IFS DiversityPeopleSpecial Open Collection - IFS and Australia

Navigating dual identity – The quest for inner peace

“Swarms of us, grafting in the black within shot of the moon’s spotlight, banking on the miracle of sun—span its rainbow, passport us to life. Only then can it be human to hoick ourselves, bare-faced for the clear.” (Nagra, 2007)

In Look We Have Coming to Dover!, Daljit Nagra captures the essence of dual heritage, weaving his narrative with “Punglish” to convey the rich tapestry of his English and Punjabi identities. This poem delves into the quintessential human yearning for belonging and recognition amidst the backdrop of cultural dichotomies. As a psychologist who navigates the delicate balance of an Indian-Australian identity, I resonate with the tightrope walk between diverse cultures. The ongoing Cricket World Cup in India epitomizes this duality: my roots cheer for India, while my present life leans towards Australia. This internal conflict is not unique but a universal quest for connection. When these cultural ties are strong, they foster emotional and psychological growth. In contrast, their absence can be as harrowing as any tangible affliction.

In Australia’s diverse society, understanding how people with dual identities experience belonging is key. Many Australians have heritage from other places, and they often face the challenge of aligning their cultural background with mainstream Australian culture. It’s not easy juggling these two sides, and it can make people feel like they don’t completely fit in with either. The phrase

 “grafting in the black within shot of the moon’s spotlight”

captures this tension well—it shows how people can feel overlooked, even when they’re close to being recognized and accepted. This lived experience of liminality—of existing in a threshold between two worlds—underscores the critical importance of understanding and addressing the unique challenges faced by individuals with dual identities. Recognizing this issue is vital, not only for the well-being of the individuals but also for the enrichment and cohesion of the broader Australian community. This article is for those people caught inbetween, for those that want to know how to find the balance and for those that want to understand the struggle.

The IFS approach

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach provides a framework to explore issues of belonging and dual identity. This model, in suggesting that our minds are made up of multiple Parts, each with its own distinct personality, role, and emotions, shines its own “spotlight” for us. In people who juggle dual identities Parts may be in conflict, with some feeling that they must conceal or alter aspects of themselves to fit in. The pressure to meet the varied expectations of different cultures can exacerbate this internal rift. The polarizations between Parts, as IFS understands it, can then be prime ground for exiles to form or linger unattended as aspects of ourselves that are burdened with personal feelings of inadequacy, defectiveness, and worthlessness. In these polarisations we can find also legacy burdens which are passed down through generations.

Such burdens can significantly influence a person’s identity and their interactions with the world. For those with dual identities, legacy burdens can create an internal tug of war as Parts of one’s self align with conflicting cultural demands. This may result in inner discord as the person attempts to reconcile the competing elements of their identity.

Take, for example, someone who has a Part weighted with the legacy burden valuing family duty indicative of a communal culture, while another Part leans towards the autonomy and self-reliance celebrated in a different cultural context. I couldn’t tell you the number of patients I’ve seen that felt conflicted by a culturally-religiously imbibed sense of having to look after their family and to sacrifice their needs for their family members, at the same time as feeling a sense of resentment, helplessness, and yearning for freedom in their secular culture.

The challenge is to recognize and understand these legacy burdens, trace their roots, and craft an identity that respects both cultural heritage and fosters a sense of true self that remains authentic and unified. To explore this, let’s look at the example of Mahir.

The story of Mahir

(Mahir is a pseudonym and aspects of his story have been changed to protect his identity, however the themes are the same)

Mahir, a 22-year-old Indian Muslim, stands at the crossroads of two identities. Living in Australia, he grapples with a legacy that tugs him towards being an Indian born Muslim and the opposite, the liberal, secular lifestyle of Australia.

From his parents, he inherited a profound sense of religious adherence and community. With regards to religion, he remembers the strict practices of Islam and the associated consequences of any sins. He was not allowed any female friends, not allowed to drink, was asked to pray daily and focus on academia. He was to prefer and make friends with those of similar cultural backgrounds because Australian children could potentially “influence him wrongly.” From the community angle, he remembers and considers the shame that is brought upon the family for any acts that might damage their, or his, reputation in the community. He was reminded of this by his parents whenever he strayed off the Islamic path. Other parents spoke about his position as a role model to their children. There was gossip of aunts and uncles to navigate.

Conversely, from his friends and experiences of Western schooling and playing club sport, he has learned the value of being witty, masculine, a sportsman, confident in speaking with women, attending parties, drinking alcohol, standing up to authority, having a good time, and spending time “with the boys.” These experiences, polar opposites to those of his Muslim Indian background, were the ones that actually made him feel happy, free, like his own person, and like he belonged to the friends, peace, and community that he was engaged with.

These legacies have deeply embedded themselves into Mahir’s internal system, often causing him to oscillate between retreating from, and participating in, activities that would otherwise be seen as quintessentially Australian. For example, at the Christmas party at his workplace, where there was a free flow of drinks and laid-back socializing with female colleagues, he felt an internal struggle each time to not attend, because it was the polar opposite, as experience, to his Islamic and Indian beliefs.

At the same workplace event, and other social gatherings, he faces the dichotomy of wanting to fit in with his colleagues, whilst also adhering to his dietary restrictions. The halal food options are placed separately, a physical manifestation of his internal segregation. This distinction not only reinforces his feelings of otherness, but also reminds him of his legacy burdens that steer him away from such social settings.

The internal pressure is compounded by the cultural norms that celebrate a masculine ideal, one that is often synonymous with having girlfriends, showcasing physical prowess at the gym, and engaging in robust, even raucous, social interactions, driving expensive cars and defining success through material pursuits. Ironically, Mahir is actually pretty good at being a social person and social in his workplace. However, he feels an acute dissonance. His legacy burdens pull him towards being reserved, tradition-bound, and not loud in open spaces. Yet, where he feels most at home is when he is open and being himself.

This conflict is not merely internal. Mahir feels the weight of expectations from his community to carry forth the values and traditions that have been entrusted to him. This includes how he is seen in the eyes of others. Physically, he wears a beard, yet he does this out of obligation, not personal preference. He has always wanted a tattoo but the idea of his parents or community finding out is too shocking. Mahir is used as an example and role model by his parents and other parents in the community for other males, so he feels pressure to maintain the role.

Finding inner peace

When Mahir finally sought help, he learnt that a significant portion of his turmoil stemmed from these personal and legacy burdens. Recognizing this, he began the IFS process of forming a connection with Self, getting to know his Parts, their roles and the exiles they guard. He was able to witness, understand, help and let go of the burdens he had shouldered. These were those of a legacy passed on by family, community and the identity of being a Muslim and Indian (being a minority, having to preserve a tradition, keeping connection with the spiritual in a materialistic world) and those that were more personal to him (feeling like he was never enough and being unlovable). In doing so, he allowed his Parts and protectors to take on new roles and found new ways of finding balance and harmony.

This process did not require the abandonment of his culture, but rather it sought a balance that honoured both his heritage and his identity as an Australian. The changes that Mahir experienced were subtle, yet meaningful;

  • For instance, he attended workplace parties and enjoyed the festivities by bringing dishes from his heritage.
  • Instead of asking the workplace to cater, where he didn’t bring food, he was open about his dietary restrictions. Sometimes his colleagues even showed interest in trying halal food with him, broadening their cultural horizons.
  • As Mahir’s confidence grew, so did his ability to communicate his needs to his parents. He set respectful yet firm boundaries, explaining his perspective and negotiating a more flexible dynamic between his obligations as an Islamic male and his own intentions and needs.
  • He was able to redefine what masculinity was for himself, which didn’t include drinking, or showing off his physical physique, or being loud. Instead, he chose an authenticity composed of being himself, cracking jokes, showing integrity, and following up on any promises he made.
  • Mahir learned to make decisions based on his own convictions, rather than solely on the parental directives, or the mandates and traditions of each culture he was part of.
  • He was able to study his religion further and understand the spiritual depths of why practices were the way they were. And this understanding brought a sense of alignment with the person he wanted to be. In doing so, his Parts saw that being Australian meant being himself, not subscribing to any particular drinking culture, appearance, or reputational ideal.

The process of letting go

Through therapy, Mahir learned to live without the weight of his legacy burdens, instilling a sense of confidence and hope. He discovered a middle ground that allowed for the co-existence of his dual identities, not as conflicting forces, but as complementary facets of his identity as a whole.

Letting go of legacy burdens is a liberating process that can open up a wealth of possibilities for individuals with dual identities. It begins with the recognition and understanding of these deep-seated inheritances from the point of view of one’s self as a collection of Parts. From there, this involved encouraging dialogue and understanding between the Self and the various Parts that carried these roles. His newly found freedom was because his Self took the lead and allowed him to experience dual identities no longer as a source of conflict, but as a dynamic interplay that enhanced his personal growth and relationships across each of the different situations in which he was involved. It allowed for a more flexible and resilient identity, enabling him to celebrate diversity, while at the same time honouring his personal legacy.

Conclusion

Today’s world offers a glimpse of both the gifts and the challenges of having dual identities across cultures and religions. On the one hand, we have events like the Cricket World Cup, which unite nations and people of all colours and races. On the other hand, there are conflicts like the one between Israel and Palestine. Similarly, in Australia, the recent “Voice” referendum has shown how divided a nation can be on matters of race and culture. Exploring the issues of race, culture and identity through the IFS model opens up pathways for inclusivity and well-being. This pathway offers hope and it begins within us. By understanding and harmonizing our internal Parts and extending this understanding to our communities, we can reduce conflict and misunderstanding, paving the way for acceptance, love and opportunity, as exemplified by Mahir.

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  • Azaan Vhora

    Azaan Vhora is a psychologist using IFS for mental health with a focus on sports and performance psychology, complex trauma, and OCD. www.azaanvhora.com

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