Written by therapist Ruth Nathaniel

We do not emerge into the world with natural instinct like our fellow mammals, so how do we learn to be human? Culture. It teaches us everything we need to know to operate in the communities we are a part of. Sounds simple enough, but considering we all got slightly different “manuals” from our various cultures, and the great exchange of ideas and cross-cultural interaction due to increased globalization…how do we make sense of the values we were raised with AND the incorporation of new ones? Let’s discuss bi-cultural values.

What are Bi-cultural Values?

Bi-culturalism itself is often described as the navigation between one’s “heritage culture” and the culture in which they call home. Personally, I carry my Tamil heritage and its values (i.e. familial honor) along with the values exalted in North America (i.e. individuality). You don’t necessarily need to be an immigrant or a first-generation citizen to navigate bi-cultural values. For many, leaving the home community and moving to a new state or city can bring out this tension quite easily, since every community has its own culture. 

Holding Space

Now that we know what bi-cultural values are, let’s discuss how we can go about incorporating multiple sets of values in life. Often, bi-cultural values can be seen as at odds with one another. For example, how do I continue to honor my family and my elder’s wishes for my life when I want to pursue something different for myself? This is a very real tension. Acknowledging that you are doing the work to incorporate different values and that it can often feel like a tug of war is important in this journey. It is no small feat, and can weigh heavily on you as you make various decisions to align with certain values. Being honest about the journey is not only validating, but it affirms that your work is valuable. 

Exploring Our Values

In therapy, we often go through a values exploration to see what influenced your decision making up to this point and, if desired, how you can incorporate new values in your decision making as you move forward. You’d be surprised how that one exercise spawns weeks upon weeks of work! Let’s be honest, it isn’t every day that we sit down to examine our values and how they drive our decision-making processes.

So what happens when you have competing values; when one community uplifts a certain path, and your other community celebrates something completely different? I’m here to say there is no simple answer to that question, but I will affirm this: our values work together to create unique, beautiful, meaningful outcomes. In fact, I liken my clients’ values to a palette of paints. They’re lovely in their purest forms in individual compartments. But when they get to mix and mingle on the palette, you begin to see colors that surprise and delight you. Perhaps the collectivist value of showing respect to those who are older informs how you strive to get to know one or two “elders” (managers, teachers, coaches, religious guides, etc.) whom you deeply respect in your present community, and learn from them. Or maybe your individualistic value of personal freedom deepens the choice to care for an aging parent in this season of life. 

While this introduction was brief, I hope it sparks your interest in examining your own bi-cultural values. This work is so meaningful, and increases consciousness so you can go out and make decisions that actually align with the life you want to live. If you want to examine how you might experience greater fulfillment in the community you are a part of, I’d be honored to support you. Give us a call about setting up an appointment today!

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