Raised as an Iranian woman

As I was grading a student paper for a psychology course I’m teaching, I kept thinking about how the student who wrote the paper was so quiet during the lectures, never talking or volunteering for any of the class activities. Not that she neglected her studies academically; when I asked her a direct question, she always referred to the readings, reasonably supporting her responses with the class material I had provided.

Thinking about this student, I remembered how when I was a student myself I was always quiet in class or in seminars. I sat there like the studious immigrant graduate student that I was, reviewing my own answer to a question, rehashing and restating it in my mind without ever saying anything out loud.

It was in one of the individual supervision meetings that my clinical professor said to me, “Sherri, I hardly ever see you participating in class; I want you to know that what you have to say is nothing less than what others say; I am interested in hearing you speak more and share your thoughts.”

Looking back at my frame of mind in those days, I see that I did not trust myself and didn’t have the self-reliance or courage to share my thoughts with peers. And when I did bring myself to share, I am not sure if I was even aware to what extent my upbringing and culture got in the way of honest responses.

One day, during this supervision class, we were discussing the issue of a psychologist being sexually attracted to his/her patient. I remember feeling uncomfortable with the responses and reactions shared by fellow students. Maybe because they were younger than I was, they were not as committed to the process of therapy, I thought. Even though their thinking seemed quite rational to me, the mere fact that they so matter-of-factly accepted the possibility of being sexually attracted to a patient appalled me. They responded casually as though they had been asked to discuss any other subject in the field of psychology. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, our professor asked me: “Sherri, what are your thoughts about this? How do you think you would react if you find yourself attracted to a patient?” And I immediately heard myself say, “This is not going to happen to me; I AM NOT going to feel attracted to a male patient; no, I’m not.”

Today, I can see how my adamant response was due to the restriction I felt, and how far I must have been from my feelings, my only human feelings. I felt very put on the spot. How dare they ask me this question? Somehow it felt like they were questioning my personal integrity. I was not raised as an emotionally free human being and was not supposed to have unacceptable feelings. No, this was not going to happen to me. I can see how I was judging myself through my projections on the rest of the students. Denial is one of the most primitive defenses that we have, and I was making it easier for myself by strongly denying the fact that I had feelings and that I might feel vulnerable at times. The criteria and the structure that I created for myself based on my Iranian culture and experiences did not allow me to be anything other than what I was expected to be.

Even as I was recovering from that first question, our professor fired another one at me, “Sherri, do you think your response is influenced by your culture?”

Of course he was right on. Because of my background and being raised as a woman in an Iranian culture, I didn’t even allow myself the possibility of being in a situation that I might be attracted to a man who was my patient, or any man for that matter!

Back to grading the student paper, my thoughts dragged me to an even earlier memory when I was working at my brother’s photo shop before I started school in early 1990s. One day one of our regular American customers brought in a roll of film to be developed and, during the transaction, turned to my brother and said: “I want to ask your sister out.” Before my brother could say anything, I turned to the man and snapped, “Do you know how old my son is? He is 11!” The poor American man looked very confused and replied, “So?”

I was insulted by the American customer’s request and felt disrespected, especially in the presence of my brother. What if my brother thought I did something to prompt that request or gave an indication that I was interested in this man? This was a customer with whom we both got along. We respected and liked him and had several friendly discussions about our views and understanding of what was happening in the world. I was so glad no one else was in the shop at the time he made this remark.

At the time my late Iranian husband and I were raising our two young children. And yes we were going through a difficult time in our relationship. This situation may have made me hyper protective of my family against the possibility of an extra-marital affair, which I judged to be too common among Americans. Looking back after years of training as a psychologist in California, I realize that immigrant men and women from the Middle East experience the changes differently. In my lectures I try to emphasize this point. Men usually experience a sense of loss–loss of control, privileges, and status. On the contrary, women experience a sense of opportunity, freedom and possibilities. The same had happened to my late husband and me. More and more I acted as a curious observer who was soaking up learning opportunities like a sponge, and it strained our marriage when I felt that he acted unmotivated and disinterested in the new changes in his life, regretting the missed opportunities in the old country.

As I said, maybe the new possibilities were still scary for me at the time, and my rude rejection of the American man happened because a polite rejection was not yet in my repertoire. I am still not sure! What I am sure about is the pressure and judgment I inflicted upon myself, and how harshly I did it. It makes me feel sad today even thinking about it.

As a woman, a certain part of me must have felt complimented and flattered by the American man, but I was distanced and removed from that part of me and couldn’t acknowledge that his request had felt good at some level. My abruptness in rejecting him resembled my adamant answer in the group supervision class. It proves that, for me, the external cultural values and responsibilities were much greater and more influential than the internal force of being a human and acknowledging my own feelings. I feel sad today for not being aware of my feelings during that period. But I also feel proud of my potential to grow and gain insight about how I continue to change throughout my life.

Before moving on to grading the next student, I found myself writing these words on the paper I had just finished reading,

“Celina, I hardly see you participating in class; I want you to know that what you have to say is nothing less than what others say. I am interested in hearing you speak more and share your thoughts.”

I felt fortunate to inspire my student as my professor inspired me.

Sheri Nader is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist.

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