I feel lucky to live and work in a place where I am in contact with people of diverse cultural backgrounds. Many seek me out as a therapist to talk about their personal struggles with cultural identity and belonging. Difference is something which is deeply felt in one’s skin and bones and living in a different culture to one’s own can feel like being a fish out of water – permanently. Everyone goes through their own unique set of issues depending on circumstances linked to upbringing, race, gender, immigration status, class, age, sexuality, and disability.
Sense of Belonging
Cultural and psychological integration go hand in hand, given culture is an intrinsic part of one’s identity which is linked to a sense of belonging, safety, and mirroring. All of these are associated to early childhood experiences; for instance, hearing our parents or carers speak in a certain language or with a particular accent, and sensory experiences – smell, taste, sound, and touch. Most of us can recognise the familiarity which transports us ‘home’ through hearing a piece of music, eating certain foods, or hearing our language. Other familiar experiences can include literature and art, nature and wildlife, and weather.
The True Meaning of ‘Cultural Integration’
Migration, whether through choice or not, can result in the loss of everything that has once felt familiar. These losses need to be felt and mourned, so we can better accept and embrace the new culture we are living in. I have come across individuals from other cultures who had on the surface integrated very well in the UK, but on the other hand carried a deep melancholia about their cultural past, preventing them from ever fully ‘arriving’ here. Leaving one’s country and culture for another means reinventing oneself to a certain degree. Whilst this may sound appealing to some, the other side of it is that it can feel that you must constantly explain yourself. The lack of familiar cultural references, working harder to understand and be understood, and the constant feeling of being different are aspects of a migrant’s daily experience which remains invisible to others. We understand cultural integration more superficially as whether one can speak the language fluently, settle and adapt to a new environment. This is only the beginning.
The Role of Psychotherapy
We can think of Psychotherapy as integration of the different parts of the self which conflict with one another. This usually involves mourning losses, accepting reality, and learning to live with (or even embrace) paradox and uncertainty. This is not about leaving your culture behind – quite the opposite. The more we process and integrate experiences, the more we learn to accept who we truly are. As you can imagine, this will not happen in just a few sessions. Preferably seek a culturally aware psychotherapist who has been through this process themselves or is at least far enough along the journey to take you through it.
Sam Jahara is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist with a special interest in working with issues linked to cultural identity and a sense of belonging. She works with individuals and couples in Hove and Lewes.
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