The Borders We Build in Our Minds

Most, if not all of us, go about our day-to-day lives making decisions based on a thought process. This thought process might be built upon the thoughts of things we know and are familiar with, or simply thoughts of what makes us comfortable. 

We often give these thoughts life, and using them as bricks and stones, we build walls in our minds that eventually become borders. The difficulty with these mental borders is that they cannot be crushed easily; it takes time to bring them down, sometimes a week, maybe a month, but often a lifetime. 

The power of mental borders also lies in our constant internalization of how true or untrue they are. What do I think of myself as I start each day? How do people perceive me as I interact with them during the day? And how and what do I think of as an immigrant in America, I have asked myself these questions and grappled with many mental borders. When you travel across physical borders such as countries and continents, you often find yourself traveling across mental borders. You start to ask simple questions with complex answers. “Where is home?” “Who am I in this new land to which I immigrated?” “How do I live my life in this new country that I have to learn to call home?” As I reflect on the day’s activities, when I lie in bed at night in the privacy of my thoughts? What questions am I constantly asking myself without even realizing how those questions make me feel about myself?

One of the biggest mental borders is built upon the expectations of life in a new country. When I leave the home that I have known for most of my life, what awaits me in this new country? We often construct our expectations along preconceptions—the stories, experiences, and biases of others who have been there before us and have either succeeded or failed—what we forget, however, is that each journey is different and every single border demands a different approach. 

Before I moved to America, I learned that the expectation of life in a new country is usually connected to a certain definition of success in that country. In my mind, moving to America meant limitless opportunities to pursue various interests and possibilities, which translated into avenues for success. While success in this case meant the traditional higher education level or socioeconomic status, it also meant the ability to open my mind up to possibilities I could not have previously imagined. I could experience the life I had seen on the media by traveling, meeting new people, and gaining unique experiences.

However, when I moved to America, I learned that success could be defined in different ways. For an African immigrant, it could mean the ability to provide financial support to family left behind in one’s country. It could also mean the ability to help other recent arrivals of immigrants to get their life started in America. I found that it really comes down to each person’s unique perspective on life and what success means on an individual level. Many times, however, our definitions of success are influenced by our families, friends, or communities.

The pressure that comes with achieving these definitions of success becomes a mental border itself. As immigrants, we tend to have thoughts and self-talk that affect our self-perception. If I set a goal to buy a home within 15 years of living in America and find that I have not achieved this goal within this timeframe, I might tell myself I am unsuccessful. If I have many financial obligations and have not sent financial support to family members back home, I might think I am unsuccessful—I need to work harder and to support my family. If most of my friends have gone back to school for graduate degrees, I might feel the pressure to go back to school as well. If my family is expecting an achievement of me that I have not yet accomplished, I might convince myself that I am not doing something right.

By focusing on the pressure that comes with these mental borders, we tend to lose ourselves to our thoughts. We start to compare our achievements to those of others and start to think we are not working as hard or as fast as we should. We start to place ourselves in the timelines of other people’s lives and use this as a standard for what we need to achieve. Without understanding the unique sets of experiences along each person’s journey, we might make uninformed conclusions and build borders that should not exist in our minds.

Rather than inspiring us, this process might cause demotivation. We might make decisions out of the need to fulfill expectations set by the people around us. When I enroll in a graduate program to appease my family, but not fully out of my own interest, I might get frustrated when I realize how uninterested I am a few months in. Similarly, when I pursue a career that no one else in my family has pursued, I might feel like I am not pursuing the right career. 

This becomes even more apparent when we realize that there are only a few immigrants who might be pursuing our interests or career tracks. When I get to a point in my career where I am the only immigrant at my workplace or in my position, I might, for a second, question whether I belong. And even when I convince myself that I belong in this specific position, it might take me a while to fully come to terms with it—after all, I am the only immigrant who has treaded this path. 

I might desire to find another immigrant with whom to connect. One with whom I can have a conversation about the burden of financially providing for my family back home. I might desire to find a fellow immigrant with whom I can share my concerns about succeeding in my role so that I can inspire fellow African immigrants in my community. And most of all, I might just desire to find another immigrant who has mental borders like mine, or perhaps, strikingly different. It may not even have to be a fellow immigrant, but someone who would understand the mental borders I am struggling with.

While these mental borders are difficult to transcend, I think that it helps to have a thought process built on unlearning and relearning thought patterns and attitudes. This also comes down to educating ourselves about the different mental borders that the people around us deal with. For example, it helps me to understand that my parents might be worried about me pursuing a specific career because they have not interacted with anyone in that career. As such, they might be worried about the prospects of success in a career to which they have had little exposure. Likewise, if my parents understand the depth of my interest in a specific career, they might appreciate just how excited I am about pursuing this career.

It also helps to understand that the immigrant journey is constantly evolving, and what worked today might not work tomorrow. By learning to be comfortable where it might seem uncomfortable, we can understand our strengths and limitations, and focus on the opportunities we can utilize to transcend these mental borders we deal with. While we certainly cannot avoid mental borders, we can learn ways to slowly chip away at the bricks and stones that form these borders.

Timothy Musoke

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