In our Westernized culture, we are prone to upholding a dominant approach to managing our relationships that involves boundary setting. Thus, our therapy practices and culture often emphasize setting boundaries as a key element of developing and maintaining “healthy” relationships. The United States mostly engages in an individualistic culture, which can promote and help to sustain boundaries to protect and even nurture a relationship with the self.
But what about cultures in which the family is at the center and boundaries are often blurred? What is deemed “healthy” in such cultures — and who defines this? These are called collectivist cultures. In collectivist cultures, family members identify closely with one another and often make decisions for the family as a whole rather than for the self. Sacrifice, honor and loyalty are some of the core values of such families and cultures. For example, saying no to the family or setting limits on simple family events or dinners may be perceived as selfish and rude.
Imagine Maryam, a married mom of two, fatigued from her workweek and yet being asked to host the weekly family dinner. This gathering includes grandparents, uncles, cousins and, of course, mom, dad and siblings. Maryam rushes to the store, then home to cook a very involved rice and stew dish. The family arrives early, adding anxiety to her already-exhausted mental state.
Later in the week, Maryam attends her therapy session. Her therapist suggests setting limits and saying no to hosting these events in the future or proposing that her sister, Fara, hosts the next time. Maryam agrees, but she struggles because this would mean making a decision for herself and based solely on her own needs. Although this may be considered “healthy” by the dominant culture, it is causing Maryam more stress and, now, added guilt. Maryam may not even feel comfortable sharing these new thoughts with her therapist due to her culture of origin’s boundary for respecting authority (she may potentially view the therapist as the expert and authority).
What do we do, as mental health providers, in the case of Maryam?
First, we can validate and normalize her emotions. Next, we may pose questions to allow her to further express herself and ponder potential resolutions. In talking with her, we may at some point realize that she is stressed but at the same time happy to see and host her family. There may be no need for behavioral change here; rather, expressing emotions in a safe place and feeling heard by the counselor may be enough for Maryam. Potentially, she may need support identifying her emotions to further express them too.
If Maryam continues to share concerns about her fatigue level, it may be supportive to suggest what I call a “workable boundary,” with consideration given to her culture and her values. This workable boundary could simply be adjusting the time that everyone comes over so that Maryam has some time to rest first upon arriving home.
A workable boundary is flexible. It is not rigid like typical boundaries may be perceived or promoted to be. It is similar to a compromise and works to respect the client’s culture of origin and needs. The flexibility may prioritize the client’s culture and empower the client to choose what is workable.
Straying away from the stringency of a black-and-white approach to boundary setting can be more inclusive. The less we guilt individuals into self-care and self-prioritization, the more we can become aware of their needs, wants, values and cultures. Some individuals in collectivist cultures gain energy, pride, strength and honor when the family is well and happy.
Prioritizing client boundaries
The connectivity of emotions, identity and well-being in a collectivist family and culture of origin is complex, requiring respect for exceptional and unique boundaries. Roles and authority may serve a special function in the collectivist family experience.
For example, in my own personal collectivist family experience, as well as in working as a counselor with college and high school students with collectivist cultural backgrounds, I learned that even the majors we chose for our college experiences originated in our family values and expectations. We honored our families by choosing to become accountants, doctors and engineers, among other professions. We struggled and wanted to quit. Yet many of us continued on this path to a field mostly chosen for us by the influence of our collectivist cultures and families.
Experts on setting boundaries may advise students who are feeling stressed to follow their own career paths, which would encourage straying from the family norm. Here is an opportunity for us to remember our counselor ethics and to prioritize client values over our own and even over those of the dominant culture here in the United States. We can work to be culturally humble and learn to navigate and negotiate values as clients desire to apply them in their own lives.
The goal of the client seeking counseling at the university counseling center may simply be to feel humbly supported through their time of feeling stuck or yearning to change majors. Their desire may purely be to not feel alone. What seems simple may be forgotten because we are often inundated by the dominant cultural norm of pursuing our own dreams and goals first. While students and clients may report feeling pressure, they may also report feeling pride in their struggles and motivated in their pursuit of this family dream, especially if they are from collectivist, immigrant backgrounds.
Likewise, choosing whom to marry may be a family-based decision in collectivist cultures. Boundaries may be perceived as vague. Those outside of these families and cultures may view these family roles and relationships as examples of unhealthy enmeshment. Nevertheless, in some cultures, honoring the family will continue to be the foremost concern when making such a major decision. After all, a romantic partner is commonly considered a new member of the family. Thus, the decision requires the approval of the family in these cultures.
Providing counseling to an individual who is navigating such circumstances and decisions may require offering further values assessment to support the decision-making process. If family is the client’s No. 1 value, this could support the client’s decision to involve the family in choosing a life partner. Setting boundaries prematurely based on individualistic cultural norms may prevent family members from playing their traditional roles in the individual’s life.
What may be challenging to understand in the dominant culture — including the high value placed on duty, honor and authority — is part of the traditional fabric in some collectivist cultures. Often, we assume that it is harmful for others to choose our life partners. However, in many cultures, this is viewed as the practice of respecting authority and feeling honored to receive this input and potential blessing. Some clients feel excited to enter these life partner journeys with the support and input of their parents and families. Other clients may not, and that is OK too. The purpose of viewing boundary setting from a wider, more culturally inclusive lens is to stop making assumptions about what is “healthy” for all clients and desired by all clients and to stop promoting only the dominant culture’s perspective of boundaries.
A nonassumptive approach can lead to greater appreciation of the client’s worldview, needs and ability to reach decisions with the support of the therapist. Open-minded, nondominant cultural perspectives can further encourage this process. Taking such steps can also lead to less guilt, potential shame and frustration on the part of clients who experience the world as bicultural (i.e., negotiating and identifying with two cultures).
It is often more convenient to go along with the dominant culture’s expectations. Likewise, there is frequently less judgment when choosing the dominant culture’s norms. However, this can be harmful for individuals who appreciate and potentially want to choose collectivist cultural values and norms in some life areas. The pressure many may feel in such situations can be overwhelming. For example: wanting to live at home beyond the age of 18, wanting to date someone chosen by one’s parents, wanting to name one’s child with a chosen family name.
These are just a few examples of the many decisions children and adults who are bicultural may face (and prefer to make) that others can regard as boundary “blurring.” The therapy setting can provide an open, safe space for clients to explore and arrive at decisions that are best for them, taking all cultures involved into consideration rather than focusing only on the expectations of the dominant culture. Counselors can set aside the boundary-setting trend that might seem liberating on the surface but that may in fact be confusing for some individuals from these cultural backgrounds. By diminishing the idea that inflexible boundary setting is the “healthy” option when it comes to managing interpersonal relationships and life decisions, the lifestyles and complexities that many culturally diverse individuals and families experience and prefer can be included and explored.
Culturally inclusive practices
I am a bicultural, immigrant American therapist and individual who has experienced and navigated, both personally and in session, the guilt that can arise from the boundary-setting expectations of the dominant culture. In choosing my life partner, I practiced strict boundary setting with family members in my collectivist culture. In choosing to go to graduate school to earn a doctorate, the boundaries were workable, blurred and, at times, enmeshed with my family’s dreams and goals.
I have supported many diverse clients in navigating different areas of life, including grieving differently than their family, by using workable boundaries that include both their cultural and individual needs. The following steps can support more culturally inclusive practices for navigating boundary setting in collectivist cultures.
>> Develop and pose questions or prompts that reduce the potential for “dominant culture speak,” such as “your needs” and even the word “boundary.” Instead, consider adding to your language the phrases “cultural considerations” and “family needs tied to your needs and wants.” For example, a possible question to explore with the client is, “I hear that’s hard for you. What are some ways you can meet your family needs that perhaps seem to influence your needs, especially with the weekly family dinners?”
>> Explore the topic of guilt with clients. How does guilt affect them interpersonally and emotionally? Does it apply in their identity, role and cultures? How, if it all, does guilt come up when considering boundaries with family members, partners or friends?
>> Investigate what the word “boundary” means to the client. Does it have a meaning? Is it culturally relevant for them or is it a new concept? How would they like to incorporate it into their wellness journey, if at all?
>> Offer psychoeducation on boundary-setting practices for potential emotional wellness while acknowledging cultural implications. Then ask for feedback and reactions. What does the client think of this concept? Do they agree or disagree? Why? Would they like to explore these practices in their life?
>> Finally, individualize boundary-setting practices to respect the client’s culture, needs and wants. Assess what these practices are and introduce concepts such as workable boundaries or more innovative ways that may work for the client in an inclusive style. Implement a feedback model in therapy to assess the client’s satisfaction level with such strategies.
Shabnam Brady holds a doctorate in counseling psychology. She is a therapist, professor, author and founder of Therapy for Immigrants (@therapyforimmigrants), an Instagram community whose aim is to raise awareness and expand inclusivity practices in mental health for immigrant communities. Contact her at email@example.com.
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