City Break-Ups: our attachment to hometowns and what they mean for our sense of self

Navigating our identity is cumbersome. We are asked a number of questions at a young age that are meant to define us: are you a boy or a girl? How old are you? What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you live? These questions, and our answers to these questions, undeniably stay with us throughout our lives, no matter how hard we try to define ourselves in alternative ways. But we really shouldn’t be shying away from these questions, because they actually do help define who we are, and help us form our identity. Understanding ourselves as male or female, does not necessarily mean that we have to adhere to societal constructs of what makes someone male or female, but it does help us understand who we are, from a baseline perspective, without which we could not grow and develop. What we will be discussing here is the importance of where we live and the culture that surrounds us.

Where you live is very important for your sense of self. It helps define your socio-economic status, the culture in which you developed, and even your political leanings. How can something as simple as your address define who you are, and have such a significant impact on almost all aspects of your life?

Let us start with the easiest, and most obvious aspect – your socio-economic status. The city in which you live helps define this status, which depends on job availability and accessibility. If you reside in a small town where there are not a great number of job opportunities; there is not a lot of job security, and little to no room for advancement. This lack of security will motivate you to stay in a job where you feel stressed, unmotivated, and exhausted from the amount of effort you exert, and the lack of acknowledgement you receive. There is little to no reciprocity in these kinds of careers. You feel stressed because of a lack of recognition for a job well done, and stressed because the only time you are recognized is when you have made a mistake that damages the company. These positions offer you no room for advancement because your role is to make the company significant amounts of money, while you receive little to no recognition and less than a living wage. This begins a constant cycle of struggling to make enough money to manage your life, feeling stuck in a dead-end job, and feeling no motivation. All of these things combine so you feel stressed constantly, which not only puts strain on you and your mental health, but makes it difficult to have fulfilling relationships because you tend to lash out at others. This may come across as selfish because your needs are not being fulfilled, therefore, you are constantly thinking about your needs and wants and how to fulfill them. Further, you find little to no time for yourself, and you do not have the luxury of an emotional outlet, whether that be a hobby, or a health resource such as a therapist, massage therapist, mindfulness exercises or the like.

On the other hand, those who are in a bigger city tend to have more job opportunities with more room for advancement. It is easy to see that these kinds of positions are the stark opposite of what has just been outlined above. People in these positions feel more at ease, because they are recognized for a job well done, have the opportunity to make more of a contribution, and are offered above a living wage. This leaves these individuals feeling more fulfilled; all of their basic needs have been met, and they have more time to fulfill their relationships, and themselves, through hobbies that they can afford (time and money wise), and emotional outlets. These individuals are more likely to feel a sense of pride, success, and self-esteem than those in lower paying jobs, with no advancement opportunities.

It is easy to see how your socio-economic status contributes to your sense of self. Maslow declared that based on the hierarchy of needs, we are unable to advance beyond our basic needs should they not be met (Maslow, 1943, 1954, 1962).


Here we can see that those in lower socio-economic status groups will be struggling between levels 1 and 2 almost constantly (please refer to figure 1). As you can see, levels 3 and 4 (love/belonging and esteem) are very difficult to achieve should there be other stressors keeping you from advancing. If you are unable to make enough money to buy food, and pay rent, you will be stressed, and more than likely have feelings of worthlessness. These feelings will ruminate, causing somatic symptoms to develop, and individuals to lose sleep. This loss of sleep will cause the individual to become more stressed, which will reflect in every aspect of their lives. They will find it difficult to communicate effectively with others, ultimately pushing others away (including their family and friends) making it difficult to maintain and foster current relationships. This will contribute to a persons feeling of worthlessness, which will lower their self-esteem. We can see how important our socio-economic status is in fostering our sense of self.

Our culture is another significant component in the development of our selves. Heine states that our human activity is wrapped up in cultural meanings; all of our actions and decisions are shaped by our culture (Heine, 2010). There are profound cultural differences things such as the need for self-esteem, approach-avoidance motivations, and perceptions of fairness, (Heine, 2010). Our behaviour is strongly linked to our identity – how we act, the activities we participate in, and who we associate with helps us form our sense of self. Should we be more likely to participate in sports, we will see ourselves as more athletic and we will seek out these sorts of activities. Should we be more likely to attend art galleries, paint, and write we will see ourselves as more artistic and participate in these sorts of activities in the future. The culture in which we live helps us determine the activities we will participate in. although I would like to declare that I am an artist, and I was born with an artist’s soul destined to be attracted to painting and writing; I do not believe this is the case. Perhaps my parents fostered this love in me and to some degree it was innate, but I have been motivated by my culture. Living in Ottawa there was a number of opportunities to foster this part of my self. For instance, there are a number of art galleries, my university has an excellent art history program, and there are a number of businesses which display local art. This undoubtedly motivated me to perform well. In fact there were a number of opportunities to test out new artistic mediums – painting, modeling, poetry, essays. The culture I was living in motivated me, and contributed to my understanding of my self as an artist.

This occurred in more ways than one. It was not simply that the opportunities were there, although that plays a large role, it was also the acceptance and admiration of art in all its forms. As a culture, we admire artists, and their ability to create – these feelings of acceptance and appreciation contribute to our esteem (referring back to Maslow’s hierarchy), as well as our ability to form relationships. As artists we are social creatures, drawn to people and nature, and motivated by the beauty that we see. This culture of acceptance helps us in our understanding of our selves. This does not only apply to artists. It is true for athletes, musicians, doctors, poets – anyone and everyone is influenced by their culture, especially in understanding their self.

If the culture in which we live helps define our sense of self, why is our attachments to hometown[1] felt much more strongly? I believe that this is because we not only form a better understanding of our selves through our culture, but it also makes us feel more connected and rooted. Erich Fromm (Fromm, 1997) postulated eight basic human needs, two of which are rootedness and relatedness. In fact, all eight can be attributed to how connected we feel to our hometowns,[2] but for brevity’s sake, we will focus solely on rootedness and relatedness. Our feelings of rootedness are established early on in our hometowns, and are difficult to sever. We form an intimate bond with the people in our communities, the activities our hometowns offer us, and the culture. We are like trees growing roots, forming bonds and relationships outside of the security of our family unit. This is significant in relation to our selves. We are safe and protected inside our family unit, and to find the same safety and protection outside of our family is just as imperative – because it demonstrates to us that we are able to form important bonds, and that we are able to survive on our own. This rootedness is very closely linked to our relatedness, especially when it comes to forming bonds with other people. When we form bonds with other people in our hometowns, our connection to the actual city grows even stronger. We feel a sense of belonging, and this contributes to our self-esteem, (which, if you remember from figure 1, is essential to our developing self).

What happens when we break up with a city that has been so significant in our development? We do not break down completely, we do not shatter into fragments of our former self, but we do, undoubtedly, become fragmented. A large part of our sense of self, our identity, is this city, this culture into which we have taken root. We have developed in relation to this particular city – we have found who we are in these streets, these trees, and the faces of all the people. To leave is to say goodbye to a part of who you are. That is not to say that we are no longer the person this city helped us become. No, we are still who we have come to know ourselves as, but it is the same as leaving your parent’s home and living on your own for the first time. Just as your parents home acts as a safety, a place to escape to and be your true self, so too is this city.

When we leave, we are severing ties that have been nurtured for years, ties that may never fully break. We will always feel connected to our hometowns, and I think we will always feel a small yearning to be back where we feel we belong the most. It’s where we felt our safest, our most free to express who we are, our most accepted. So when we break up with our city, we are saying goodbye to all of these things. When we move on to the next city, we will try to make the same bonds as we did before, but it will be more difficult. Because when you uproot a tree, its roots don’t grow the same as before.




Fromm, Erich. (1997). On Being Human. London: Continuum.

Heine, S. J. (2010). Cultural Psychology. Handbook of Social Psychology. John Wiley & Sons Inc. chp 37. Pp. 1423-1464.

Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self – regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766 – 794.

Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., et al. (2005). “Economic man ” in cross – cultural perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small- scale societies. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 28, 795 – 855.

Jung, C.G. (1969). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious [sic], Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.ISBN 978-0-691-09761-9

Lee, A. Y., Aaker, J. L., & Gardner, W. L. (2000). The pleasures and pains of distinct self – construals: The role of interdependence in regulatory focus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1122 – 1134.



[1]                  When I refer to hometowns, I am not simply referring to a place in which you grew up. I am also referring to the place in which you felt most at home in, the place in which you identify most strongly with.

[2]                  The eight basic needs are: relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, sense of identity, frame of orientation, excitation and stimulation, unity and effectiveness.

Inside: Dr. Harlene Anderson

Dr. Harlene Anderson is a well recognized leader in the field of marriage and family therapy, and is internationally recognized for her leading role in the development of a postmodern collaborative approach to psychotherapy. She has applied this collaborative approach to education, research and consultation. She received her B.S. and M.A. at the University of Houston, and her Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family therapy, at Union Institute and University, in Ohio. Dr. Anderson holds a number of editorial board positions including founding editor of International Journal of Collaborative Practices (2009-present), and advisory editor of Family Process (1992-present). Dr. Anderson’s most recent positions include founding member and faculty at Houston Galveston Institute (1978-present), founding member and board of directors at Taos Institute (1993-present) and founding member and principal partner at Access Success International (2002-present). She is the recipient of a number of awards which reflect her contributions to the field, including the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997, and the American Academy of Family Therapy Award for Distinguished Contribution to Family Therapy Theory and Practice, in 2008.

Below is a brief interview conducted by Taylor Bourassa with Dr. Anderson. For those who are interested in learning more, I will provide a list of references at the end of the interview.

Hello Dr. Harlene Anderson, I appreciate your taking the time to conduct this interview with me. Before we proceed to questions about your career, and your contributions to the field, I would like to acquaint my readers with you. Could you give us some insight into how your career began? What about Psychology interested you so that motivated you to dedicate your life’s work to the field?

Very simply that as long as I can remember I have always wanted to help people in one way or another – I came from a very generous family with parents who always noticed people who needed help and provided it or found the resources as best they could.

You are a leading figure in family and marriage therapy, but before we delve into all of your contributions to both therapies, could you elaborate on why you chose this area of specialization? Was there a particular catalyst that helped you make your decision?

By serendipity. I began a position in the Pediatric Department at the Un. of Texas Medical School in Galveston, TX. As soon as I arrived on campus, I began hearing about something called family therapy – always spoken about with a lot of enthusiasm. I had never heard of family therapy in my undergraduate (BS) or graduate (MA) psychology program. I enrolled in a family therapy course to find out what all the buzz was about. In the first session, I realized that I found something that I didn’t know I had been looking for – and the beginnings of a new language, that upon reflection, to make sense of some of my previous professional experiences.

Dr. Harold Goolishian and yourself developed collaborative therapy. This approach is quite interesting, and offers more flexibility within therapy sessions, offering the client more control, and more breathing room. To me, this approach is reminiscent of Carl Rogers’ client-centered approach. Would you say that this therapy was influenced by Rogers’ humanistic approach in any way?

I am often asked this question. I was not influenced by Rogers as his work was not part of my graduate program. There are some similarities and definitely some distinctions. Please refer your readers to and article that elaborates on this response:

Anderson, H. (2001) Postmodern collaborative and person-centered therapies: What would Carl Rogers say? Journal of Family Therapy. 23:339-360.

Could you elaborate on the structure of this approach, and its typical process?

A response to this question requires a lot of elaboration. The approach, rather than being based in techniques and methods, is based in what I call a “philosophical stance.” The stance is based in postmodern and related premises (social construction theory, contemporary hermeneutic philosophy, and some theories of language and dialogue. The premises are based in a strong focus on knowledge and language as relational and generative rather than as static and representative. The stance has several interrelated features that combined serve as an action-orienting guide. This belief/value framework influences the way that therapists and other professionals think about the people they work with, themselves, and what they do together. Each person or group of people we meet with in our work is viewed as a new unique encounter that calls forth a unique relationship and process.

It is interesting to note that this approach does not rely on DSM diagnostic criteria for diagnosing and treating individuals. Is there any specific reason this was determined as a necessary part of the approach?

The approach was originally developed in the psychiatry department of a medical school, and its roots date back to the later 1950s, so it was developed within a medical model of diagnoses and treatment. My colleagues and I took notice of how “patients” were treated as a diagnosis, and not a unique person. In other words, the diagnosis was sitting in front of them, not a unique human being – so what was familiar was noticed and sought. The novelty and nuances of the person and their unique situation/circumstances were not seen nor heard. In other words, the familiar blinded seeing and hearing the unfamiliar.

 Stemming from the decision to not rely on the DSM, would you also say that medication then, is not relied on as heavily as it is in other approaches? Would you agree that medication is necessary for treating some symptoms, but the over-reliance on medication may in fact, damage the client more so than help them?

Of course, sometimes medications are helpful.

Stepping away from the collaborative approach for a moment, you are a co-founder of the Galveston Family Institute at the Houston Galveston Institute. What was it like developing and contributing to such an important resource for mental health professionals?

It was then and is now very stimulating – provides various forums and colleagues within and with whom to be in conversation with – to reflect on and challenge ideas and practices.

Since the institute has been established, you have continued to contribute significantly to the field, through writing, workshops and conferences. One interesting event I need to mention is the International summer institute. What are some of the activities and workshops one would typically experience while attending this weeklong learning conference?

The International Summer Institute (ISI) is a collaborative learning community in action. It is week of immersion in collaborative-dialogic practices. Participants come from various professional, cultural and language contexts. The various focuses of the week are influenced by participants’ interests and agendas – there is always a combination of focus on the application of the ideas and practices in therapy, education, research, consulting/coaching and organizations.

There is a balance of plenary/didactic presentations, conversation clusters to discuss the presentations and etc, self-organize dialogue spaces around topics participants want to delve into more, experiential exercises and demonstrations of the practice with clients during the week. There is ample time for people to network, continue to talk and share about ideas and practices, and to enjoy the culture, food, etc of the Mexican Mayan Riviera.

We pay careful attention in selecting the venue for the ISI as physical space and ambience a critical part of “setting the stage” for a collaborative learning community. There is always a rich mixture of participants – some quite experienced professors and researchers, some who are mainly practitioners (though teaching and research are practices), some with little experienced either professionally or with the ideas and practices, and some students. My colleagues and I find that heterogeneity in learning groups invites a richer learning experience, and the participants echo this in their evaluations.

For more information, please refer your readers to:

Your writing is some of the most compelling I have had the opportunity to read. One article in particular that is of interest to me is Some Notes on Listening, Hearing and Speaking And the Relationship to Dialogue in which you demonstrate the importance of communication, and having a space for dialogue. This is so fundamental to therapy. In this article you say: “Wittgenstein talked of relationship and conversation going hand-in hand: the kinds of conversations that we have with each other inform and form the kinds of relationships we have with each other and vice versa.” This demonstrates the importance of developing a therapeutic alliance with your client. Would you argue that the most essential aspect of successful therapy is this therapist-client relationship? And that this relationship stems predominantly from the way we listen to and act towards the client?

I think that the relationship is important, and I think most research that accesses client voices/feedback agrees. The way we meet and greet, and the way we respond with others is critical to the relationship. The relationship is not something that is created at the beginning of the engagement, but something that must be attended to throughout.

 You mention that most unsuccessful therapy was due to the client not feeling as though they had been heard. Would you propose that listening skills could, and should be taught to therapists, in order to offer a more successful therapy experience for clients?

Not necessarily “listening skills” but the notion of responsive listening . Please refer your readers to the work of psychologist/philosopher John Shotter and literary critic/philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin.

I like to ask this of all persons I interview, as a closing statement more so than anything. If you were to give future Psychologists one piece of advice, what would it be?

Hold what you think you might now in “parentheses”. In other words, always be a reflective practitioner: be questioning of inherited knowledge, be careful of the risks of generalizing, and have an awareness of the importance of the local knowledge (the resources–customs, culture, language, history, beliefs, etc,) that each person we work with brings with them to our encounter. We are always both a momentary and transitional ‘host’ and ‘guest’ in the lives of the people we work with.

Taylor, thank you for your interest in my work and for this opportunity to respond to your questions. I send my warmest greetings to you and your readers.

Selected References: 

Anderson, H., Goolishian, H., & Winderman, L. (1986) Problem determined systems: Towards transformation in family therapy. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies. 5(4):1-13.

Anderson, H. (1987) Therapeutic impasses: A break-down in conversation. A presentation at Grand Rounds, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital Boston, MA. April 1986 and at the Society for Family Therapy Research, Boston, MA, October, 1986.

Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. (1988) Human systems as linguistic systems: Evolving ideas about the implications for theory and practice. Family Process 27:371-393.

Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. (1992) The client is the expert: A not-knowing approach to therapy. In S. McNamee & K.J. Gergen (Eds.) Therapy as Social Construction. Sage Publications: Newbury Park, CA.

Anderson, H. & Swim, S. (1993) Learning as collaborative conversation: Combining the student’s and the teacher’s expertise. Human Systems: The Journal of Systemic Consultation and Management. 4:145-160.

Anderson, H. (1994) Rethinking family therapy: A delicate balance. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 20(2):145-150.

Anderson, H. (1998) Collaborative learning communities. In. S. McNamee & J.K. Gergen (Eds.). Relational Responsibility. Sage Publications: Newbury Park, CA. Anderson, H. (1997) Conversation, Language, and Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach to Therapy. New York: Basic Books.

Anderson, H. (1999) Reimagining family therapy: Reflections on Minuchin’s invisible family. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 25(1):1-8.

Anderson, H. (2000) Supervision as a collaborative learning community. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Supervision Bulletin. Fall 2000:7-10.

Anderson, H. (2000) Becoming a postmodern collaborative therapist: a clinical and theoretical journey. Pat I. Journal of the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 3(1):5-12.

Anderson, H. (2003). A postmodern collaborative approach to theraphy: Broadening the possibilities of clients and therapists. In Ethically challenged professions: Enabling innovation and diversity in psychotherapy and counseling. In Y. Bates & R. House (Eds.). PCCS Books: Herefordshisre, UK.

Anderson, H. (2005). Myths about not knowing. Family Process, 44, 497–502.

Anderson, H. & Gehart, D. (Eds.). (2007). Collaborative practice: Relationships and conversations that make a difference. New York: Routledge.

Anderson, H. & Jensen, P. (Eds.). (2007. Innovations in the reflecting process: The inspiration of Tom Andersen. London: Karnac Books.

Anderson, H., Cooperrider, D.,  Gergen,M, Gergen, K., McNamee, S.,  Watkins, J M., and Whitney, D. (2008). The Appreciative Organization. Taos Institute Publications.

Anderson, H. (2008). Collaborative therapy. In K. B. Jordon (Ed.), The theory reference guide: a quick resource for expert and novice mental health professionals. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Anderson, H. (2009). Collaborative practice: Relationships and conversations that make a difference. In J. Bray & M. Stanton (Eds.). The Wiley handbook of family psychology. (pp.300-313).

Anderson, H. (2012). Collaborative practice: A way of being ‘with’. Psychotherapy and  Politics International. 10, 1002.

Anderson, H. (2012). Collaborative relationships and dialogic conversations: Ideas for a relationally responsive therapy. Family Process. 52(1): 8-24.

Anderson, H. (2014). Rethinking psychotherapy: Collaborative-dialogue. Psychology Aotearoa. Auckland, New Zealand: 6(2): 87-92. November 2014.

Anderson, H. (2014). Tips for how to have a good assistant. Silver Fox Advisors.

Anderson, H. (2014). Collaborative-dialogue based research as everyday practice: Questioning our myths. In G. Simon & A. Chard, Eds. Systemic Inquiry: Innovations in Reflexive Practice Research. Everything is Connected Press.

Anderson, H. (2015). Collaborative therapy. In Sage Encyclopedia of Theory of Counseling and Psychotherapy. (E. Neukrug, Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.