Mira Shah explores the individual and collective forces in therapy.

Hitting the Sweet Spot Between Individualism & Collectivism


For anybody that has engaged with therapy or is in the opposite chair, as a therapist, questions concerning feelings and needs are not particularly novel. It is the role of the therapist to be able to decipher what the client may be feeling and facilitate the client in identifying their wants/needs. The work may focus on self-care, boundaries, independence and autonomy– in this way the therapeutic space is one place that shines a light on the individual. Therapy is very literally ‘person centred’: it centres around the individual; placing the individual at the centre of their experience and world. Nothing wrong with this at all – this is the business of therapy. 

But what happens when you come a from a culture that places the needs of the individual secondary to that of the collective, a place where the individual does not take centre stage? This is a very normal way of existing for many and again, there is nothing wrong with this way of being. 

The heart of the collectivist culture is community or family, formed by connections and relationships that go beyond the self.  The individual exists as a drop of water in the ocean; part of a bigger whole. There is a lean towards being interdependent rather than independent. People work collectively and in the interests of the greater good.  Self-interest may be sacrificed to promote the interest of the whole.  When issues arise, as they would with any individual, it is in the interest of the family/community to restore a sense of harmony, thus maintaining the grounding nature of the collective. 

For many, there is a great sense of joy in belonging to a culture which emphasises the need for another. It is humbling to serve others and recognise that the world does not only exist for me. One sees purpose in serving humanity and embraces the idea that there is something bigger and beyond the individual. 

Both the individualistic and collectivist cultures work in their own right, and the aim of this article is not to pitch one against the other or to praise and fault. It is in our interest to look at what happens when these two worlds meet (or collide).

The therapeutic space can reveal the specific angst that occurs when these two perspectives meet, though its presentation is not always obvious. Cross-cultural issues may be masked as loss of identity, guilt, disengagement, a feeling of not fitting in, isolation, depression, loss of relationship or a sense of feeling lost.  We cannot downplay the impact that these issues can have on the individual. If you consider that cultural norms provide a safety net and grounding for the self, then the threatening or questioning of it can often destabilise the individual, leaving them in a state of distress (Doku & Asante, 2011).

For anyone experiencing this dichotomy, answering questions relating to needs, likes, dislikes, decision making and identity can be incredibly challenging if not impossible.  This can exacerbate the melancholy state of the individual.

So, how do we navigate through the muddy waters of individualism and collectivism?

The answer is not an easy one. In fact, I am not sure if a ‘one size fits all’ answer even exists. We know that cross-cultural issues arise when two extremes collide but what if they were to merge? I am quite sure that the answer will not be found in one or the other due to the vast difference between them but in respecting the beneficial aspects of both – almost like ‘pic n mix.’ 

Navigating these two paths is a journey that is personal to me.  It has been centred around trying to tune in and listen to my feelings, understand my own responses to situations and be curious about how certain situations affect me. I ask myself questions about what I like and don’t like, take risks in making decisions and sitting with the outcomes of those decisions. And I do this whilst being mindful about those that form my collective.  Divergence in opinions with family and community have led to healthy conversations where solutions are born out of understanding or compromise and sometimes agreeing to disagree.  This has allowed me to continue to function as part of something bigger than myself whilst respecting my autonomy.  It has often felt like walking a tightrope, risky and a bit unstable but also allows me to converge parts of myself – allowing me to feel more whole. 

If this contradiction is one that resonates with you then you may want to try:

  1. Speaking to a professional therapist or counsellor that may have an understanding of both the individualistic and collectivist ways of being.  Therapist directories such as the BACP’s, have a function that allows you to search for a therapist that specialises in ‘cultural issues’ or ‘cultural identity’. This may help to find the therapist that suits you best. Alternatively, when speaking to a therapist feel free to ask if they have worked with the issues that you will be bringing to therapy. 
  2. Tune in to your inner voice.  The nature of collectivism is that the external voices drown out the voice of the individual. Listen to what you may be feeling or thinking or even how your body responds to certain situations.  Get to know you.
  3. Be brave enough to have open and honest conversations about how you may be feeling and what you would like to happen. This can really only happen once you have started building a relationship with yourself (see point 2).  Conversations may not always unfold how you want, so be willing to come to an understanding or middle ground.
  4. Remember, the answers to finding that sweet spot between the two ‘isms’ do not lie in either extreme. It is maybe about how we can maintain individuality whilst coexisting with others. 

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