Anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems are usually considered to be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, and psychological factors. However, culture may also raise the risk of certain emotional reactions. In our recent book Borderline Personality Disorder For Dummies, we discuss the emphasis on individualism, prevalent in most Western cultures as a possible contributor to a wide range of emotional and behavioral issues.

Multiple studies have looked at how increasing people’s focus on themselves causes negative feelings and lowers the ability to solve problems. In the West, people tend to celebrate the self, move from their families in order to accelerate their careers, and lavish attention on individual accomplishments. By contrast, many traditional, Eastern cultures place more emphasis on families, communities, and interdependence. Support for one another has a central place in these cultures.

Does this cultural difference matter to people’s mental health? Well, a considerable body of research supports the view that self-absorption, a tendency to focus attention on oneself, increases the chances of having the following:

  • Anger
  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Risky behaviors
  • Self harm
  • Virtually all psychopathology

People with Borderline Personality Disorder often have a number of such symptoms. We aren’t saying that people with emotional disorders are too self absorbed. Rather, we’re suggesting that any culture which overly emphasizes individualism and personal gain may be doing so at a steep emotional cost for much of its populace.

Therefore, we often recommend that clients with emotional problems find volunteer work and other activities that connect them with people. Such work often improves their adjustment. Connections and social support may have more value than merely trying to boost self esteem. Speaking of self esteem, don’t forget to check out our free gift offer celebrating the 8th anniversary of our book “Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self Esteem Myth.”



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    Last reviewed: 29 Jul 2009

APA Reference
Elliott, C. (2009). Culture and Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2015, from


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Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. and Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. are authors of many books, including Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies and Child Psychology & Development for Dummies.

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