Esther Perel on Fitting In vs. Belonging: A Cross-Cultural Dilemma

The pursuit of self-love and fulfillment often requires navigating different cultural values and expectations. This dilemma is poignantly explored in a counseling session on the popular podcast “Where Should We Begin?” between renowned therapist Esther Perel and a caller of Pakistani descent.

On the show, Perel engages in one-time intervention calls to help couples and individuals work through relationship issues. In this episode, the caller seeks Perel’s guidance on cultivating self-love while struggling to promote herself at work. Though successful in her job, the caller cannot shake feelings of self-doubt and hesitation in putting herself forward for promotions or recognition.

As becomes apparent, the caller’s difficulties with self-advocacy stem in part from her Pakistani upbringing. She describes her childhood home environment as emphasizing humility, community, and restraint over individual wants and needs.1 As the caller poignantly shares with Perel, “I grew up in a house where the whole mindset was this world is not about me, myself, and I.”

Perel explores how the caller’s collectivist background creates an internal conflict with pursuing self-love in an individualistic society. Their insightful cross-cultural exchange highlights the diversity of self-constructs across the world. It also speaks to the negotiations we make in honoring our multiple cultural selves and values.

The counseling session explores several nuanced themes around reconciling individualistic and collectivist cultural values when it comes to self-love and fulfillment.

Defining Self-Love

One key tension arises from the very definition of “self-love,” which holds different meanings across cultures. As Perel notes, the concept is “very cultural, very contemporary” in the U.S., whereas in Pakistan, it diverges sharply from the caller’s upbringing. She describes her mother seeing self-love as taboo—“if I went to my mom and I said, I’m doing this because I love myself, she…would think Americans are very me, myself, and I.”

Perel analyzes how in individualistic societies, the focus on self-love stems from self-reliance. But in collectivist cultures, this self-focus could be misconstrued as selfishness. For the caller, pursuing self-love creates an internal conflict with her cultural values of community and humility. She suppresses voicing her own needs and emotions for the sake of group harmony. As Perel reflects, “the individual has to step back behind the collective and the community.”

Reframing Self-Love

In light of this dilemma, Perel advises the caller to reframe self-love as benefitting the collective, not just herself. When the caller stands up for her own needs, she can view it as supporting her team and workplace.

Perel counsels, “How can you do more of it without experiencing a value conflict?” This cultural translation enables asserting self-worth while retaining humility.

Mutual Growth In A Marriage

Perel also notes the opportunity for mutual growth between the caller and her newlywed husband. Though he is originally from Pakistan, the husband embodies more individualistic values.

Perel suggests that the caller can learn from him to be more vocal, while he develops more sensitivity toward her needs. She comments, “Each of you chose someone whose proclivities match your vulnerabilities.” Their differences provide reciprocal lessons.

Fitting In vs Belonging

One of the most profound insights from the counseling session is the caller’s revelation that she feels pressured to fit into her workplace culture rather than feeling like she truly belongs.

As Perel analyzes, the caller is adept at supporting her colleagues and advocating for their needs. However, when it comes to standing up for herself, the caller hesitates. She waits for opportunities to be offered rather than asking for promotions or recognition at work.

Perel traces this hesitation to the caller’s collectivist upbringing, where humility and restraint were valued over individual advancement. However, in her Western workplace, these qualities get interpreted as a lack of confidence or assertiveness.

This leads the caller to feel like she has to contort herself to fit into her workplace culture. As she shares with Perel, “I think I’ve been trying very hard always to fit in.” The caller focuses her energy on conforming to norms of self-promotion, against her cultural grain.

Perel points out that fitting in is not the same as belonging. True belonging entails embracing one’s authentic self, not abandoning it.

She advises the caller, “Instead of putting all the effort in fitting in, fitting in as a wife, fitting in as an employee, that you cultivate the experience of belonging.”

Cultivating belonging requires reciprocity between the caller and her environment. Perel notes that belonging emerges when “the culture, the environment, of the place where you are, the relationship you are in, or the team you are on” also makes space for diverse communication styles.

Rather than contorting herself, the caller has the opportunity to honor her cultural roots in how she navigates her workplace. Perel counsels the caller to share her collectivist cultural values with her team. This mutual understanding could seed true belonging and inclusion.

The distinction between fitting in and belonging illuminates a path for self-acceptance and fulfillment across cultural lines. It is a powerful framework for embracing one’s multi-faceted self.

Between Two Cultures: Accepting Our Whole Selves

The counseling session between Esther Perel and the caller illuminates the nuanced dance between cultural backgrounds when navigating self-concepts. Through their compassionate dialogue, several valuable insights emerge around reconciling individualistic and collectivist values in the pursuit of self-love and belonging.

Perel highlights that behavioral adaptations are part of cross-cultural growth, as seen in the caller learning to promote herself more at work. However, she emphasizes retaining connection to one’s cultural roots and integrating the best from multiple value systems.

As Perel concludes, belonging emerges when all parts of oneself can be honored, not abandoned for conformity. Fitting in is not the same as belonging. Cultivating belonging requires sharing one’s cultural values and finding reciprocity in relationships.

The conversation reveals the diversity in constructions of self-love across societies. It serves as a reminder that our cultural roots shape core parts of self-concept. Navigating fulfillment requires bridging cultures, not necessarily choosing between them.

As one holds the tensions between individualistic versus holistic cultural selves, potential unfolds. Adaptations to new cultural contexts can be made while staying grounded in humility. By embracing the multiplicity within ourselves, we can find greater compassion and belonging.

  1. Zaman, R. M., Stewart, S. M., & Zaman, T. R. (2006). Pakistan: Culture, community, and familial obligations in a Muslim society. In J. Georgas, J. W. Berry, F. J. R. van de Vijver, Ç. Kağitçibaşi, & Y. H. Poortinga (Eds.), Families across cultures: A 30-nation psychological study (pp. 427–434). Cambridge University Press.

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