To assimilate or not to assimilate– a psychologist’s thoughts about acculturation

Donald Winnicott

Donald Winnicott stipulated the presence of a ‘true self’.  Our true selves are, according to Winnicott, the most spontaneous and authentic parts of who we are.   His idea was not a new one, and it even dates back to the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard who referenced ‘the self which truly is’.  If there is a ‘true self’, then how does this concept fit in with the process of acculturation and assimilation?  For those of us who are immigrants to another country, is it possible to try and fit in, while maintaining a semblance of authenticity?

To begin this exploration, I will share a personal failure:  After six years of living in Denmark jeg er stadig ikke flyende på dansk.  I chalk this up to a few things including age, perfectionism, and also the fact that most of my workdays are conducted in English.  When I moved to Denmark, I had high aspirations about mastering a second language.  Like most immigrants to Denmark, I enrolled in the free Danish classes and set myself to the task of learning how to pronounce vowels whose sounds I could not discriminate.  I failed miserably and even four years into my relocation to Denmark, could barely understand anyone who spoke to me.    Eventually, after a lot of hard work, I could understand people speaking to me but I still have to be able to hear them perfectly and see their lips move.  Danish, as a language, has humbled me.

Learning Danish is just one of the most obvious and noticeable ways one can try to assimilate.  Of course there are others– I know people in my position who quickly switched to neutral tones in their attire.  Others learned how to make a flæske steg.  My opinion about how much effort one should put into integration has changed over the years.


I have seen people who were very good assimilators and others who weren’t so good and I am not convinced it is necessarily the healthier thing to do, always, to ‘fit in’.   If there truly is such a notion as Donald Winnicott’s ‘true self’, then it makes some sense that parts of any given culture would resound with any given individual and other parts would not.  By extension, I think that means that there are also parts of the culture into which you were born that both would and would not ring true to your identity.  I have come around to the belief, however that, psychologically speaking, there is something sturdy and resilient about holding onto parts of yourself despite enormous pressure to do otherwise.

Anecdotally, in my practice, I have seen some people really try and fit in who became resentful and depressed.    On the other hand, you might ask, isn’t integration the respectful thing to try and do?
If I back up from Psychology and think about integration and assimilation from a more sociopolitical perspective, aren’t the nationalists of every country waging a losing battle?  We live in a global economy.  With the internet and inexpensive transportation, doesn’t our future hold more people in mixed cultural marriages and children who come from more than one culture?  Does it make logical sense, or is it just a romantic fancy to try and hold onto specific customs and traditions?  To be clear, I am equally skeptical about traditionalists from my own country as I am about the nationalists in Denmark.  It just seems to me that humans of the world could use a good lesson in embracing diversity if we are to co-inhabit a peaceful future world.  I am heartened that a certain percentage of the expat and immigrant community has started calling themselves ‘world citizens’, highlighting their loyalty first to the world, and second to the nation into which they were born.
My decidedly un-Danish sock drawer
Refocusing on the individual, of course., there is no ‘right answer’ in terms of how much one should try to integrate.  I can only share with you the conclusions I have come to which is that I have decided to continue working on my Danish pronunciation and comprehension.   But in the meantime, I’m just going continue the lifelong quest to be, in the words of Donald Winnicott, my ‘true self’.  In my case, that is someone who is a mix of Latina-US, Germanic-US, and now Danish cultures.  

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