Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide To Cultural Competence

Layer 4: Capability – Example 2


Welcome to UCL level 8!  Now that you’ve arrived, please get comfortable and take a good look at the person sitting across from you; that is, me.  You’re likely to have made some instantaneous, unconscious, and accurate assumptions about me.  You’ll quickly recognize me as a white male of average height and build, approaching the end of middle age.  Once we begin to converse, you’ll likely hear the neutral, flat, “TV” accent broadly employed by educated, mobile U.S. professionals. My vocabulary and speech patterns may reinforce your hunch that I am a credentialed professional.  And despite possible disagreements about personal style, you may assess from my clothing, phone, wristwatch (yes, I am a late-stage Baby Boomer) that I am accustomed to socio-economic stability as a member of the upper middle class.

Appearances, so far, do convey certain “truths” about me, but not the whole story.

There’s no doubt that my male gender, ethnicity (almost exclusively western European), and stable middle-class, albeit nomadic, upbringing have provided me with inherent advantages in negotiating life’s challenges, both in the U.S. and internationally. Growing up, my parents and extended family instilled virtues of hard work, perseverance, and self-reliance grounded in mainstream protestant Christianity.  This ethos served them well as they climbed, pride intact, out of Depression Era poverty in the rural West. Rationality and religious faith were viewed as compatible, essential tools in making sense of the world, while emotions were rarely acknowledged and never celebrated.  I was encouraged to make the most of my God-given talents, and when successful, I saw it as a vindication of hard work and inherent talent rather than the effects of a favorable socio-economic status. Over time, I’ve come to realize the importance, as well as limitations, of personal agency, and that learning has been accelerated by insights gained through the UCL model.

The UCL has been particularly helpful as I try to act authentically, responsibly, and compassionately while indirectly contending with mental illness. A member of my most intimate circle suffers from a mental illness, an invisible disorder with opaque processes yet very real effects.  My response to this reality was very human, that is to say, not ideal, and I continue to struggle in living up to my expectations of being a positive force in my loved one’s life. The UCL has helped me understand why it took me so long to acknowledge the symptoms of mental illness.  At first, the diagnosis did not align with my expectations of what life had to offer me and people about whom I care deeply.  On an unconscious level, I considered my loved one’s difficulties to be a passing phase. Viewed through my UCL, anything more serious would be incompatible with their inherent goodness and diligent, conscientious way of life.

Once past this unfortunate bout of ignorance, I wrestled with the practicalities of compassionate support to someone dealing with mental illness. Rationally, I would agree with therapists’ advocacy of patient, sustained treatment to effect gradual, non-linear recovery.  But on an emotional level, I repeatedly encountered feelings of frustration and anger linked to my loved one’s pace of recovery.  At times, I became angry at myself for “allowing” this illness to manifest through some fault I may have caused in our relationship.  Fortunately, these periods of delusional self-importance were infrequent and brief thanks to my wife’s talent for grounding me in reality.  More perniciously, I became angry at my loved one for the pace of their recovery (compounded by shame at my inability to act compassionately).  Through the UCL, I realized that my conscious and unconscious minds were operating on incompatible, or at least unaligned, premises.  While not exactly an amygdala “hijack”, subconsciously my UCL prompted me to expect greater willpower and agency from my loved one as they dealt with their mental illness.  After all, they enjoyed many, if not more, of the same advantages I did.  My subconscious belief that hard work and commitment were the vital antidote to most any obstacle frequently undermined my rational acceptance of medical expertise.  While UCL has helped me recognize and contend with a discrepancy between what some scholars term as my Espoused Theory and Theory in Use (Argyris & Schon, 1974) regarding mental illness, it has not resolved the fundamental tension.  I have found that recognizing the tension and knowing its source, as surfaced through use of the UCL, has allowed me to be more pragmatic in my expectations of my loved one’s recovery and more  compassionate in my interactions.