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culture as straight jacket: is your Greekiness keeping your from living your authentic self?
culture as straight jacket: is your Greekiness keeping your from living your authentic self?

When Does Culture Become a Straight Jacket?


Most of us are happy Hellenes. Happy and proud that we come from such a rich culture that has enriched us and the rest of the world for millennia. There are parts of our culture that we love—the bonding, the relish of good times, the symbolic traditions, the ideas, the language, the food, the faith. We are so blessed to have been brought up Greek.

But, there are limits to how far your culture can take you. There is a danger of getting so enmeshed in it, you can’t see anything but in blue and white. For this month’s “Issue” I am going to tackle the limits of your culture. In fact, being too Greek can be detrimental to your emotional and spiritual health. Especially if you are female. Here’s how:

1 Internationalization of culture can stunt your potential

Internalization, the process by which culture becomes mind, is a core concept in cultural psychology. What that means is the subtle and not so subtle ways we are taught the beliefs, behaviors and expectations of our cultural group. From the time we are born, our culture works to teach us how to operate in our world. It provides a blueprint to make sense of the complex world and our place in it. This is all good and fine. Except when you have internalized your culture so deeply that you stop thinking for yourself. It’s easy to make decisions when you’ve substituted the “culture think”. Decisions such as what career should I follow, what kind of partner do I want for myself, how do I spend my free time—these are hard to handle by yourself. By using the script your culture has handed you for what is acceptable, you sometimes take the default pre-plugged in choice without really reflecting if this is what is right for you.

Many times our talents, wishes, and passions run contrary to what our culture deems is appropriate for us. Many times a traditional culture puts in obstacles by way of criticism, ostracism, and ridicule.

2 Cultural Expectations Can Make you Depressed

“Left on the shelf.” “You can’t be happy if you don’t have a husband and/or a child. “ “You are bringing shame on us by not marrying.” That is the prevailing notion in Greek culture. Look at the tabloids. Jennifer Aniston cannot be seen as happy if she is not in a relationship or does not have a baby.

The pressure for establishing a family is so pervasive that a person who chooses not to be in the matrimonial state is viewed as defective or disabled. The pressure comes more from women themselves rather than men. The cultural expectations heaped on Greek women to be homemakers, tradition-bearers, all-sacrificing mothers puts an unfair burden on them to conform. If a woman strays far from the standard, she is looked upon with suspicion or contempt.

Even if she is talented, has made contributions to society and philanthropic causes, is a successful professional, she is made to feel as somehow something is missing. This can turn into self-loathing and depression, when there is nothing wrong with living life on her own terms. Even if she is fulfilled and satisfied with her life, a woman who is single is made to feel the pressure of conformity to the marriage culture so much so that she might actually stop and doubt herself. The pressure I presume is heaped as high for single males after a certain age as much as females.

Many women who are quite successful are made to feel miserable by their families and their culture because they chose a different path. I wish I had statistical evidence, but I can wager that those “married mothers full of bliss” are living challenging lives. Ask them and they will not be as satisfied with their lives as the cultural stereotype makes them out to be.

3 Myopia of Greekiness might lead to ethnocentrism and even worse:

The consequences of internalized culture is ethnocentrism that might lead to discrimination and even oppression. You can’t use your own culture to judge someone else’s. Yes, the world would be great if it was all Greek, but it would also be boring and less diverse.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that the majority of the Hellenic community is racist. I wish I could find some more social science research via surveys to prove it. What makes it so funny that Mr Portokalos can find the Greek root of every English word is that it shows his stubborn pride. That makes him look stupid and provincial.

Believing that your culture is superior to others, even when it is warranted, teeters dangerously close to bigotry.

4 Internalization of culture can lead to internalized oppression.

Internalization of misogyny that has been part of Greek culture from ancient times among women themselves shows up in insidious ways.

It is this part of culture, the internalized misogyny that Greek women reap on each other that is the saddest. This is where I see it—

-when so many women with college degrees and leadership potential voluntarily limit themselves by making baklava and pastitchio for church functions instead of taking part in executive meetings to better harness the parish needs.

-when women bicker amongst themselves over petty situations instead of cooperating and executive goals that would be beneficial to all of them

-when women do not speak up in executive meetings because they self-check themselves by thinking what they have to say is less important or wrong

-when women nitpick, backtalk and revile each other over not meeting the “standards” of Hellenic ideals of womanhood, that is, being a sacrificial mother, a dutiful daughter, a patient spouse and still looking like a Barbie doll

Worst of all is when mothers consciously and subconsciously hamper their own daughter’s success and freedom because they are living through their own internalized oppression.


Sometimes this oppression passed on via culture can have the opposite effect. Many Greeks of Hellenic descent, both male and female, have actually wiped away all ties to their cultural heritage. A young woman of Greek descent has confessed to me that she shuns her culture altogether. She has been traumatized by the way her Greek father would view her as a daughter. When asked how many children he had, he would answer “ena paidi kai ena kopeli.” (one child and one female one). In other words, the very language labeled the male child as legitimately a child while a girl was in a separate class, not a child but a female. This young woman has been so traumatized by her culture that she wholeheartedly rejects any forms of it.


So, just in case you want to check that your culture has not become a straight jacket for you, try these three tests of authenticity.

 Tests to Reflect on how really Know You are Being Authentically You

1 Obituary Test: Write a 600 word obituary summing up your life. Ask the question: How would I want to have lived? Then evaluate your life in the present. Is it leading towards that write up? Are you living how you would want to be remembered?

2 Passion Comic Strip: Draw a comic strip about your passion. Interview 5 to 10 people who have known you longest and ask them, “When have you seen me the most alive?” Then draw their answers into a comic strip. This helps you visualize what you would like to do by tapping into a different part of your brain.

3 Create a Life Sentence: Create a Mission and Vision Statement for you. What is my purpose if I had one? What values do I bring with me? What is it that I do well? Why? Write this in one sentence. Now reflect: is that what I am doing with my life? If it aligns with your present pursuits, you are off the hook. If not, time to reconsider the pervasive influence your Greekness is having on your soul.