“We are what we think!” I have heard this more than once from motivational speakers and authors.
If I think that I am a strict father, then I will act like one: my beliefs and my thoughts will govern my actions when I am engaged in that specific role, and so a complete quote might be, “We are what we think… and we act as we are!”
Understanding the difference between “I am a strict father” versus the idea that “I am strict as a father” is an important step toward learning how to use your culture instead of being used by it when becoming an immigrant.
I don’t want to discuss how right or wrong it is to be a strict father, but I want you to grasp how dangerous it is to identify with a temporary role!
Instead of just playing different necessary roles in life, most people actually attach their identity to every specific role, so they play them out as if each were actually part of who they are! This identification causes them to perform each role with zero flexibility, never changing their attitude, and so they are scarcely able to adapt to different situations! I was a part of this very large group in almost everything I used to do!
Surprisingly, very few people are able to detach themselves from their role, to see it as just a temporary part they play, which they can change effortlessly. On the contrary, when most of us identify with the part we play, even if we see what is wrong with it, we actually expect the circumstances to adapt to the demands of that role and so reject the possibility of change because we are defending “who we are”. These are the times when we hear things like, “That´s just the way I am…”
Imagine if an actor totally identified himself with his role, forgot that he was an actor and came to see himself as actually being the character he was playing on stage. And when he left the stage, instead of reverting back to his real self and living his real life, he continued to live the life of the stage character! Some actors may have actually gone through this experience, but most of us spend our entire lives in a similar confusion.
To clarify this a bit more, let’s use a real-life example; take my wife Daniela, who I taught to drive a car while we were dating. Since we got married, she is always complaining about how I drive. I mean seriously…. the student criticising the teacher? 😉
She says that I am too rough with my acceleration, braking, and maneuvers, that I am inconsiderate with passengers and that I follow too close to the car ahead of me. I have always liked cars, and I enjoy driving; since I started driving, I have definitely invested part of my identity in the role of a driver. Basically, “driver” became part of who I was and not simply a role that I exercised in my daily routine.
You can easily understand why, if my wife wanted to make me angry, she just needed to say anything about my driving and I would literally explode. Why? I would perceive that she was criticizing my being and not simply my driving; it was very personal for me. My breathing would change and my muscles would tense up; I fully assumed “fighting mode”!
Nowadays, my driving has not changed much, but when she says something about it, I just smile and try to adjust; I don´t feel like she´s making a personal attack against me, so no defensive mechanism goes off.
If you are wondering how this topic can be helpful to immigrants, bear with me a little longer.
Immigrants who have attached their identity to roles or ideas will think in terms like: “I am Italian!”, “My culture has the best culinary traditions!”, “Italian cars are the best!”, “Driving in the right lane is the right way!”, “Soccer is the most interesting sport”, etc.…
Unfortunately, this concept of identifying ourselves with our roles is one of the biggest self-constructed obstacles to evolution and success for immigrants. It is an obstacle that is hard to see, and even when seen and recognized, it is hard to eliminate. This is the reason why, after many people immigrate to a new country, even though they work hard, with commitment and discipline, and strive to reach financial security, they don´t feel fulfilled as immigrants. They fail to integrate totally with the new culture.
Have you ever gotten defensive, tense and ready to fight back when someone said something negative about your culture, town, country, language, religion, skin colour, etc.? Well, I used to react this way a lot when I arrived as a newcomer in Canada: it seemed like this identification with these patriotic, cultural & racial ideas was accentuated even more than it had been when I was in my native country!
I will use a light story that will make you smile to simplify what I mean.
Even though I love soccer, all my cousins here in Canada would often claim that it was a boring sport, while hockey was much more fun and interesting, especially because of the speed and the many scores. (I know many of you would agree with me, but that is beside the point.) I bet that it was very entertaining for them to see my reactions/explosions to their comments! My wife couldn’t believe how aggressively I was acting; she accused me of losing control over something that I really didn´t care much about in the first place… and it was true! I liked soccer, but I was never a fanatic. But I guess soccer was not what I was identifying with – I was identifying with being Italian.
When my cousins criticised something so connected with being Italian, because of my identification with my birthplace, it felt like my identity was in danger and I had to defend it! I remember feeling physically as if I was fighting for my life… obviously, I did not really feel like my life was in danger, but my unconscious reaction was the same as if it had been!
This is an example of pure identification with my country: by defending soccer, I was defending the affirmation “I am Italian” and so who I was!
You should have seen how angry and defensive my wife Daniela would get when my cousins would start commenting on how lazy young Italian students were because they wouldn’t work during their student career, ignoring the different economic situations. She took it as a personal attack! As a proud former university student, her identity was in danger, and so were my cousins´ lives… LOL.
How was I doing when all these things were happening? Badly! My business was struggling to take off, my financial situation was a paycheck away from bankruptcy and my relationship was consistently under stress! Even if I was able to recognize the obvious good things that I had in my new country that I had not had back home, I refused to embrace new ideas that were not in sync with my native country/culture.
My attitude was wrong because I could not detach myself from many specific ideas and roles, making it impossible to accept and appreciate new ideas, and so completely nullifying the power of immigration.
We can support as many ideas and roles as we want if we believe they are valid; the national sport, students in our country, our idea of parenthood, how a husband should act, how an employer should behave and many others… But if you catch yourself behaving like Daniela and me while doing so, with this strong need to defend yourself, just stop and be grateful!
Yes, be grateful, because you are now aware of being in the worst state of mind an immigrant can possibly be.
You are being abused by your culture!
But I am not suggesting that we should disown our culture and our country!
I will clarify this in the second part of this article.