I am Vietnamese and interested in psychology. I read your letters every month in the Word. I look at the lesson and feel like it is right for me, but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t fit for Vietnamese people. Do you have Vietnamese patients? Does psychology work for them the same as for other people?
— Curious Hanh
Dear Curious Hanh,
Thank you for asking a very good question about how culture is a part of psychology. As a psychotherapist it is important to be very aware of cultural differences as I work with clients. There is research in the field that tries to understand which traits are universally human, as opposed to what is culturally and circumstantially determined in the way people think, feel and respond to life. Gender, age or developmental stages, socioeconomic conditions and even sibling position (birth order) are other aspects of psychology, and are considered when providing therapy.
You are asking me specifically about how it might be different for me to work with a Vietnamese person than someone from another country. One of the reasons I am living in Vietnam is because I am interested in understanding more about Eastern thought — the psychology of people here — and its influence on life.
I do see differences that are unlike the differences I see between those people within Western culture. I have done presentations in Hanoi, in the past, as a way of trying to help people resolve with their frustrations or confusion when they deal with people who think and function differently than the ways they have become socialised to think and function.
Without realising it we are all full of internal ‘norms’ that guide our assumptions and expectations when we communicate with others. We have values, predicated on those of the culture or family we grew up in that might not be part of our own awareness. We all interpret the world around us and particularly the actions of others through the lens of our own culturally-influenced perspective. This can lead to conflict, confusion and judgements that reinforce stereotypes and set people in opposition to one another — us and them.
Understanding that these differences are ‘built-in’ but not really part of what connects us as humans, allows us to suspend our differences in order to find the common ground on which we can live and function together. Sometimes it means to ‘agree to disagree’. It is part of creating the bridges we need to function together in the modern world. But, this is not the same as what we do in therapy.
Psychotherapy can work for many different cultures because it is not a place where you come to get advice or to be told what you should do. As a therapist, I try to guide the process of self-discovery by helping people identify what is wrong — why they are coming to see me — and to see if insight into oneself and knowledge about common problems (like depression or anxiety) can combine to empower a person to change.
People often feel better simply from increasing their awareness and from feeling cared for and supported by someone who is trying to understand.
Sometimes we carry unresolved issues or distorted beliefs about ourselves for a long time, and in discovering the ways they are affecting us we unburden ourselves from the weight they impose. Sometimes we need encouragement to stand up for ourselves, set boundaries and/or make changes that are in line with the person we have become.
Therapy is meant to be stylised to the individual and the problems they are presenting. There is no right way to live that applies to everyone. The important thing is that therapy is helping you be you. I hope I have answered your questions.