Navigating Multiple Identities: How to Cope and Thrive Without Losing Yourself

By: Marcelo L. Garcia and Esha Abrol

Most people have multiple identities and group memberships within which they find meaning. For example, it is not uncommon for someone to be a father/mother, a husband/wife, a brother/sister, an athlete, a musician and an engineer – all at the same time. Just to complicate things, that person might also belong to a specific cultural or religious group. In a world of constant flux, holding multiple identities can provide numerous benefits such as opportunities for personal growth, meaningful social interactions and economic mobility. But navigating multiple identities can be quite challenging at times, especially in cases of identity interference, i.e., where the pressures of one’s inherited identity suddenly start interfering with the development, performance, or expression of another equally legitimate newly formed identity.

In our view, the most challenging case of identity interference derives from one’s inherited cultural identity . Because culture tends to affect the way in which we play our multiple roles in society and is based on pre-determined group expectations, it is easy to feel trapped as we try to move forward in our life as individuals. More often than not, identity stakeholders – that is parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, teachers, and even spiritual leaders – will seek to have a disproportionate influence in our decision-making processes. For example, kids born in families where professional careers were valued may feel oppressed if they are naturally oriented towards the arts or entrepreneurship.

Identity stakeholders are entities with influencing roles in our lives, such as : parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, teachers, and even spiritual leaders.

In this article we’d like to put the spotlight on the children of those parents who decided to immigrate to another country in search of a better future. Those children – who were raised or born outside of their parents’ culture of origin – might sometimes feel out of place or profoundly conflicted when choosing their own path in life. The objective of this blog post is to share perspectives and provide tools that will help anyone dealing with cultural identity stakeholders to pursue the path to empowerment and the development of one’s personal identity.

In our view, the identity challenges that, we, first- and second-generation immigrants face on a daily basis are tremendously overlooked. Whether at work, in school, or in our social and personal life, we often feel torn between two or more cultural identities and extremely confused about the direction we should take in our lives. For example, where are we supposed to draw the line between personal autonomy (our own choices) and respect for the traditions, customs and paradigms inherited from our identity stakeholders? How do we tell our immigrant parents that we are not necessarily interested in becoming doctors, lawyers or engineers, but artists and entrepreneurs? How should we manage the possible backlash that might result when we start dating – or perhaps even decide to marry – someone outside our own culture of origin?

Trapped between our sense of loyalty and our inner desire to become the main architects of our lives, most of us often lack the tools and guidance to face those challenges with courage and composure. In some cases, we might feel entangled in false dichotomies (i.e., good v. bad, right v. wrong), perhaps suffocated by stakeholder-driven guilt, or simply confused. There is even a chance we might have felt the impulse to engage in self-destructive behaviours like delaying getting on with our r lives because we feel undecided about what is the “right path”. Some of us might have decided to reject our inherited cultural background altogether because we feel overly oppressed. Some of us might have even opted “to buy peace”  by  conforming – at least in public or in front of our parents – to a cultural paradigm or life style that is not fully ours.

To buy peace is a short-term solution to a conflict whereby person A does or does not something (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) in exchange of peace (not being pressured or bothered by person B). Buying peace, however, does not solve the underlying conflict.


In our view, none of those behaviours are constructive in the long-run. They can soon become destructive for all the parties involved and create a lot of grief and in some cases fuel further conflict. We believe that the win-win solution lies on developing the tools to make our your own choices in life while preserving good relations with our your stakeholders, especially those with whom we you share close ties like our your parents and siblings. Over the long-run the idea is for you to develop the confidence to deal successfully with our your conflicting loyalties and multiple identities. We believe that being proactive in managing potential conflicts is the best solution for to building inner strength, self-confidence, and courage to make decisions for yourself and realize our your full potential. These are some tools we’d like to offer you:

1. Understand that rules are built on principles and focus the discussion on the principles: Don’t waste time debating the rules!

If your stakeholders are unwilling to support a certain path you want to pursue, whether it relates to your career, education or personal life, do your best to demonstrate that your path addresses somehow their overarching concern. The challenge will be to identify their concern, but once you do you will be in a better position to establish a constructive dialogue with them. For example, if your parents are preoccupied about your financial security (the principle), they might try to push for the idea that becoming a doctor or a lawyer are the only worthy pursuits for you (the rule). If that is the case, take the opportunity to show them that you have also considered financial security when choosing your career. Unless they are unreasonable, your parents probably just want to make sure that you are thinking about the importance of financial stability as you are making career choices for yourself and be creative. Do not argue with your identity stakeholders whether it is a good idea to drink water (the principle) – it is good for you and no one could argue against it!  Simply explain to them that you prefer drinking water out of a crystal glass (your decision) instead of a cup like they suggest.

2. Be proactive: Short-term bumps are better than long-term crises

Being proactive about informing your stakeholders about your life choices requires constant efforts and ultimately pays-off. For example, if you know that some decisions you are about to make are likely to create discomfort among your stakeholders, it’s always a good idea to prepare them well in advance by slowly initiating them to your new world view and sending them periodic hints that things are shifting on your side. The last thing you want to do is to shock them or challenge them. You want to come across as someone who is acting consciously and authentically. So make a plan on how your will inform them about your life choices (i.e., career, education, relationships, life style, etc.) and do so gradually, even if you know you will encounter some resistance at the beginning. Short-term bumps are better than full-fledged conflict.

3. Assert yourself at the outset: Be firm, yet avoid hostility

If you commit to being proactive in dealing with your stakeholder’s agenda or paradigm, you will inevitably find some resistance. Levels of resistance can range from manipulation, heated arguments, to direct threats. The best attitude to adopt when facing hostility is to remain calm. You do not want to succumb to your stakeholders’ hostility and respond with the same or even higher levels of hostility.

The assertion comes from informing your most influential stakeholders of your new life choice in a composed way and avoiding arguing with them. The goal is not to convince them that you are right or that they are wrong. Rather than getting into those types of “win-lose” arguments, stick to your guns and be respectful when you do so. Be firm and convey confidence without arrogance.

4. Set boundaries during the process: Do not accept unreasonable or unfair behaviour

Once you start managing the relationship with your stakeholders, you might encounter unreasonable or unfair behaviour. In such cases, it is important that you set boundaries. This is probably the hardest thing to do for those first- and second-generation immigrants that come from very traditional cultures where deference to family or their elders is an absolute value. It is not an easy shift. Your stakeholders have the right to disagree with your life choices. At the same time, your stakeholders are not perfect and sometimes they can be wrong, be unreasonable and unfair. If you are treated unfairly or unreasonably, tell them you will not accept that kind of treatment because you care about the health of your relationship with them. If they insist, distance yourself. It is extremely important that your stakeholders understand that you want to communicate in a civil and mature way. It will add to your credibility and improve your chances of success in the long-run.

5. Help your cause: Be thankful and loving

Be loving to your close stakeholders at all times, especially when you are in the process of being firm with them and setting boundaries. In the case of parents, some of them have difficulties letting go of their children. For some reason they think that we still belong to them when we become adults. Remind them how thankful you are for all the things they’ve done for you. Tell them you love them dearly. The idea is for you to develop a loving relationship with your parents and other stakeholders while asserting your autonomy and living your life fully.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
Steve Jobs

Disclaimer: The contents of this post are merely opinions of the authors intended to provide general guidance and provoke constructive discussion, and are not intended to provide or substitute professional advice.



About the authors: 

About Marcelo: Marcelo has spent much time in multicultural environments all across Canada over the past few years. Thanks to his continuous involvement in community initiatives and professional organizations, he has developed a first-hand understanding of the many inter-generational issues and cultural clashes that arise between immigrant parents and the younger generation of children raised or born in Canada. Marcelo’s cultural roots can be found in the narrower and longest strip of land in South America, and traced back to the lands of Al-Andalus, a province of the historical Caliphate of Cordoba. A few years after his parents decided to move to hedonistic Montreal, he became interested in China’s rise as a global superpower and decided to study political economy in Vancouver. He subsequently worked in corporate Toronto as a lawyer in the area of intellectual property law, and more recently he moved to Ottawa where he provides legal and economic advice on airline industry and business competition. He maintains a solid cross-fit training routine and likes to enjoy the curative powers of mineral waters and balneotherapy. He can be contacted at: marcelo.garcia.rosales(at)


About Esha: Please see “About Esha” page.



Esha Abrol, Marcelo Garcia © January 2014


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