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Group Loyalty in a Culture that Celebrates Individuality

My growing up in collectivist cultures in Southern California has offered some insight into the identity formation for many Asian American females. The individualist, capitalist culture of this country may cause conflict for many collectivist people as they transition into adulthood. It's a concept many professionals may confuse as unhealthy boundaries or enmeshment within one's family system, but when working with each person in therapy, a new culture and definition of normal must be explored.

Individualism : Independence

Collectivism : Interdependence

Collectivism has strong roots in Confucianism where unquestioned adherence to its tenets are passed down from one generation to the next. Tradition is interesting because sometimes it is directly taught, and sometimes actions and words of the family seem to indirectly teach identity to us. As for Confucian ideology, the five relationships establish a significant deference to authority:

  • king to subject
  • father to son
  • husband to wife
  • older brother to younger brother
  • friend to friend

According to this hierarchy of deference, women are barely on the list, except to defer to her husband. It is stressed that each person is part of a larger group, and when one works in harmony, the whole of society will prosper. According to this premise, each person also has an important role to carry out in order for society to function. This ideology can promote great harmony when an entire population agrees to fulfill their roles. When young collectivists go off to college for the first time, there can be feelings of guilt and confusion when leaving the nest.

There could be guilt for not being at home with the family to fulfill a role, and there could be a guilt or a sense of family betrayal for being independent. Finding a new role or trying alternative paths can be very anxiety-provoking for Asian Americans when the culture has identified fixed roles for each member. Asian American women who are struggling with finding their voice may be questioning their loyalties to their original culture. Some have difficulties "choosing" a culture to belong to, so they may discard everything that is Asian and become "an American." It may be tricky to find a balance or accept that bi-cultural is who they are.

Being in conflict with the messages of two distinct cultures can cause heightened stress within a person's life. Seeking help outside of the family or showing "symptoms" of emotional problems can also be seen as shameful for collectivist individuals. Saving face and maintaining family honor is highly important for the culture. In the counseling setting, culturally sensitive and trained professionals may be able to assist with the process of finding a balance.

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An amazing strength that I've observed in many Asian countries is the ability to honor the past, and reverence of nature into the everyday of the present. This feeling of interconnectedness to one's community, nature, and the the cosmos has been adopted into some Western healing professional practices. Mindfulness meditation research and practices have increased over the years where healing professionals and scientists have a greater understanding of the benefits of both cultures to promote a healing lifestyle. Perhaps in the future there will be a greater embrace of the best of individualism and collectivism, where one culture does not seem superior to another.

Additional Resources:


Sue, D.W. & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: theory and practice. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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