Because immigrants often feel like they are straddling two worlds — their origin country and their new one — identity development is complex and critical for this population. Immigrant clients often tell Sara Stanizai, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Prospect Therapy in Long Beach, California, that they have one foot in each culture and don’t fully fit into either one.
When people feel like they don’t fully belong to any one community and are constantly hiding one or more aspects of themselves to try to fit in, they question their identity and choices, Stanizai explains. She finds this is especially true for emerging adults who are figuring out their careers. Immigrants may be successful at their jobs, but they often feel like they are failing because they are hiding or ignoring a part of their identity in the process, she says.
Daniel Gutierrez, an assistant professor in the counselor education program and coordinator of the addictions emphasis for the clinical mental health counseling program at William & Mary, points out that straddling two worlds involves code switching between language and cultures: People alter their behavior and speech to accommodate different cultural norms. They may act and speak one way at home and another way when they are at school or work or out with friends. “You can’t be who you are naturally. You have to switch depending on the social context or you have to abandon your home culture to succeed, and then you feel guilty all the time,” says Gutierrez, who is also faculty director of the New Leaf Clinic at William & Mary.