Healing and Understanding Cultural Difference within our Relationships

Before Christmas I had a great session with a new psychologist. I went in freaking out a bit, because things were rough last year, and towards the end it all felt out of control. At the same time, I’d been doing a bit of reading on brain/neuroscience. Except… well, I’m no brain scientist, and I don’t think I really understood what I was reading. Somehow, in all of that, I convinced myself that I was behaving like a manic psycho and my brain was totally rewiring itself to model my behaviour; meaning I was falling further and further into manic mode. So despite all the pain of my first few therapy sessions, I decided to give counselling one more shot.

And just for the record – I’m glad I did. I was shaking going in, and launched straight into a cautious tirade about how I was “regressing” into infantile communication strategies (umm, like not talking to anybody and literally locking people out when I was feeling really down). Unlike the past therapists, this one didn’t focus on aspects of my behaviour that were abusive and crazy (not that there’s anything wrong with focussing on that). Instead, she calmed me down, acknowledged I was going through a hard time, and asked me not to be too harsh on myself. Wowie….

OK, so it’s obviously good for the ego to hear that locking people out of the house doesn’t make you a manic psycho bitch or regressive infant, and that it’s in fact a self-care strategy. What rocked my world about this therapist, though, is that she acknowledged my relationship (i.e. didn’t just focus on me as an individual), and finally (finally!) addressed the fact that there are some cultural differences between me and L which I should probably try to get my head around.

We’re onto something here folks!

I guess most people in an intercultural relationship don’t need a therapist to tell them  they should explore and understand cultural differences between themselves and their partner. But hey, what can I say, I’m not most people 😉 And the other therapists I’d seen had taken very different and more individualistic approaches to recovery and healing, with absolutely no acknowledgement of the intercultural dynamics within my relationships. Indeed, as readers of my older posts will know, one therapist even suggested I was only with L because I was fascinated by him as an object of intellectual curiosity and humanitarian assistance – implying that I was the type to fetishise difference. Needless to say this was rather hurtful, and made me self-conscious of exploring any kind of cultural difference between us, thinking such exploration would be evidence of pathology and co-dependency in our relationship, rather than an expression of love and understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been mindful of cultural difference. I started this blog, after all – and my very first post is about how I’d always resisted the label ‘cross-cultural’ when maybe the idea could actually help sort out some resonating truths about our relationship. Yet I’ve also been mindful of exoticising L, of appearing too keen and interested and naive, of making him feel like some kind of African specimen for an ignorant western mind. My attitude was (and is) compounded by the fact that L has, shall we say, very little patience for my discipline and profession of choice, anthropology. To simplify his position , anthropology is the most colonial, the most exoticising, objectifying western discipline. Ironically, my very training in social science took away any intellectual resources to argue back. First year anthro right through to graduation is all about the evolution of western social sciences in the context of colonialism, eugenics and economic expansion; about the academic discourse that justified the imperial control of bodies and minds and resources; about the privilege that makes western projects of objectification such as ours possible in the first place. It’s self-critique all the way, and speaking for myself and a few close friends, we certainly came out of it cringing at our naive fascination with ‘other cultures’.

After such wide-ranging accusations  of being exoticising and objectifying (from too-many-years-at-uni, from L, from the previous counsellor) it was refreshing to hear this new therapist encourage me to learn about L’s culture. She suggested I read up on the history of his country, the politics, and what he might have experienced in the early formative years. Read up on the position of women in his country, try to understand how this affects the way he relates to me.

I might cringe at myself all the time for wanting to learn more about different-ways-of-being-in-the-world. But the truth is, reading up on politics and gender and culture in other societies is right in my zone, and true to myself I stumbled across this fantastic article by a medical anthro from L’s country (redeemed, I hope, by the fact that she’s not a foreign researcher) writing about cross-cultural experiences of trauma and healing after the civil war. For many people in L’s country – which has been subject to a long period of political violence – physical and psychological ill-health can often be interpreted as a sign of malevolence in your relationships. That is, health is not just an individualised phenomenon, because the ‘person’ themselves in this culture (as with many cultures in the world) is understood via their relationship with others. Western ideas about healing can be counterproductive in such societies, as western medicine treats illness in a very clinical, scientific way that locates a particular disease/incident of trauma in the body or mind of an individual. So for instance, individual therapy would be considered an appropriate strategy for a rape victim in a conflict situation. Indeed, medical organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres often send out teams of psychologists to conflict and crisis zones. However, the western method of verbalising and essentially reliving trauma over a prolonged period of time until some kind of symbolic catharsis is reached, and what’s more in a clinical setting with just the individual and the therapist, can do more damage than good in cultures where recovery is not just about healing the individual, but about restoring fractured relationships in a symbolically potent and culturally resonant way.

The author uses an example of a boy from L’s region who was stolen by the rebels and forced to fight as a child soldier in the civil war. After being reunited with his family as a teenager several years later, the boy  did not respond so well to prolonged individual therapy. What really worked, however, was a subsequent healing ritual in which he was placed in a hut, the hut set on fire, and the boy rescued by his uncle. The ritual involved not only the boy himself (as therapy would), but his whole family, restoring familial roles and responsibilities torn apart during the conflict by allowing his family members to ‘save’ the boy from the fire, since they were unable to save him during the war. It’s a ritual then, that reinvigorates relationships and facilitates family healing in one symbolic moment (rather than ongoing and prolonged individual/group sessions where you would normally verbalise your trauma in a quite literal way). By overcoming the traumatic event symbolically, you can move an continue to foster healthy family relationships…and from this healthy selves.

Now I suspect a ritualistic approach to healing wouldn’t really do it for L, since his circumstances are quite different. And the truth is, I don’t need to read a paper about his country to know him and know what would work for him. But some cultural and contextual information doesn’t harm (that is, so long as it’s not used as the basis of simplistic generalisations…of the “Africans in conflict zones won’t response to individual therapy, they’re all collectivist and need to do these full-on rituals involving their whole family” sort). Ultimately though, in pondering cross-cultural attitudes towards healing (from brain science to fire rituals) I’ve come to recognise a truth about myself: that my health and wellbeing are also intricately wound up with the health of my relationships. I think most people in the world – including us ‘individuals’ in the west – realise that we can seek to heal ourselves by healing our relationships, even if the standard clinical and medicalised approach to health doesn’t always make room for this (with the exception of certain types of relationship/couples therapy). I think that’s why, as I wrote in my last post, lying to my father tears me apart so much. Because it undermines our relationship and is causing a lot of unhappiness (and health problems, my dad in particular has not been well in the last few months).

Stress caused me to isolate myself last year. This year is all about health, healing and connecting with others.

9 Comments

Filed under Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Western Privilege

9 responses to “Healing and Understanding Cultural Difference within our Relationships

  1. lkafle

    wowow great philosophy revealed thanks for your inner sense talent knowledge and reality based writing

  2. lkafle

    Reblogged this on lava kafle kathmandu nepal and commented:
    healing

  3. It’s really good to hear that there are other ways to approach healing and therapy. I’ve known some people not born or raised in the west or have been through a lot and wondered if they might benefit from the type of therapy that I’m used to. But maybe the western version of sit-down talk therapy wouldn’t really help them heal.

    • I agree, western style sit-down therapy is very culturally specific. Even for westerners not used to therapy it can be so daunting!! I guess depending on the practitioner they do try to take into account intercultural stuff, it’s so dependent on who you get in the end.

  4. Interesting. I was talking to my therapist about how finding out she was a Christian really had a major effect on me. I told her that I thought before that needing therapy made me a bad Christian, that if I trusted more on God then he could help me directly, you know? Well she said that’s like Christian scientists thinking God can’t work through medicine. But I think what I was getting at too was how I had felt uncomfortable with the culture of therapy which is western and often seems to present itself as a secular equivalent of a spiritual path. Your post has helped me see that culture is important (I’ve got over my block on therapy I think) and I wasn’t completely wrong to initially mistrust something which has grown up in a specifically Eiropean context.

    I’m so glad you’ve found this therapist, she seems great! The other one was in the wrong. My therapist said her Christian beliefs and judgements are her own whatever they are and they have no place in the non-judgemental therapeutic space. It sounds like that other therspist wad making a judgement on you relationship, totally wrong! As patients this makes us defensive and less likely to lok at our feelings thereby having the opposite effect that therapy should!

    • You were absolutely not wrong to mistrust something that grew up in a European – and secular, medicalised – context. I’d never thought of therapy as presenting itself as a secular alternative to the spiritual, but I think you’re pretty spot on there. I’m glad you overcame your ambivalence and found a therapist you’re comfortable with 🙂
      There does seem to be a tendency amongst western clinicians to valorise ‘scientific, rational’ approaches to medicine – i.e. a tendency to be ethnocentric and downplay different cultural approaches to health and healing. I have friends who are studying med who never have to consider alternatives approaches to health, and are basically taught that western methods are the only rational methods worth knowing. Considering how much damage can be done through culturally insensitive medical practices, this is quite scary…
      Thanks for you comment xo

  5. It is good to know that you are heading on a positive path. I think you really need a person who can understand you well when you talk to them and looks like that you have found one. Keep being positive and continue your therapy and hopefully all the good things will come to you this year.

  6. Pingback: The Perils of Spiritual Bypassing – and I should know! « Masala Bou

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