart, can bridge some of the generational and cultural differences for families in the same way writing it did for me and my parents.

What do you hope readers take away the most from your book?

The short answer: Whatever they need. I hope readers can appreciate and recognize that everything—their shame, their confusion, their pride, their heritage, their uncertainty, and more—is a part of their journey. I share my story so fully so people can feel less alone in their experiences. I hope readers can recognize that there’s an “other” side to their struggles, and that when they explore and discover the agency they have in their own lives, they can feel empowered to find their way to a deepened sense of self, love, and wellness.