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Breaking Free From Our Cultural Chains
Beyond the ideas of doing wrong and doing right there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies on that grass, the world is too full to speak.
We often fear what is different. It’s easier to stick with what we know, especially when it comes to relationships. We tend to adhere to a group of people who think, act and do things like us. Here we feel sure we belong. We can understand and feel understood. Everything is easier when we are around people we know, however this can also be very limiting. When we know or think we know, we close ourselves off from knowing anything else because we already know – there is no more learning to experience. We know and enough is enough. We can stay in our comfort zone secure in our knowledge where there is no fear or uncertainty. Beliefs and norms of behavior are predetermined – no independent thought required.
However, there is a danger here – we have to ask ourselves if we have been so shaped by the world around us that we have lost ourselves in the process?
Human beings rarely, if ever, manage to perceive their own culture correctly. It is true to say that this is how most of us live. We are victims of our culture and most of us don’t even realize it. We are born into a national culture, and the problem with culture is that it’s impossible to know it when you’re in it. You just can’t see it. Although your life is defined and shaped by your culture, we are all like fish swimming in the sea – we are surrounded by the water of our national culture, it is literally everywhere, and so we take it for granted. We cannot see it unless we have an experience where we notice an absence of our cultural norms and we know on a visceral level that something is missing.
So what do we mean by culture?
Many people cite the work of Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, whose maxim “Software of the mind” has informed many thought leaders on culture. What culture covers are the common traditions, values and ways of behaving of a particular community. And it is not limited to our national culture, we all live within layers of cultures; cultures within cultures. Our mental programs begin to develop within the family in early childhood and are reinforced in our educational process within schools and in our working life within organizations. These mental programs also contain components of our national and religious cultures. Every human being in the world is a product of multiple cultural influences. Culture has literally influenced many different ways we think, feel and behave. We are who we are today because of our cultures. it is impossible to exist outside of culture.
And that’s not all – culture is a dynamic phenomenon that surrounds us at all times. It is an ever-evolving ecological system that is shaped by our interactions with others and a set of structures, routines, rules, traditions, and norms that guide and constrain our behavior. Each of us plays a role in the evolution of our culture, but how aware are we when culture shapes our decisions and when we as individuals make an independent choice? In fact, is there an independent choice?
As an executive coach working internationally, I have guided many displaced executives from many different cultures around the world through what we commonly refer to as “culture shock”. I understood the concept and coached many leaders and their families through the emotional upheaval that goes hand in hand with leaving one’s country of birth and establishing life in a new country. I know that limiting cultural beliefs work the same way as limiting personal beliefs—they prevent you from fulfilling your potential. However, they are more difficult to discern and more challenging to overcome because these cultural beliefs are shared beliefs that have been reinforced many times over your lifetime and are often considered undisputed “truths” or “facts.” . Many people refer to them as “just the way life is” or “it’s just the way I am” and use these to justify behavior. The good news is that cultural beliefs are simply self-imposed limitations that act as self-fulfilling prophecies and can be overcome with a change in mental attitude. The simple fact is that you can break free from your cultural chains.
Despite having all this knowledge, I was amazed at the level of “culture shock” my family and I experienced when we moved across continents. I had worked internationally, visited many times, knew things, read the literature, was up to date with current research and therein lay my biggest problem. I thought I knew. My unconscious expectations were that I would make it through the transition without any problems – how deluded was I? I wasn’t fully aware of what I didn’t know (and acting as if I did), and it’s hard to describe the visceral and emotional reactions that arise when you step into the edges of your experience and realize that perhaps for the first time when the world isn’t where you thought it was. Not even close. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and neither did anyone else. It was like speaking another language, I encountered many situations where there was no common understanding and we struggled to find it.
My eyes were opened a little wider to the diversity of the world and I was humbled as my experience expanded in unimaginable ways until I realized on a deeper level that life would never be the same. I would never know with such certainty. I can see myself and my children breaking out of the chains of our culture and finding ourselves again. My relationship with life has changed, a new energy has replenished my curiosity; I’m less attached, more resourceful and want to learn more about this amazing and diverse world of ours, and I’m even excited to find my ever-changing place within it.
And it seems to me that this is a tension that we are all living in at this point in our human evolution. We are evolving so quickly into a global community that there is much we do not know. However, many of us want to be lured by the security of knowing, even if it is an illusion. We want to know. We need to know. We cling to the familiar when everything around us calls us to find a new way, to allow a new world order to emerge. We all have to learn how to live in the unknown, how to manage complexity and keep moving forward when everything around us is uncertain. And we must break free from the ordinary to allow a new ordinary to emerge.
The importance of breaking away from the ordinary
When you look back at history, breaking free from our cultural beliefs is how we have evolved over the centuries. The cultural belief that a woman’s place was in the home oppressed half the population for many centuries. The cultural belief of white racial superiority has oppressed many cultures for a long time as well. We have broken the shackles of many of these false and limiting beliefs and yet in all cultures we still live under many illusions and it is up to us to decide the direction we want our lives to go individually and collectively.
I have yet to meet someone who isn’t interested in finding and fulfilling their potential. Overcoming self-imposed limitations unlocks your individual potential to do and be all that you can be. It increases the quality of your life. The same goes for culture. Embracing racial and gender equality has opened new directions for us as a culture and enriched many lives. When we rid ourselves of false impressions, we open a path to truth and a clear soul resonance.
A culture is run by the people within it, it is the collective mind that counts. We humans have the ability to change direction and become more intentional in our collective cultural consciousness. All we have to do is step outside. And we no longer need to migrate to another country to do so – diversity is all around us. All we need is an open mind; individually and collectively. We must be willing to be open to changing our beliefs, to discover where they may be flawed, and to always seek the truth. It is a journey of evolution for each of us in our personal lives and when we see ourselves as an agent of change, it can become a contribution to the collective evolution of humanity.
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