Caught Between Two Cultures: Living a Double Life

Caught Between Two Cultures: Living a Double Life

Growing up in a cultural environment at home that is different from the cultural environment outside of the home has its benefits and challenges.

On the one hand, It is an enriching experience to be exposed to different languages, customs, rituals, and codes of behavioural conduct. Thinking back to your own upbringing you may be able to appreciate having learned a second language, travelled to the part of the world where your family is from, enjoyed your ethnic cuisine and participated in meaningful community events and functions.

On the other hand, if these cultural differences are in direct conflict with one another, you may be faced with difficulties making sense of the differences – and this can be very stressful.

Bicultural stress refers to stress caused by difficulties encountered while having to live in two cultural environments that are difficult to reconcile. Common difficulties include problems making sense of and integrating differences in dietary rules, dress, social behaviour, dating/marriage rules, and gender-roles. Feelings of confusion are common as you try to answer the question “Who am I” and “What is the right thing to do?”

Difficulties That Can Contribute to Bicultural Stress

  • Strained family relationships due to differences in values and beliefs
  • Feeling like a misfit in your home culture and/or in the mainstream culture
  • Feeling like you have to hide who you are in order to fit in, be accepted, or avoid conflict
  • Experiencing a love triangle between your parents and your partner (i.e., your parents have trouble accepting who you’ve chosen to be with and you feel caught in the middle)
  • Living a double life and find it confusing to know who you really are
  • Problems with your parents/community who push traditional values and don’t accept you
  • Keeping secrets, then feeling guilty and ashamed
  • Feeling not good enough because of your race, religion, culture, ethnicity, sexuality.
  • Questioning your identity


Hiding and Living a Double Life

Hiding aspects of oneself is a way of coping with differences between the home environment/culture and the dominant culture. Why? Because we all want to fit in and feel like we belong. We also don’t like to upset our families or risk being rejected and shunned by our communities. Ultimately, we want to be able to express all aspects of our identities without losing important ties.

At home, you may dress in a conservative way that pleases family and outside of the home you will wear clothing that matches your style preferences. You may follow different dietary rules when at home or in your community than you do outside of that community. You may date and have a relationship outside the home, but keep your relationship a secret from those who wouldn’t approve. You may participate in activities outside of your home/community that you keep separate.

One Common Reason for Hiding and Living a Double Life is Fear of Conflict and Disapproval.

The amount of fear your feel is likely proportionate to how strict your family/community is and how open they are to seeing your point of view. If your family is very strict, you are likely hiding many aspects of yourself outside of the home in order to try to balance your need to be yourself with your need to maintain family and community ties. If your family is open to negotiating with you, you may not need to hide as much – Instead, you can speak to them, share your perspective, and come to a middle ground.

Psychological Impact of Living a Double Life

Living a double life may be a way to survive in an environment where not all of you is fully accepted. This may very well be the smartest and safest way to cope with a scenario of having strict parents and managing differing sets of value expectations at home and outside of it. Needless to say, this is not easy. Here are some of the consequences that can come with living a double life:

  • Anxiety or nervousness – About getting caught or doing the “wrong” thing; about risking disappointing others and about the risk of rejection
  • Guilt – For behaving “badly” or breaking the rules in some way
  • Anger – Towards your home community and/or mainstream community for experiences of rejection or discrimination
  • Feeling accepted only conditionally
  • Confusion – repeatedly behaving in conflicting ways in different contexts leaves you wondering “who am I”
  • Low self-esteem – internalizing the idea that there must be something ‘not right about me’
  • Questioning your value as a person since love and acceptance seems to come with conditions
  • Feeling anxious and confused in relationships – difficulty differentiating what you need in a romantic partner vs. what others want and expect from you.
  • Family conflict – difficulty negotiating with parents and finding a middle ground between your view points and theirs
  • Depression, disordered eating/body image problems, impulsive behaviours and/or using substances to cope
  • Difficulty regulating emotions

If you are experiencing any of the above difficulties, know that it is possible to make sense of the confusion and come to a place of wholeness.

Here are Some Steps You Can Take to Begin the Healing Process:

  • Reflect on your multiple identities – think about race, religion, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, ability status, culture and class. What are the different ideals and standards that you have been taught at home and outside the home? Do they match? Where are the areas of conflict? Ask yourself what your view would be on that point of conflict in an ideal scenario where you would be free from negative consequences.
  • Think about the different communities you are a part of and different networks of people you interact with. Where do you feel most comfortable? Do you fully separate your identities in each of these spheres, or are there places where you can show multiple aspects of yourself and be accepted? Are there safe spaces where you can begin to show parts of you that you have hidden and be accepted? Try to spend more time in those spaces.
  • Remind yourself that you are not a replica of your parents. Having grown up in a different country and cultural context, you will integrate aspects of the home culture and that of the dominant culture to be authentically you. What barriers come up to this integration? Make a list of what could get in the way of combining these differing aspects of yourself. Now think about ways you could overcome these barriers.
  • Address issues of shame related to your race, religion, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, ability status, and class. Challenge internalized notions that you are not good enough because you are “different.” Be critical of mainstream messaging that may make you feel like a misfit. Find points of pride in your heritage and identity. Work through points of pain.
  • Develop a coping toolbox – Bring together reminders and items needed to help you manage strong, difficult emotions when they arise. See this post for tips on incorporating physical grounding strategies in your coping toolbox.
  • Think about the journey toward wholeness and authenticity as an exploratory process that will take time. Be patient. Talk to trusted friends and family.

Do you know anyone who might be struggling with living a double life?

Share this information with your friends and family and come together to discuss ways in which your experiences overlap. It can be healing to know that others face the same struggles, hear about how others cope and have a network to rely on. Come together and get creative about ways to celebrate and bring together all aspects of your identity. If you need additional support and feel ready to pursue the possibility of therapy, Contact Us – You don’t have to do this alone.

Dr. Dina Buttu

Dr. Dina Buttu is a Clinical and Counselling Psychologist in Ontario. She provides culturally-responsive, trauma-informed and anti-oppressive psychological services. Dr. Buttu is especially interested in helping second generation Canadians find a sense of wholeness and authenticity by making sense of inner conflict and confusion related to their multiple identities. She is the founder of Integrative Psychology Centre.
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