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Dealing with cultural or religious pressure

Feeling pressure from family or community to live in a certain way is an almost universal experience – but some of us experience it to a greater degree than others. If you feel like you’re being forced into behaving or believing things, you are not alone, and there are things you can do that can really help.

Family and friends tend to want the best for us – or what they think is the best for us. They can sometimes feel like it is their duty to tell us how to behave and how to think in order to guide us to success. Often, advice from loved ones, and from the wider community, can be incredibly helpful, giving us the sense of safety and security we need in order to grow and find our way in a difficult world. 

But when the advice and interference we receive is unwelcome, it can start to feel overwhelming. The fear of being judged, punished or rejected by those we love – or those with power over us – can make us feel hopeless or stuck. And living life in a way that other people choose for us can feel suffocating. This is especially true if you’re being pressured to conform to customs and values that feel ‘alien’ to the society you’re living in. All this pressure and judgment can have a big impact on your self-esteem and mental health. But there are things that can really make a positive difference.   

Reclaiming your rights and freedoms

Remember, in Islam, Allah did not give anyone the right to force you in matters of faith or action. Freedom of belief and freedom to choose your actions voluntarily, is an essential human right:

“There is no compulsion in religion.” – Qur’an 2:256.

Your free will is a divine gift. It is up to you what you do with it.

“I love my religion in spite of the Muslims I know, not because of them. I find Muslims can be preachy, judgmental, harsh, self-righteous, unreasonable and obsessed with bizarre technicalities like whether eyebrow-plucking is halal. It’s like people want to make God seem as petty as they are. My advice is pray – keep that line between you and God open, then nothing can derail you.” 

“People forget that if you’re a convert to Islam from a non-Muslim background, you have your own pressures and challenges too – from both Muslim and non-Muslim society.”

“I don’t identify with my parents’ culture at all, but I do with their faith. I can see a clear difference between faith and culture, but they don’t get it. It’s the equal and opposite of my white non-religious friends who don’t get that their way isn’t the only way of being or seeing. I feel caught in the middle – neither side gets it and I don’t fully belong in either space – east or west. I only started meeting people stuck in the middle like me when I got to uni. I realised there are lots of people in my situation. There’s a big world out there – it might take time to find people who get you, but they are out there. Don’t lose hope.”

Here are 10 things that can help if you’re feeling the pressure:

1. Speak up for yourself

“The reward of an evil deed is its equivalent. But whoever pardons and seeks reconciliation, then their reward is with Allah. He certainly does not like the wrongdoers. There is no blame on those who enforce justice after being wronged.” — Qur’an 42:40-41 

Don’t let people silence you with fear – your feelings are valid and your opinion matters. Why else did Allah create you, if not to testify to the truth? Speaking your truth to your family, community, or anyone who is pressuring you to be a certain way, can feel hard if you’re not used to doing it. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. And remember, truthfulness does not mean the same as being rude or impolite. You’re not wrong for expressing your views.  

Voicing your feelings is a step towards setting healthy boundaries. 

If you are worried about upsetting people, think about your intention. Are you trying to be hurtful, abusive, or disrespectful? If the answer is no, then perhaps keeping quiet about what you have to say is an act of injustice against yourself. And God expects us to uphold justice, always.  

Remember, your opinions could start a difficult conversation, but you deserve to be listened to, so give yourself the opportunity to be heard.  

You are not responsible for anyone else’s emotions, you are accountable for your intentions.   

“I believe in kindness to your parents under all circumstances, but they don’t own you. I think a lot of people are taught obedience to parents is a sacred law. But there’s a difference between ‘obeying’ and letting them degrade you. If they’re not upholding your dignity and God-given right to free will, then surely their whims cannot overrule the freedom and right to dignity given to you by God.”

“I didn’t believe that if I spoke up anyone in my family would listen. And to be honest with you it was mostly like talking to a brick wall. But I kept going. Eventually I would hear them reflect my views back at me in conversation… little by little things were sinking in. I was slowly chipping away at their walls. My advice is give it time, don’t give up.”

“You can’t make everyone see your point of view. But one thing is certain, you never will if you don’t try. It’s worth a try, surely. What do you have to lose – you’re suffering anyway.”

Get tips on preparing for a conversation about your feelings.

2. Know when to walk away

“So bear with them and respond with “peace”. They will soon come to know.” — Qur’an 43:89

Ok, if you’ve tried speaking up, but you find yourself stuck in a loop of arguing and drama – it’s not healthy for you, or for them. You can’t force someone to listen or understand you.

When dialogue stops being productive and starts being destructive, it’s time to step away and let things cool off.  

“I can’t bear arguing for argument’s sake. Sometimes you know when it’s pointless, so for your own sanity just say ‘you know what, I’ll do me and you do you’. If you can physically get away, then do that to calm yourself down.” 

“Islam means having good manners. If someone wants to offer me Islamic advice in a rude way, I know they do not fundamentally understand Islam. If it’s not kind, or beautiful, don’t attribute it to Allah. I will never take advice from these people, ever.” 

“You’re allowed to switch off from people who disrupt your peace. If that doesn’t feel possible because you are living with that person, it’s worth seeing if a third party can mediate for you.”

“I sometimes think people need reminding: unless you are Allah, you do not know what is in someone else’s heart. My advice is: it is ok to walk away from an argument when it’s clear the other person does not want to listen. You lose nothing.” 

If you are worried about your physical safety, then try to remove yourself from the situation quickly if you can. Make sure you reach out for help from people you trust. Let people know that you need help and support.

Your safety is a priority.   

Abuse is never ok. 

“I left home – it seemed like an unthinkable, impossible thing to do. It was traumatic. But sometimes you have to choose yourself. Home is supposed to feel like safety. But familiar isn’t the same as safe.”

3. Let go of self-judgement

How much energy are you spending worrying about how people might judge you?

When you let other people define your worth, it’s a recipe for discomfort. But what if what’s holding you back is not simply how other people are judging you, but how harshly you are judging yourself on their behalf?

“They go to sleep peacefully without remembering you, but you stay up imagining what they think of you. The truth is yeah maybe they have an opinion about you for a minute, but then move on to the next thing, whereas you could be hung up on that one thing for years.” 

You’re not a failure. Remember, there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ son/daughter, or a ‘perfect’ partner, or ‘perfect’ friend.

Let yourself breathe.

Yes, you’re imperfect and you’re going to let people down – that’s ok, you’re only human. Let go, let go, let go… 

When you love yourself deeply, you can start to feel free. 

When you know who you are, when people try to force their opinions and judgements on you it doesn’t affect you in the same way. 

Often, a big step towards letting go of judgement is by working to increase your self-love.

“I realised that the pain of not being myself was worse than the pain of being judged by other people. Only God has the right to judge me. They’re going to talk sh*t about you anyway, (which is un-Islamic), so I stopped caring what other people think and just do me.”

4. Find your people on social media

Follow social media accounts that inspire you and find online communities where you feel safe to express yourself. Life can feel a lot less lonely when you have people who you can relate to. And even if it doesn’t feel like it, there are so many people out there from similar backgrounds, going through similar experiences to you right now. And they are so worth the effort of finding.

Remember, you’re not obliged to read anything or follow anyone you don’t like. And people or groups online that make you feel worse, or encourage you to do things that feel harmful are not worth your time or energy – block, unfollow, mute.

“The loudest voice isn’t necessarily the wisest. And if a million people repeat it on the internet, it doesn’t make it true. Trust your gut and put your trust in Allah. The voices that speak to you will ring out clear as a bell.”

Check out these inspiring Muslim accounts to follow.    

5. Know your rights

Knowing your rights can be empowering, and help you feel safer in difficult situations. 

  • Do you know your rights according to the law of your country? 
  • Do you know your rights in Islam? 
  • Do you know which people, organisations and authorities can help you to enforce your rights?

Think of any questions you’d like answered and make sure you do your research.

“I asked an imam to speak to my parents. I didn’t personally have a way to make them hear me, but I felt they might actually listen to someone else they respected. Initially I thought he would take their side, but he didn’t. It helped.”

“I called the police once. It was a wakeup call to everyone. It made things weird at home, but it shifted things a bit, which I needed.” 

Check out these mental health resources which might help.

6. Talk to people you trust

Just saying it out loud can lift a huge weight off your shoulders. Stop the thoughts churning around your head over and over by telling someone how you’re feeling. It’s ok to have open, honest conversations with people and ask them if they can relate to what you’re going through. There will be people around you who have been in your shoes before and will want to help. And even though many of your friends probably can’t relate to your situation, they do care about you – and they might just be the support you need right now. 

Talking can help you find a different perspective on your situation and see things in ways you’ve perhaps not yet thought of.

Read advice on preparing for a conversation about your mental health.

Get tips on responding to cultural mental health stigma

If you’re not sure who to talk to, take a look at the resources page

7. Ask for recommendations

Proactively ask people for recommendations (books, movies, podcasts etc) of things that helped them deal with navigating culture, religion and social pressure.

Questions you can ask might sound like:

  • Do you know a good Muslim therapist? How did you find them?
  • Is there a book that changed your life?
  • Do you know any helpful influencers who talk about this kind of stuff?
  • Which podcasts should I add to my playlist?

Sometimes people can feel shy about sharing these types of things in case they sound like they’re telling you what to do – but if you’re curious, ask! You might discover a gem that changes the game for you. Remember, you have nothing to lose – and people usually enjoy talking about things that have helped them. 

8. Find a mentor or coach

Sometimes you need someone to help you cut through the noise, and to help keep you focused and on track, no matter what else is going on in your life. 

A mentorship can be formal or informal, paid or unpaid, planned or out of the blue… but usually a good mentor has hands-on experience or expertise in handling the types of things you want to get better at. This could be in your career, your hobbies, or even someone like a ‘life coach’ who can help you more generally.  

“I find in life sometimes you meet someone who is wise and they just get it. They’ve been in your shoes and come out the other side. Ask them for advice – don’t hold back. It could even be a one off conversation that can change you and how you see the world.”  

“I met a lady through work and she liked me. She could tell I was feeling a bit lost. She organised a three or four coffee dates to talk about work and career and it felt like she was kind of mentoring me because she had been in my shoes and knew I needed it. Just having someone wise, successful and strategic – who was not trying to be a best friend or therapist – tell me I was on the right track, and check me when I was off-track, was something I didn’t know how much I needed.” 

9. Be open-minded

An open mind requires the courage to explore things that might make us feel vulnerable, or change our life in a direction we weren’t expecting. We might be pulled towards something that feels good, even when deep down we know it’s not the best thing for us – and it’s normal to struggle with this.

“Perhaps you dislike something which is good for you and like something which is bad for you.” — Qur’an 2:126

Remember, sometimes good advice is the advice we don’t always want to hear. We may be less open to being told something that is genuinely good for us because of how it’s being told, or who it’s coming from.

You don’t have to follow everyone’s advice.

“[Say to the believers:] “Whatever you may differ about, its judgement rests with Allah. That is Allah—my Lord. In Him I put my trust, and to Him I turn.’” — Qur’an 42:10

Sometimes bad advice comes from good people. And sometimes good advice comes from unexpected people. It’s important to be discerning – meaning listen carefully, reflect, weigh up the pros and cons, do your research, feel your heart, actively seek guidance from Allah, and trust your gut. 

Your intuition is more powerful than you realise. If you struggle with overthinking, or knowing when or how to trust yourself, (as many of us do), working on your feelings of self-love and exploring your spirituality can really help.  

“I was raised to fear Allah, but it was my own studying and staying open-minded that taught me to love Allah.”

“If you are sincere in your faith, then know that guidance from Allah will soften your heart. Beware of advice that hardens your heart – this is your sign to turn away from it, no matter if it’s coming from a ‘respected’ Muslim, or non-Muslim.”  

“Little education is a dangerous thing. There’s nothing wrong with being self-taught, or sharing what you know, but one online course doesn’t make you a Sheikh. I have studied Islam a fair bit, and genuine scholars sound nothing like the endless army of social media ‘armchair experts’ who sit around trolling people all day. My advice is to keep searching and learning, find voices that speak to you on the deepest level, and tune everyone else out.”

10. Forge your own path

You are unique. 

You are you. 

You don’t need to fit in a box, or give yourself a label. No one has a right to control you, or to live through you. So try not to give your energy to other people’s drama and opinions. 

“At the end of the day, you won’t answer for them and they won’t answer for you. If you fear God you don’t fear people.”

Instead, focus your energy on yourself. Your journey towards finding peace with who you are needs your full attention – so you’re going to have to stop worrying about the judgement surrounding you. 

Focus on becoming more secure and comfortable with yourself. 

This doesn’t mean you need to find all the answers and become a religious scholar, or a total rebel. It doesn’t mean abandon everything you were raised with, or turn your back on mainstream society. It means giving yourself permission to feel all your feelings, without guilt. And only doing things that align with your personal values and sense of purpose, without letting fear of people hold you back. 

“I was under a lot of mental and emotional stress from being told cultural things about Islam that just didn’t feel right to me. My family has views I don’t agree with, especially to do with how I should be. It made me feel trapped and like something was wrong with me. I hid my views to avoid fights and did what was expected of me but it really affected my mental health. The best thing I did was to accept my feelings instead of burying them. Doubting and questioning didn’t make me a bad Muslim, or a bad son. It made me a curious Muslim who needed to explore. You can’t trap an explorer in a box and expect them to be happy. I feel so much more peace with God now because whenever I have doubts about something, I give myself permission to explore that doubt and keep searching for my own answers even if they don’t match my family’s.”

Developing this sense of confidence, purpose and alignment takes time and commitment. Often it involves learning to love yourself unconditionally first, then starting to look after yourself as though you were your own best friend (or perhaps the parent your inner-child needed, but never had). 

Give yourself permission to explore your spirituality freely – to find answers to the questions troubling your heart, and to find the truth that will light your way, regardless of what others tell you.  

“Expectations from others can interfere with the personal relationship I have (and continue to build) with God. People need to be more mindful that the journey of faith and religion is a personal one, first.”

“It is not for a human being to have Allah communicate with them, except through inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal whatever He wills by His permission. He is surely Most High, All-Wise.” — Qur’an 42:51 

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