The Competence Paradox: Power, Privilege, and Professional Identity Development

The purpose of this article is to enlighten readers about the challenges emerging female therapists of color may experience.

The Competence Paradox: Power, Privilege, and Professional Identity Development

On my journey as a practicum marriage and family therapist (MFT) I have discovered that most interns’ challenges (myself included) are related to a dubious sense of administrative and clinical competence.  These challenges include questioning one’s ability to complete the necessary paperwork, collect sufficient diagnostic information, make an accurate diagnosis, complete a treatment plan that is relevant to both clients and administration (a topic for another article entirely), and attempting to be present, joining with clients, and managing one’s own countertransference/self-of-therapist issues. Coming for a non-systems background in psychology, I have found myself feeling incompetent in most if not all of these aspects of MFT practice. However, as a therapist of color I have also experienced something, which I believe my fellow interns have not: something I will refer to as a Competence Paradox.

A Competence Paradox

Growing up on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago (T & T), and being born of educated parents from an upper-middle class socioeconomic echelon in hindsight I would consider myself as having been very privileged.  Coming to the United States at age 19, and on my continued journey as an MFT, I have come to understand that my privilege in T & T involved not having to “prove” my competence, for it was granted to me based on this socioeconomic background and my being perceived as part of the dominant culture (i.e., East Indian/Latina). Being a doctoral MFT student I have discovered a similar automatic granting of privilege in that I may be perceived as more competent than a non-doctoral intern simply because of the level of degree I am pursuing. However, unlike in T & T where I was not considered a “person of color” and now here in the U.S. being a “therapist of color” I have discovered the paradox that if I accept the privilege granted my degree I may be viewed as too competent due to my being a therapist of color, which puts me at risk of being viewed as intimidating or competitive.

I have discovered that this paradox requires my constant vigilance. I have often found myself second-guessing whether what I say or do is coming across as too competent and in turn intimidating or competitive, thereby making my colleagues feel uncomfortable. In this way there is a power imbalance, as I feel forced to choose between downplaying any competence I believe I may have or run the risk of being isolated from my cohort. However, as Gregory Bateson offered, the myth of power is an epistemological error if it is considered inherent in a given person for it is ultimately a systemic phenomenon that emerges from the interactions between people.

Collaboration is the Thing

As I often say, “Coming from the ‘Psych side of the house’” I have not had to confront these issues of power and privilege as directly as I have as an MFT student. Training as an MFT I have been invited by professors and supervisors to see phenomena systemically; to consider how issues of color, power, and privilege are affecting my emerging professional identity AND how I play a role in these issues. Initially I recoiled from such considerations, keeping my feelings of anger and fear to myself. I felt it was unfair that I should be viewed negatively for simply trying to excel in my MFT training. I also was fearful that if I brought up these issues I would alienate myself from my colleagues. I felt stuck in a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation.

One day however, I brought this issue to several of my supervisors. They were able to validate my feelings and experiences both as a new MFT and a therapist of color. Over the course of several conversations they encouraged me to consider how I might see the systemic nature of the competence paradox and in order to affect it adopt a more collaborative approach. While at first hesitant and still upset about the fact my fellow interns had the privilege of not having considered this paradox, I eventually found that holding onto such thoughts and feelings was stifling my professional identify development and having little-to-no affect on my cohorts’ awareness of their privilege.

By finding the courage to speak with supervisors and then fellow practicum therapists about my experiences and perspectives both as a therapist and a therapist of color, I began to develop a professional voice. I discovered that by acknowledging my feelings, letting go of the need to “protect” my colleagues, and simply sharing my perspective (and allowing others to share theirs); a more equitable development of our respective professional identities began to occur.  More importantly, by adopting a more proactive and balanced approach to these issues I have begun to feel more comfortable with clients, as well. I feel less fearful of being caught in the competence paradox with clients if I am to share my experience of power and privilege in the therapy relationship.


            My journey as an MFT student of color has brought into my purview the previously unseen issues of power and privilege by way of this competency paradox. I have had to learn to balance my demonstration of competence with my personal sense of equity and professional identity development.  In this process I have discovered that in order to find balance within myself and with colleagues I have had to develop the skill of collaboration.  This collaboration has made it possible for me to have a voice in exchanging different personal and professional viewpoints with colleagues, which ultimately is allowing me (and hopefully them) to develop a more complete self-of-therapist for as I have been learning, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

– By MAMFT Member, Martina Kumar