Healing Cultural Dissonance: What's That?
Cultural dissonance is the experience of being out of sync with the people, places or things that surround you because of your customs, values, beliefs, or language. It is often experienced at the intersections of race and ethnicity, age, religion, class, physical ability or sexual orientation. You have this experience when you notice that there are specific actions and behaviors happening, often at an unconscious level, that effectively preclude you or others from being their authentic selves. But it is just as likely that this is happening all around you but you are either unaware of it or unable to acknowledge its presence.
Consider: the African-American woman who wants to wear a braided hairstyle in a corporate setting, a Muslim man who needs a space in the workplace for prayers and foot washing, a gay or lesbian couple who are reluctant to tell their families and co-workers about their relationship for fear of retailiation, a Latino man and an Asian woman who are in love but whose families are intolerant of their union.
Microaggressions create cultural dissonance. Microaggressions, in which one person is consistently ignored, insulted or assumed to be deficient in or subordinate to dominant social constructs. This may look like the need to do things the "right" way, as in celebrating holidays or other rituals in one specific manner, using a particular communication style (e.g., indirect, direct, passive, aggressive, open, clear, triangulated) that is inconsistent with a partner, co-worker, boss or family member or; promoting only those who ascribe to similar socio-economic values.
In the context of therapy, institutional diversity and training & development, cultural dissonance is about power differentials--and what happens at an emotional level when you continually find yourself at either one end of the spectrum or the other.
From the Personal…
As an multicultural educator and therapist, tending to the emotional wellbeing of those who may feel at the margins of society—women of color, interracial/bicultural couples and professionals who experience dissonance due to cultural differences in the workplace—are a particular interest and specialization of mine.
In addition, many non-Caucasian cultures opt away from psychotherapy, considering therapy an intrusion into what they believe should remain a personal or familial affair. Additionally, with the dearth of licensed clinicians of color, it is unlikely that a person of color will work with someone with direct experience of the social construct that may be binding them in some arena of their personal or professional lives.
While therapy may shift the dynamics of relationships, it is not a threat to vital inter-personal relationships. In fact, as a general rule, therapy seeks to improve relationships, especially the one you have with yourself. When you begin to understand yourself better and then, as a result of this new insight and knowledge, you practice new behaviors that enhance the quality of your life, your interactions with others are bound to change. The therapeutic alliance is your ballast, serving in some instances as a stabilizer while in others as an agitator—all with the intention of providing a counterbalance to feelings, thoughts and sensations that you want to change for the better.
It’s easy to say but not always so easy to do. That’s a main reason so many people don’t seek therapy; they believe they’re not ready.
Of course, being ready is always relative to every other thing that is happening in your life at the moment. If you are feeling anxious, depressed, confused, lethargic, consistently angry, irritable or you notice that you level of functioning has decreased noticeably, these are signs—little amber caution lights—that a change of course is indicated. When you’re ready to change, the seemingly simple act of making a phone call to seek therapy may feel huge but it may very well be one of the most significant self-care actions you ever take.
To the Societal
The Reverend Michael Beckwith speaks of the human endeavor of being “a beneficial presence on the planet”. I am interested in working with individuals who are seeking to improve their emotional, physical and spiritual health and wellbeing by building their own cultural competence, confidence and capability as well as raise their awareness and consciousness about the intersections of race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation. In this regard, I believe that individuals, couples and families who engage in therapy where discussions of oppressive social ills are permissible topics for exploration invariably contribute to personal, societal and planetary healing.