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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Are you culturally disrupted?

A friend who is now a Professor of Ethics once asked me about my background. When I finished telling her about my younger years and the move from Algeria to the UK, she quipped: “Oh, so you’ve had the cultural disruption, too”.

I was taken aback by the conciseness and precision of the expression. It captured a key element in my personal history that I had never really discussed. It made me wonder about the extent of cultural disruption I had experienced and its impact on my life.

In the corporate, business or science sector cultural disruption is used to describe the introduction of a novel element that is dramatically norm shifting. It can be perceived as negative (affecting team performance) or positive (catalysing innovation and social progress). Perhaps you’ve been a cultural disruptor yourself?...

The context in which my friend used was more personal.


From an evolutionary perspective, introducing an organism into a new environment can create a great deal of stress. Adaptation is critical to survival. Similarly, moving from one country to another can place great psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual demands on us.

The effects of moving country on health and economic outcomes have been most closely studied but cultural disruption can occur along various dimensions: country; rural-urban; social class; loss of religion, etc. and can happen between generations. For me, going from a family oriented, socialist, Muslim country (Algeria) that emphasises social bonds to an individualistic, largely secular Western country (UK; Yorkshire to be precise) was a shock of sorts…not to mention the difference in weather!

A past of colonialism, a bloody independence war in the 50s and a violent civil war in the 90s involving terrorism in my home country fuelled a strong survival imperative enhanced by a competitive, capitalist system in my host country. A completely new set of reference points, values, norms and rules had to be integrated quickly to succeed.

Hence, for almost two decades, adapting and surviving (with an aspiration for thriving) were my default subconscious, mental settings. I used my strengths to achieve academically and professionally, with my creativity and desire for autonomy struggling to find their way to the surface.


Eventually, I was secure enough or self-aware enough (or both) to see that there was another way to live and thrive. The experience of cultural disruption was one of identity disruption. It could be harnessed to reshape my values, norms and expectations as I pleased – if it had happened once it could happen again!

But this time, I could choose my values. I could align my decisions consciously, with my whole self not just the part of me that wanted to survive materially.

As a result, I made career and life choices that increased my level of uncertainty but gave me greater wellbeing and a good story to tell should I live to old age. I have taken bigger risks and seen failure as part of success.

In fact, evidence from cultural psychiatry shows that mental health is best not among those who have reacted against the cultural disruption and fanatically held on to their culture of origin, nor those who have rejected their culture of origin to fit in but those who have acculturated by finding their own way and integrated the old with the new.


Cultural disruption can be a catalyst for awakening: it shows us that identity is fluid and far from immutable. Understanding this opens up infinite possibilities for the reinvention of the self and a more flexible way of life and work.

As neuroscientist Dan Siegel says: success is an integration of all our cognitive functions to balance the flexible and the rigid and respond appropriately in the moment. Jung might say that it’s an individuation process that integrates all parts of the self to recover a sense of wholeness and release our unique creative blueprint.

Either way, cultural disruption, while potentially painful and stressful, can be an advantage in these processes as the rigidity of a single identity concept has already been challenged and, hopefully, successfully transcended. Similarly, the realisation of your career and life aspirations can be supported by moulding your identity accordingly.

As we say in the coaching world in achieving goals: don’t ask yourself what you would have to do but who you would have to be. If you’ve been culturally disrupted, you will be able to answer this question and take action more easily.

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