Updated: Apr 11
Often, I find clients seek help as they are struggling between: striving to live their own lives; and being weighed down by the expectations or perceived obligations of their parents and family. This experience can be extremely confusing and adversely effect one’s lived experience, or quality of life. It can be made worse by adopting a dichotomous, or black and white attitude. Either I live the way my parents and family want me to live? In which case, I never realise my own potential, dreams, ambitions, needs and desires. …or I pursue my own way of living, and disappoint my family leaving them, and me, with a sense of failure and shame.
Some examples might include the following. A woman wants to pursue a career, but her family have traditional values and see motherhood as a priority. What if we fall in love with someone from a different culture and our families object because they are from a different religion or what they perceive as a lower socioeconomic status? What if we identify with a different gender or have different sexual orientations and our families deny our gender or sexual identity?
We are complex creatures to understand, as each of us are unique. Diversity between humans is a very beautiful aspect of our species and something we should respect and cherish. Ironically, while there are those that would allow difference to divide us, the paradox is, individual difference is what we all have in common.
To be fully understood as individuals, however, we must also consider ourselves in our social, environmental, and developmental contexts.
To understand the influences acting on our development we must consider:
Normative age-graded influences: This refers to the fact that individuals who share a particular age range (e.g., toddler, adolescent, or senior) also share specific age-related developmental experiences and changes.
Normative history-graded influences: The period in which we are born also shapes our experiences. A group of people who are born around the same time under similar conditions are referred to as a cohort. A cohort often experiences similar experiences like Baby Boomers, X Generation, Y Generation, and so on.
Non-normative life influences: Despite sharing an age and history with our peers, each of us also has unique experiences that may shape our development. Our family tend to have a significant influence.
Dislocation and Trauma
The world has become a much smaller place. Multiculturalism creates more opportunity for rich community living, but it also creates challenges for families trying to adapt to different cultural influences.
Moving to live in another, distant location, especially, in another country is a significant decision. Sometimes it is by choice and at other times the move is due to necessity. It is my experience, many individuals and families immigrate to avoid, or even escape, challenging life circumstances, a serious threat to their security and safety, or traumatic circumstances. Often, families that have experienced trauma never discuss it. Avoiding traumatic memories that trigger anxiety is a natural way we try to cope with adverse experiences.
At best, a family that simply moves to another destination loses some level of connection with their family, social network, and familiar surroundings. At worse, they can also lose contact with their language and cultural practices. To address this loss, many find solace through seeking members of their community of origin, some manage to assimilate, and others remain isolated.
When an individual, family or even a small community are separated by distance and time from the culture of origin, they can become frozen in time. Developmental progress can stagnate, and a family might adhere to rituals, beliefs and cultural practices being undertaken when the family left their culture of origin. They do not realise these cultural practices might have become outdated. The families remaining in their cultural of origin, however, have progressed and developed with time. When a family is isolated from their culture of origin and fail to keep progressing this is cultural stagnation. This can place a significant burden on children who are expected to live according to outdated practices or traditions.
When a family immigrates, they might tend to adhere strictly to their culture of origins’ values, beliefs, practices, and so on. Such practices might be well entrenched as part of their identity, which is natural. This poses a challenge for the following generations who are trying to live in a new culture but adhere to the strict beliefs and practices of their family of origin. The individual struggles to adhere to cultural practices in their new environment. The family might act to reject any perceived, or actual, lack of adherence to their cultural values and practices. The offspring of the family are then torn between assimilating to their new circumstances or maintaining the respect and connection with their family of origin. This is not a choice anyone should have to make.
Managing Cultural Stagnation and Divergence
Insight is a good starting point. Understanding the complex web of being born into a mixed cultural environment is important. Some might choose the road of adopting the stagnated practices being practiced by their family of origin. Others will find this too challenging, and there is a risk they could see the only solution as breaking free completely and rejecting their traditional beliefs, values, and practices.
Ideally, however, everyone can go on a personal journey to assimilate and find a reasonable balance between being progressive but also continuing to understand and value their culture of origin, and even engage in practices which they deem reasonable and appropriate.
Below are some strategies to help if you find yourself torn between family and culture:
Choice and Possibilities: To begin the journey of personal assimilation, one must first understand there are many possibilities. Seeing possibilities, avoids dichotomous thinking and adopting a black and white attitude. It prevents one from thinking they must adhere to the traditional cultural values or outright reject them.
Being: Learn to just ‘be’. To stop ‘being for others’, firstly learn to just ‘be’. Being in the present moment and learning to limit thoughts and feelings is a critical step to establishing a blank canvas upon which to develop your own values and learning to ‘be for self’. It is important to understand, however, that being-for-self is not being selfish. It is simply learning to live life intentionally and mindfully, acting with will and being true to yourself and your values.
Self-exploration: Begin by understanding yourself better. Consider your interests and values. How do you describe yourself? What do you enjoy? Pursue and engage in activities that appeal to you. Find people you respect and who inspire you.
Openness and Exploration: Adopt an attitude of openness to ideas and ways of living. This does not mean you have to judge or accept alternative ways of living. It simply means being curious and understanding the wide range of behaviour and beliefs different people engage in. Ask yourself what advantages and disadvantages each behaviour or practice offers? How do they align with your values and the way you want to live your life?
Respect: Sometimes when we have views imposed on us, we react by being defensive, pushing back and rejecting or even opposing the views of those trying to influence us. Be aware of the feelings that others evoke in you but maintain composure and respect.
Boundaries: You need some autonomy through this process. If you are feeling frustrated by pressure from others or feel that you cannot be yourself due to the influence of others, then review your boundaries. This might mean creating more physical and psychological space to be able to explore your own needs, values, and life goals. Establishing boundaries can mean reducing the time you spend with certain people, managing discussions in a way to limit uncomfortable conversations and sometimes ensuring you have time to be alone or with those that respect your personal freedom and do not try to impose their own values upon you. Don’t burn your bridges. Even if you do not agree with the beliefs of others, they might hold some interesting learnings and insights. In respecting their views, they are more likely to respect yours, although some people can be very dogmatic and maintain a narrow view.
Vulnerability: Through the process of individuation some people might find themselves vulnerable. It is good to ensure you have someone you can trust to support you through the process. Someone who will not try to impose their ideals and values upon you and certainly someone who will not take advantage of you through a time which might include some uncertainty.
Understanding and communication: Where possible, assert your needs and communicate with your friends and loved ones. Let them know that you are going through a reflective stage and ask them to respect your space. Establish a network of people around you who will provide unconditional love and support.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing difficulty with cultural or family issues, support is available. If you need further assistance please contact iflow psychology or book an appointment. You can book an appointments online, or by calling my friendly admin staff on 02 6061 1144.
iflow psychology offers in-person (face-to-face), telehealth and telephone counselling. We are registered psychologists. We also offer Medicare Rebates when you have a doctors referral and Mental Health Plan. We would love to be part of your journey to a healthier lifestyle.
Location Details: iflow psychology is located in Leichhardt Inner West Sydney NSW Australia
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article are suggestions only. It is always advisable to speak with your treating doctor and health professionals before making changes. This is particularly important if you have health concerns or have existing medical conditions.
(c) 2021 Dean Harrison