General, MindMate

It’s no coincidence that Petra Berg works with people. Helping others has always been important to her, and she’s dedicated herself to the cause. On an early Monday morning, we sat in front of our webcams to discuss her work as a cognitive behavioral therapy psychotherapist, equality, and LGBTQ questions.

Who is Petra Berg?

Nowadays, Petra works as a full-time psychotherapist, but she’s also got a master’s degree in developmental psychology and a few years of work experience as a school social worker. Petra enjoyed talking to people and working as a school social worker. When a program for psychotherapists specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy became available in Swedish in 2008, she applied without hesitation. Thanks to her master’s degree, she got in, and the rest is history. Since 2012, Petra has been working to guide people towards improved well-being.

When Petra was still a student, she noticed that psychodynamic psychology didn’t suit her work style, but a cognitive behavioral therapy approach in psychology felt just right. Psychodynamic psychology focuses heavily on childhood experiences, whereas a cognitive-behavioral approach centers more around the current situation. The therapist and the client can look at issues together: what can we do now and in the future so that you’ll feel better?

Another contributing factor to Petra’s choice of becoming a CBT psychotherapist is the academic foundation for this type of therapy. She feels secure knowing that the techniques used in therapy are based on scientific research.

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short, is a form of short-term therapy (ca. 20 visits, depending on the person) that is based on research. CBT as a form of therapy is characterized by the techniques used: the therapy involves both individual conversations and homework. A variety of therapeutic literature is available for different problems, and both the therapist and the client can benefit from reading these texts. The literature used in therapy is a compilation of research findings. Researchers analyze each problematic situation separately and investigate what factors are shared by all clients, as well as what a therapist can do to change the client’s behavior. The therapist’s job is to find the right tools in order to help the client as much as possible.

Focus on diversity of sexuality and gender

LGBTQI matters (an umbrella term for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, and intersexual people) are a topic of interest for Petra. She started to form a deeper understanding of these minority groups through her friend Malin Gustavsson, who is the founder of Ekvalita. Together, they have discussed equality and what it actually means. Petra says that she has learned new skills and gained a better understanding of how minorities are generally discussed. She herself doesn’t like to put labels on people.

Petra prioritizes the person and not the box they best fit into. She applies the same principle to her work with clients. The emphasis is on the anxiety or compulsive symptoms with which the client needs help, not their gender or sexual orientation.

If a client also wants to talk about their sexuality or identity, they are welcome to do so because Petra addresses the big picture surrounding the person’s problems. There are no taboo subjects. Therapy always emphasizes the client’s well-being, and the goal is to help clients do as well as possible on their own when therapy sessions end.

According to Seta (a Finnish LGBTQI rights organization) and Finnish Youth Research Network (2013), Finnish LGBTQI youths are not doing as well on average as similarly aged heterosexuals and cis-gendered persons—persons who feel that every aspect of their gender, meaning biological and legal gender as well as sexual identity and gender expression, is in line with the others. While all LGBTQI youths are not doing poorly, research has shown that they experience many types of negative special treatment, which is detrimental to their well-being.

Minority stress

Because our society is built by and for the majority, LGBTQI persons are more vulnerable to marginalization as a minority. Structural inequality, discrimination, prejudice, and exclusion cause a significant, special kind of stress that has negative effects on the mental wellness of minority groups. The stress born from living outside societal norms and dealing with a minority status may trigger both psychological and physical reactions, for example, anxiety, depression, or alcohol and substance abuse problems (Meyer, 2003). However, it’s important to remember that everyone experiences their minority status differently, so the effects of minority stress vary between individuals.

Petra defines minority stress through the idea that we tend to ask minority persons questions that we wouldn’t ask others. We may, for example, ask someone who has undergone sex reassignment surgery if they still have their genitals, or ask a gay person when they knew they were gay. A person who is not part of a sexual or gender minority is unlikely to face these types of questions.

What can I do to relieve this stress? According to Petra, it’s important to avoid causing more stress. We need to be conscious of our own attitudes. You can ask yourself whether you would ask a particular question if you didn’t know a person’s sexual or gender identity. You may also ask why you are experiencing this urge—why are you asking, and why do you need to know? While you may not intend your question or comment as harmful, another person may feel that it’s offensive or inconsiderate. Petra thinks that in order to address this issue, we need to understand how we are affected by patriarchal social structures. She recommends a book by Clara Henry called Mot framtiden: en simpel guide till att krossa patriarkatet (Towards the Future: A Simple Guide to Smashing the Patriarchy). It’s a book meant for all ages and genders, and it discusses patriarchal societal structures in a humorous and philosophical manner.

Showing support to loved ones

Do you want to show a friend or loved one your support, but don’t know how? You can support them by being there for them, for example, by asking how they are doing. Petra emphasizes that you should not add to the person’s minority stress. Choose your words carefully, and do not express any prejudice to others.

Remember to respect other people’s boundaries—don’t pressure them into talking about things that they don’t want to discuss. Your mission is to listen to the other person’s needs. The key is to be their friend.

If you notice that your friend isn’t doing well, you don’t need to take on any more responsibility than you can handle. There are professionals who can help, so look into that option. Help your loved ones get help. No one should be left alone with their troubles.

There are many different services you can try if you feel that you need support. For example, Seta is a Finnish human rights organization for sexual and gender minorities, and their website has a list of their support services as well as links to other organizations and authorities. For support in Swedish, go here; for support in Finnish, go here; for support in English, go here.

Want to read more about equality and LGBTQI matters? I can recommend a book in Swedish: HBTQ+: psykologiska perspektiv och bemötande (Tove Lundberg et al.). If you prefer to read in Finnish, try Saanko olla totta?: Sukupuolen ja seksuaalisuuden moninaisuus (Liisa Tuovinen et al.). If you’re looking for a book in English, I suggest you take a look at Queer: a graphic story (Meg-John Barker). It’s an easily digestible story about the concepts of gender and sexuality, written in a graphic novel style.

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