Caught Between Two Cultures

Do you feel like different parts of yourself want different things, or that you’re fighting with your own self to be heard? Feeling pulled in opposite directions by different influences can make it seem impossible to feel like we belong. But even if it feels like the world wasn’t made for someone like you, it is possible live life on your own terms.

Being Muslim, in a country where Muslims are a minority group, can feel like you are constantly navigating between two, or three (or more!) different cultures – and possibly experiencing disapproval or judgement from all sides, simply for doing, or believing, things that feel right and normal to you. 

You might feel like you constantly have to switch on and off different parts of your personality, depending on who you are with, and what feels safe or socially acceptable. Add on top of that our difficult life experiences, including racism and Islamophobia. No wonder, at times, simply existing can feel exhausting. But you deserve to feel safe and confident in who you are – that includes your appearance, your opinions, your ambitions, your weirdness, your wonderfulness, and of course your Muslimness too. 

“At home I am one person. With my friends I’m another person. And at work someone totally different. It’s all me – but like I’m turning the volume up and down on different parts of me.” 

Feeling constant inner-conflict, or that you’re not accepted/acceptable, can have a huge impact on your mental health, including:

  • poor self-image
  • difficulties setting boundaries
  • feelings of low self-worth
  • anger
  • sadness and depression
  • hopelessness
  • anxiety
  • loneliness and isolation
  • self-harm, disordered eating, insomnia 

“I feel deeply connected to my Allah, but the thing that hurts is I don’t actually feel part of any kind of Muslim community. I don’t relate to the Muslims I meet, or the things I read online. But yet, I know I am a Muslim. How am I supposed to make sense of that?” 

Here are eight things that can help you own your identity:

1. Trust your intuition

“Allah does not place two hearts in any person’s chest.” — Qur’an 33:4

You weren’t born with inner turmoil. As a baby you were certain about what you liked, disliked and what you wanted. Your identity was crystal clear. “I am me.” Over time you learnt how to please the people around you – that’s normal – and you probably received some mixed messages about how you needed to be in order to fit in.

If you’re struggling, it’s time to let go of other people’s ideas, so you can start listening to your own. Your gut feelings and intuition are speaking to you all the time – and it turns out the person who knows what’s best for you is you, and that’s why trusting yourself is so important. 

“Sometimes it feels like you can’t change the world, so you have to change yourself to fit in. But then someone reminded me, being yourself does change the world. You’re changing the world simply by being in it, and dancing to your own tune.” 

2. Identify your core values

If you’re struggling with your identity, it can help to forget labels for a minute and get back to basics. What drives the decisions you make and actions you take? Where does your view of the world come from? 

See if you can list out your ‘core values’. These are ideals, or ethical/moral principles, that you fundamentally believe are true, no matter what the context. For example, honesty, accountability, boldness, creativity, empathy, kindness, ambition, learning, spiritual growth, work ethic, work-life balance, determination, going with the flow… 

Your defining values don’t have to be the same as everyone else’s. 

Whenever you start to feel lost, confused, or out of control, remind yourself of these principles to help yourself feel grounded. 

3. Figure out what’s blocking you

Here’s an exercise to help pin down where the identity/culture clash within you is having the worst impact. This is usually an area where you may want to improve your self-expression.

Exercise:

Think about the five or so people who are closest to you in your life. You might want to write them down. Now go through each of them and ask yourself: 

  • Which parts of your life do you hide from each of them? 
  • If you were completely open and honest with them about the things you were hiding, what are you afraid might happen? 
  • What do you wish each of them knew or accepted about you?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how much does it bother you that you are not free to talk about these things with each of these people? 

Take a moment to reflect on your answers. 

  • Is there a pattern in the things you are afraid of, or worried about happening? 
  • Is there one person in particular who you’re worried about upsetting?
  • Is there anyone in your life you can be completely yourself with, and not worry about being judged? If so, what is about them that makes you feel safe? If not, who do you wish you could be your true self around?
  • How did you feel answering these questions? 

Often when we hide parts of ourselves, it can be because we’re afraid of making ourselves unlovable. Remember, you are lovable just the way you are.

If people can’t or don’t want to accept your authentic self, then these are not your people.

https://twitter.com/mohamedwashere/status/1045218387700457472?s=20

Read more about how to increase self-love or healing from trauma.  

4. Find meaningful role models

Find role models who embody your values, or have faced the things you fear. A positive role model will remind you you can get through the challenges you are facing and make you feel good about yourself. 

Healthy role models don’t have to share your faith, lifestyle or cultural background – but they should inspire you, and teach you new things about yourself. Remember, people can fake happiness and ‘success’, but kindness, ethical behaviour and passion for a cause shine always through. 

Notice if a person’s behaviour matches up with what they tell you about themselves. 

If you find yourself obsessed with friends, celebs or public figures who make you feel worse about your life, drained, envious or bitter, it’s time to refocus your attention elsewhere. Unhealthy comparisons can eat away at our self-esteem and affect our sense of wellbeing. Remember, a powerful antidote to these types of feelings is increasing your gratitude.  

“The best thing someone told me was to ask myself ‘does this person bring me closer to my goals and to my God?’ If the answer is yes, then increase your time with them. If not, reduce your time with them. It took me a while to let go of toxic friendships, but now my inner-circle is people who make me a better person.” 

Check out these inspiring Muslim accounts to follow.

5. Remember ‘fitting in’ isn’t everything

At some point, almost all of us experience loneliness, being misunderstood, or feeling like the odd one out. While knowing that other people feel this way too doesn’t stop it hurting, it can be helpful to look at the bigger picture.

It isn’t enough to just ‘fit in.’ Wherever you look, people are in turmoil and crisis. Popular people can end their lives. Rich people can get depressed. Celebrities can struggle with self-love. Simply being a Muslim doesn’t guarantee your inner-peace. Simply being a non-Muslim doesn’t guarantee your inner-peace. 

Inner-peace is something you actively have to work on. No matter who you are, or where you’re from, or what you believe. 

“If you’ve ever been on a Muslim dating app you’ll have noticed 99% of profiles make some joke about being ‘too halal for the haram, too haram for the halal’, or ‘looking for a balance of east and west’. I think it’s clear that ‘western’ Muslims generally don’t feel like they fit in. But if we all feel that way… then maybe we’re all just looking for validation in the wrong places?”

“I definitely think society has a long way to go. But you can’t blame everything bad on the problems in the world. If all you can think about is how bad the world is, I’d say switch up your perspective: focus on how you are making it better. That’s what helped me.”  

“One of His signs is that He created you from dust, then—behold!—you are human beings spreading over [the earth]. And one of His signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves so that you may find comfort in them. And He has placed between you compassion and mercy. Surely in this are signs for people who reflect. And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. Surely in this are signs for those of knowledge.” — Qur’an 30:20-22

The crushing weight of being a misfit can start to lift when you accept that it’s ok not to fit in. Perhaps the things about you that seem ‘too different’ are hidden blessings, and although it may take some time for you to discover how and why – that’s ok too.

Remember, we’re supposed to be different. And we’re supposed to evolve.

6. Boost your knowledge

“I think some people take for granted what it means to see people like you represented and portrayed as normal and cool. All the movies you watch, all the history you learn at school, basically everything around you, every day, reinforces one culture over your own, like you don’t exist, or you’re wrong for existing.”

Some people will never know what it is like to switch on the TV or watch a film and never, ever, see yourself represented. Likewise, if you never see yourself in your society’s vision of the world, you will never know if having that experience would have made you feel different about yourself. Perhaps it would have made feeling safe, loved, confident and at peace with your decisions might have been so much easier? The point is, we don’t know what we don’t know. 

Learning more about your cultural and/or religious heritage and history can help you strengthen your sense of identity and belonging. This can boost your confidence and self-esteem too.  

“Knowledge is power! Connecting with my family’s roots on my own terms gave me a better appreciation and respect for them, and a stronger sense of myself.”

“I don’t like to admit it, but I think I always felt a sense of shame and inferiority about my foreign-ness and my Muslim-ness… But leaning into it and kind of exploring it all made me feel proud of my heritage in a way that I didn’t think I ever would, or could.”

Check out these resources to help you explore your Muslim identity.

7. Own your differences

Feeling like a cultural orphan might actually be your superpower. You are experiencing the world in a way that many people around you probably can’t. That makes you incredibly important – your point of view is fresh and different. Humanity is ever-changing; and you are at the forefront of a new way of thinking about life and society

Being an outsider means you’ve probably learnt to be quite adaptable and analytical – seeing things from a couple of different different points of view at the same time. You’re probably a pretty good mediator too, if you’re used to always trying to bridge the gap between two different worlds you’re likely to be more open-minded and empathetic to people’s differences – which is a wonderful thing.  

Redirect your focus away from how other people define or label you, and turn your attention to what brings you purpose and fulfilment. 

It might feel uncomfortable being you right now, but let yourself get comfortable with being uncomfortable – that’s where growth happens. 

History remembers the people who are different! 

8. Explore your spirituality

It isn’t about mechanically reciting prayers while your mind gets bored, or guilting yourself over mistakes. It’s a process of ‘enlightenment’ and giving your attention to expanding your awareness of things that move your soul, ignite your personal passions, and offer you a taste of the beauty of the Divine.  

Knowing your personal truth – your meaning and purpose in life – can give you confidence and an approach and philosophy to making decisions, setting boundaries, and letting go of opinions and judgements that don’t chime with you. Figuring out your purpose in life and all that deep stuff doesn’t have to be stressful – it can be fun, rewarding and very enjoyable when you approach it with an open and curious mindset.

Read more about exploring your spirituality.

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