While Dr. Shemena Johnson’s curiosity helped drive her to pursue a career as a therapist, it was truly her life experiences and passionate insight into human behaviour that has allowed her to succeed, too.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dr. Johnson has attributed her family’s African-American roots and history, to helping inform her therapeutic practices. Not only has she personally seen and gone through the intricacies of the human experiences—especially when it comes to relationships—she also encountered and understood the intersectionality of race, culture, and traumas, too.
We got a chance to talk with Dr. Johnson about why she chose this career path, her philosophies while working with individuals and couples as they navigate their experiences—and how they can tackle challenges along the way.
What really drives you to be a therapist every single day?
I think a lot of people become therapists because you are curious about human relationships and how to be better. I think the difference between a therapist and a person walking on the street is [therapists have] made this very big commitment to work on ourselves daily.
I really enjoy what I do because it really is about bringing a lot of unconscious material to a sense of awareness and consciousness, so that you can have more choices available for yourself and how to interact with people and to be in the world.
I’ve always been really fascinated by psychology, human behaviour, but therapy really is the mosaic of my life. Some of is a little bit of family, some of it is about the circumstances of culture, of race, and also some of that is my own sense of curiosity about human behaviour.
Based on your clients and experience—couples at different stages probably come to visit you. How many come when they’re in a place where they have no other choices left and how many are there to help prevent future conflict?
I would say I work a lot with high functioning adults and couples, but unfortunately, I think a lot of the times, when couples do come to see me, it is usually when something’s not working: either there’s been major upsets that have turned into resentments, or there are complaints or issues around intimacy, and they’re looking for ways to work past this.
There’s been a small percentage of individuals who have come beforehand, who are new in a relationship and are concerned about family dynamics, in-law dynamics, and how their traumas play into this, and they want to ensure the relationship will go the distance.
Ultimately, the difference in a lot of couples that survive is that when there is an issue, how do you really approach the issue? A lot of people will come and they’ll say, “I have bad relationships” and that’s where they stop—but that really doesn’t help you evolve and grow. How you learn to grow is taking the time to process and understand all the dynamics and circumstances that brought you to this point.
Even though I work with couples, there’s still lot of individual work to be done. How I like to think about it is there are these two individuals and the relationship is the third body: the relationship is the third body and everything that you do individually is with the interest and the investment in the relationship. So, I really do help individuals start to look at being in a relationship from the standpoint of being separate but connected.
How impactful are generational traumas or familial traumas, like culture and race, when it comes to relationships and like either the problems couples face or like the solutions that they're working towards?
It’s huge: it’s such a huge piece. I may be seeing the couple in the room, but I’m not just seeing the couple in the room. I feel like I’m seeing the couple and their family—it's like eight people in the room.
That’s why I like to look at it from this vantage point, there is a new drama that unfolds in the context of a couple in both scenarios, and it's obvious that scenario may have been taking place in a different time, space, setting, or with even different layers, different cultures [because of their pasts and generational traumas]. The vulnerabilities of those yester years, are embedded in each scenario. So, culture, race, gender, how you were socialized—all of that—plays a part in how you see yourself and how you present yourself to your partner, and how that unfolds in sessions.
What do you find is like the most common issue among all couples? Of course, this probably varies, but what have you found to be a recurring theme?
This has come up a lot in the last couple of years and that is: I think the power of denial can be immense. I think a lot of times people, couples, individuals, they all come to therapy with a story that they told themselves for many years—this belief that, “I understand the way it is and I won't deviate from it.”
I would say one of the biggest issues, that I think transcends all of the couples, is communication and how people really learn how to communicate.
Objectively, it’s really not difficult to communicate, but it becomes challenging based on your own psychology. It’s these very deep feelings of, “I want to be close to you, I want this person to be interested in me, but then I have these behaviors that pushes them away.” It keeps you from evolving from communicating about the deeper feelings.
And what is one piece of advice or knowledge you’d like to share with couples—or individuals—who may be reading this?
There’s this interesting dynamic that I think a lot of people have a difficulty unpacking, which is this idea of being more vulnerable in the room. Often, people feel like they have to cling to these rationalizations that it's everyone else, it's not them. [Being vulnerable is] like ripping someone's clothes off and now they’re naked and there’s this feeling that it's just so crushing for someone to really see them [in this state].
But you can't change if you're not vulnerable enough. It’s okay to be vulnerable enough to understand that you have issues, we all have issues, we're all flawed. I think is such an important piece. We all make mistakes, but we need to focus on what we can learn from those choices and mistakes.