February 17, 2022
Celine Lim is a Hypnotherapist, RTT Therapist and Life Change Coach. In this article, she writes about some of the challenges that can come with the immigrant experience, and how hypnotherapy combined with inner child work can help immigrants and children of immigrants live more fulfilling lives.
Working with clients who are immigrants & children of immigrants
Often clients do not come to me seeking help with immigration-specific issues. Instead, they come for help with anxiety, general malaise, an inability to move forward in life, or deteriorating family relationships. In our sessions, what gets revealed are early childhood experiences where there has been neglect, abandonment, abuse or repression, in their own families or in the environment-at-large.
It is not unusual for them to also feel like they have been the odd one out for as long as they can remember. There are quite often estranged relationships in the family or a parent who suffers from a mental health imbalance. The experience of being the odd one out in their place of origin is often associated with their minority status because of ethnicity, race, gender, religious or geopolitical reasons. It is also not unusual to have multi-generational displacements or migrations in their family history.
Clients, especially those in their 30s and early 40s, experience longstanding issues in their family or from their countries of origin becoming more amplified and intensified in their new homes. Some actually have immigrated to escape the confines of their past, only to find the past has followed them into their present, and the relief and freedom that came with their move are temporary.
Often when we feel hostage to our lives, we seek therapy or healing. The gaps between who we were, who we are, and who we want to be, can build up in our psyche over time, and can cost us our peace of mind, perhaps even our physical health. They can get us stuck in self-sabotaging loops that diminish our creativity, productivity, and our ability to fulfill our heart-felt wishes and desires.
The 4 common archetypes of children of immigrants
Who we think we are and how we think and behave are greatly affected by instinctual coping mechanisms, by experiences in our early formative years as well as by the should and should not of our parents, teachers, and other authority figures in our lives. External conditioning becomes internalized as our own, impacting what and how we think and feel, our actions and resulting experiences. The immigrant experience of one or many generations can result in its own particular patterns of restrictive and constrictive conditioning. This is more so when inter-generational exchanges are loaded with the language of duty, obligation, and sacrifice.
In the following, I offer a few common conditioning patterns that can come with the roles and functions we may have as children of immigrants. They are by no means exhaustive nor are they exclusive to the Asian immigrant diaspora experience. I have found them to be related to the basic unmet needs of the child to be safe and to belong, and therefore, pivotal for the transformative healing experience of my clients as well as of my own:
It is often the experience of immigrants or children of immigrants, that they end up occupying the role of interpreter and translator, of both language and culture, for other family members. Childhood needs go unmet as the children may be asked to assume adult responsibilities prematurely, such as helping their parents communicate with their schools, banks or doctors because they speak more fluent English. They may absorb stress in these adult interactions without being given the opportunity or ability to process their own stress from being on the ‘job’.
Challenges that come with immigration can be related to loss of status, changes in family roles, financial difficulties, experiences of discrimination and racism. The adults in the family may struggle to cope with these challenges and the increased tension between them can explode into fights and arguments. While some children suffer as silent witnesses to these adult aggression, others try to ‘fix’ the problems of the fighting adults. In situations where parents have become estranged from each other, the adults may start relying on their children for adult companionship, their psychological well-being, and purpose in life.
Unprocessed feelings of being ‘other’ or ‘out of place’ in the adults may translate into the transfer of their un-lived dreams and ambitions onto their children. This can result in the children pursuing careers that may be fulfilling for their parents but not for themselves.
Unprocessed feelings of being ‘other’ in an unwelcoming environment in the adults can also translate into an overbearing protectiveness over their children. This can underscore feelings of ‘not safe’ in the children and can lead to the over-managing and control of their environment and ultimately, of themselves as the children become adults.
Losing sight of their own needs and internalizing values of their upbringing
In any of the dynamics described, it is easy and natural for the children of immigrants to lose sight of who they are as individuals as they grow older. External definitions and validations of what is ‘acceptable’ and ‘expected’ are repeatedly reinforced before they are allowed to fully develop their own unique selves, if ever. They can lose sight of their own needs. They may forget to occupy their own skin.
Experiences of racism or discrimination reinforce heightened awareness of being ‘other’ or ‘out of place’, and can translate into reflexive conformity to external norms. The impulse to ‘fit in’ may be more triggered or re-triggered if there have been multiple migrations in the family. In the psyche of the ‘other’, there can be the impulse to prove one’s worthiness for inclusion. It can result in more focus placed on ‘what others may think’ than ‘what is right for me.’
As we internalize the values and protocols of our upbringing and surroundings, we do not always appreciate the full extent of their impact on our present-day adult selves. When they no longer serve our best interest, they become our limiting beliefs which we act out in unwanted habits and behaviours. These limiting beliefs often start with “I have to..” :
I have to be ‘perfect’ (or else).
I have to be ‘good’ (to be loved).
I have to prove myself as worthy of love and acceptance. I have to prove myself to be loved and accepted.
I have to be someone I’m not. It’s not safe to be me. I’m not free to be myself.
I have to take care of everyone. Others’ happiness comes first. If others are happy, only then can I be happy.
First Step in the Healing Journey
The first step to our healing is to ask ourselves what we hope to gain by with these have-tos. Have-tos can help identify the basic core human needs such as love, safety, or belonging, that have gone unmet in us. We can substitute our early childhood coping behaviours that we acted out to meet those needs with more appropriate ways that are now available to us as adults. We can also reprogram patterns of looking to an external source to meet those needs such as dependency on another’s love or approval to allow us to feel enough or safe. As mature adults, we can choose to go about meeting our core needs in ways that are rooted in inner beliefs of self-worth and self-empowerment. We can move from survival mode to thriving, and shift our focus from ‘what others expect of me’ to ‘what I really want for myself’.
How Hypnotherapy Helps to Reprogram Limiting Beliefs
Hypnotherapy can help reprogram beliefs and behaviours more easily and quickly as it works primarily with the subconscious mind. Our beliefs, habits and emotions are with our subconscious. Our conscious mind occupies itself with strategy and logic. When the subconscious and conscious minds are at cross-purposes, it can be like driving a car with the handbrake on while our foot is hard on the gas pedal. In the battle between emotion and logic, emotion always ends up winning.
In hypnosis, the conscious mind is deeply relaxed so we can work with the subconscious to get to our unmet needs and inner conflicts in order to address them and change our beliefs, habits and behaviours to ones that better serve us. The language of the subconscious is the language of the inner child. What is considered traumatic for the child is not always what the adult self may think is traumatic. In a session with one client, it was her younger child self’s experience of the angry energy of her parents fighting over money that led to her feelings of ‘not safe’. Making this connection was instrumental for her in healing her social anxiety as an adult.
The Key Lies in Gaining Awareness
The form of hypnotherapy I practice allows me to hold a safe and supportive space for the recognition and interruption of patterns that are at the core of a client’s difficulties. The process involves guided self-inquiry, the language of imagination and metaphor, and emotional releasing that does not re-trigger emotional trauma. The goal is for a more harmonious relationship not only between their subconscious mind and conscious mind but also with their super-conscious mind where their higher wisdom and creativity come from. Awareness of our inner workings gives us the opportunity to integrate and harmonize parts of ourselves so they work better together to serve us. Hypnotherapy can help us gain this awareness and offers the means to better address past (and present) unmet needs. In a state of integrated wholeness, there can be a more honest and compassionate relationship with all aspects of ourselves. The energy that was once used for surviving, managing, and control can now be available for more enjoyment of life, as well as for more resiliency and creativity to navigate the ups and downs of life.
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