Identity, culture and immigration

Articles about immigrants have been rife in the last six months both for and against people wanting to join European countries for what they believe will be a better life. Some of the more interesting have been personal case studies where immigrants have been interviewed about their lives and asked why they want to take such great risks in order to live somewhere else. This has raised questions in the counselling world about working with immigrants, PTSD and multiculturism. Many works have been published on the subject of PTSD. However, not so many on working with multiculturism. This is where the work of Lennox Thomas may be important to reflect on.

Thomas’s work on attachment, multiculturism and the proxy self is important in opening up a dialogue about the issues around working with people from very different cultures than our own and observing the history of counselling and psychotherapy in a euro-centric or Westernised world. Thomas’s work was written as an expansion of Bowlby’s attachment theory into a multicultural structure. His original questions had been borne out of western cultural ideals and claims that psychotherapy does not work for non-Western family units. He therefore applies his own ideas to Caribbean children who have seen psychotherapists and that have not benefited from the therapy. His research informs that Afro-Caribbean children had little recollection of the therapy and the environment it took place in and noticed that there appeared to be a pattern amongst these children in the way they responded to the therapy they had received. 

His reasoning for this is that he feels that black and ethnic children may unknowingly find it hard to relate to a white counsellor, and so, in order to feel accepted in a white world develop a proxy-self which they feel is acceptable to a white counsellor and has a notion that children from a black or ethnic heritage, that are brought up in a Western country they may be extremely good at using this default that may have been developing from birth. This interpretation could lead to it being suggested that these children use the proxy-self as a coping mechanism to exist in a white society where they can fit in without fear of racism or psychological trauma and this affects their ability to express their true self, which is an important part in psychotherapy. He also talks about a kind of splitting between what black children might see as good or bad white people, perhaps another coping mechanism which helps them to avoid people that may cause the psychological or emotional harm.

Young children find it difficult to understand the concept of racism and often blame themselves for adults behaving badly towards them, thinking that it is perhaps something that they have done, so they foster behaviour that will deter this and opt for conduct they feel the adult will give a positive response to. Some black children may see being their true black self as a hindrance to getting along in a white society and may feel that many white people do not like them being their black selves. White therapists need to be aware of this and provide a trusting environment where the child can feel safe enough to be themselves. 

The white therapist then needs to ensure they encourage the child to be their black self by becoming aware of their existence both socially in the present and what history the child may be carrying with them through intergenerational knowledge of being a black person. He talks about the relationship between child and therapist and points out that initial communication could have a strong focus on the black child’s proxy-self and the therapists true self, but move to, if conditions provide, an intermediate position where the child starts to trust the therapist and start to reveal their true self. The child can then start to feel safe enough to express their real issues. At this stage the proxy-self may fluctuate within the child. This then leads to the ultimate position where communication can be more direct and the proxy-self no longer exposes itself frequently due to the trusted working alliance between the child and therapist.

As with all aspects of multiculturalism it is important to note, that therapists should strive to be open to difference and diversity and not base theoretical work on euro-centric theories when they work with people from other cultures. Therefore, it is always important for the therapist to ask the client about their family heritage, their cultural upbringing and whether they were born in the same country as the therapist or not. He gives an example of varying family structures and made reference to the impact of ‘multiple parents’ in certain communities and mentions and communal nurturing of children in places such as Africa and Asia and various cultural norms.

Therapists should also remember that even if a family has moved to Britain and accept the British culture they are likely to rear children according to their own culture the culture they know and understand.

Although this work’s focus is children the ideas can be applied to adults too.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Camberwell SE5 & London SE1

Written by Julie Sale

Camberwell SE5 & London SE1

The recent revelation in neuroscience of the effects of meditation on the brain and proven benefits of meditation have been of interest to me for a long time since 11-years when I discovered the wisdom of Buddhism and led me to wanting to explore more about different cultures and ideals for living.

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