Volume I Issue 2


Can American Individualism Block Good Therapy?

by Harriet Cannon, LMFT, LMHC

According to an American Immigration Council 2013 report, one in seven Washington State residents were foreign born. And, 90% of them come from collectivist cultures.

For collectivists, family needs are first. Family fidelity, hierarchy, and harmony are values that have endured for millennia. Everything of importance in the life cycle happens through family connection and support.

Our individualist, me-first self-actualizing orientation is institutionalized in the United States and supported by laws as well as services. A psychotherapist may have familiarity with multicultural work, but she usually has a deeply embedded belief in the power of the individual adult to create a meaningful life alone without support from family. Is this a problem worki

Intercultural specialists say it takes three generations to fully acculturate. Families with a history of trauma can take longer. Children and grandchildren of immigrants look mainstream and have no foreign accent. They often hide the stress of culture clash from helping professionals to sidestep the shame of explaining what may be a politically incorrect but deeply held cultural value.

As therapists we need nuanced sensitivity in our work with second and third generation immigrant clients because their collectivism is less obvious.

An example:

Leila, 29, and Ellen, 31, are starting couple therapy saying their three year relationship has hit an impasse.  Leila has refused to “come out” to her immigrant Indian American parents. Ellen is angry and hurt.

Leila says her parents sacrificed to give her life, education, belonging, and cultural identity. To come out would mean they’d disown her. The shame would be unbearable. Leila believes visiting her parents in Portland monthly and having a separate life with Ellen in Seattle is perfect. To Ellen, Leila’s refusal to put their relationship before her family is a betrayal of their love.

Ellen relates how her Euro American parents were shocked when she and Leila bought a condo together last year. As they grew to know Leila, Ellen’s parents have become warm and supportive. It’s making Ellen crazy that Leila won’t risk disappointing her parents. They both agree they want a life together. They’ve been able to negotiate differences in the past. Isn’t their love the most important thing in the world? Surely Leila’s parents will see the light. Is a problem in the relationship that Leila is hiding? Maybe she wants out.

What’s a therapist to do?

First, run hastily to her consultation group that hopefully contains a collectivist perspective or two. And/or consult a multicultural specialist for cases such as the one above.

Next comes the self of the therapist.  Can our therapist hear both cultural worldviews fairly without ethnocentric judgment? It’s challenging as the lesbian-gay rights battle is so recently won in US individualist culture, while intolerance of same-sex committed relationships prevails in most collectivist cultures.

Can our therapist open conversations that help relieve this couple’s conflict?

  • Could Ellen find the power of collectivist belonging in her own family immigrant story by interviewing elders?
  • Leila walks in both worlds, but at heart is a collectivist. With help, can Leila reassure Ellen about her love and educate her on the life of a collectivist? Literature, online blogs, etc.
  • Are the politics of living proudly in an open lesbian relationship, the pressure from friends in Seattle, influencing negotiating a creative solution to their culture clash? Can they form “couple” unity to reduce outside influence?
  • Can the therapist create conversations, experiential exercises, on meaning and committed love to help ride out a crisis while conversations continue?
  • With help, could Ellen consider patience (for now and perhaps forever) knowing some of Leila’s family privately accept the relationship, but won’t acknowledge it publicly because it would bring shame on the extended family?
  • Would the therapist find it difficult to accept a solution that honors collectivist values? If so, back to the consulting group and perhaps a referral for this couple.

Harriet Cannon, LMFT, LMHC, specializes in multicultural, multiethnic relationships and intercultural transitions. She has 30 years experience working as a counselor, consultant, and workshop presenter in the United States and internationally. Mixed Blessings: A Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships, by Rhoda Berlin, LMFT and Harriet Cannon, LMFT, LMHC, is excellent resource for those interested in work with mixed culture clients and is available at Amazon.com.


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