Asian American Mental Health
Asian American Cultural Values, the Obstacles they can Become in Our Mental Health, and How to Overcome These Obstacles
Asian Americans have a distinct set of values and traditions. We place strong importance in family, parenting, education, financial success and security, and conforming to social norms and traditions. It is helpful to understand the values that reinforce our Asian American culture.
For each of the cultural values: I provide a) Definition of the value, b) Ways the value can become obstacles in our mental health, c) How to overcome the obstacle, d) A counterbalancing value in which we often swing like a pendulum to counter the value. If left unchecked, we may overcorrect our values and swing too far in the other direction, and e) An example.
Value: The importance of giving a group priority over each individual in it.
Obstacle: Your individual problems are not worth addressing at the cost of your family reputation. Whatever struggle you may be having, it is a small price to pay for your family’s success. “Suck it up. Don’t talk about it (at least not to anyone outside our family).”
How to overcome it: The ability to resolve issues will reflect positively on your family. You can bring honor to your family through maturity and growth. You are a valuable asset and can contribute to your community. Your individual wellness and growth can contribute to your collective self-esteem.
Counterbalance: Individualism is being self-governed and basing your self-esteem on your own abilities and achievements.
Example: Matt comes from a well-established family in the Chinese American community. His parents are professionals, and his two siblings are successful. However, Matt experiences setbacks in his post-grad 20’s. Instead of intervening to help, the family ostracizes Matt for not being more successful at this point of his life.
Duty & Obligation
Value: The moral commitment to perform in order to meet your parent’s, family’s, elder’s expectations.
Obstacle: Everything is fine as long as I am meeting my parents’ expectations, but if I have problems, that means that my parents have failed. To seek help means that I am ungrateful for all of the sacrifices made and privileges provided for me by my parents.
How to overcome it: Clarifying your parents’ expectations of you and your own expectations for yourself helps address the pressures we put on ourselves. We can set boundaries when the expectations are unrealistic.
Counterbalance: Personal rights is to do things based on my own convictions and responsibility to myself.
Example: Sarah wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Because that’s what her parents told her growing up. She studies premed in college, takes the MCATs, applies for med school, and then has a moment of crisis deciding which med school she wants to attend. She considers applying for law school or becoming a pharmacist instead. Because her parents suggested those as alternatives. For the past 25 years of her life, Sarah has never answered for herself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
Value: A relational structure in which people are ranked above and below the other, typically based on age, accomplishments, or profession.
Obstacle: We may have the need to follow our elders advice, even when it’s wrong advice. The motivation to seek and earn our elders’ approval. The dismissal of outside professional opinions because they are not our elders.
How to overcome it: Respecting our elders does not mean we need to do everything they tell us to do. You can honor your elders by listening, considering their options and perspectives, and dialoguing with them respectfully. Every person is human and has unique gifts and insights even in a hierarchical social structure.
Counterbalance: Equality questions authority, believes rules lead to conformity, and pushes inferiority and superiority to be more equal because it believes everyone has equal status.
Example: Most 1st generation Asian-owned businesses have examples of hierarchical dynamics between owner, managers, and employees.
Value: The expectation for children to respect their parents (even if it’s unearned), and for adult children to care for their elderly parents.
Obstacle: Living for our parents’ happiness at the expense of our own. Deprioritizing our marriages and children, out of loyalty for our parents’ needs.
How to overcome it: As often parentified children, we need to strategically help our parents increase their internal locus of control. “Mom/Dad, while it is natural for you to be happy when we are happy, your entire life cannot be based on our lives. You need to have a life of your own, part from us, go live out your life.” Teach your parents about emotional health. Teach your parents about healthy relational boundaries. Brainstorm with your parents: retirement plans, hobbies, social groups to join, and healthcare resources. Prioritize your nuclear family: Your marriage and children first, and then allocate your time and resources accordingly to your parents.
Counterbalance: Autonomy is the right to govern yourself without the influence of others.
Example: Lisa is married with two young children. Her parents are retired and independent. But one day, Lisa’s dad suffers a heart attack. She knows her kids need her, but she considers relocating her family to be closer to her parents for her dad’s recovery. Her husband is willing to consider options to help their parents, but they are unsure of where to draw the line in caring for their aging parents: “Do we live together?, Is assisted living an option?”
Value: The practice of yielding to a person out of respect, passivity, politeness, and submission.
Obstacle: The inability to directly communicate “I statements” (I feel, I want, I think). The repression of our thoughts, feelings, and desires.
How to overcome it: Asking and answering for ourselves, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What do I want? What do I think? What am I feeling? Why do I feel that way?”. Being tactful, soft yep clear on your own thoughts, feelings, and desires can lead to healthier relationships.
Counterbalance: Self-assertion is the ability to express oneself openly.
Example: Tim is an active teenager. He is social at school and at his many after school activities. However, Tim feels dissatisfied with his social life. He wonders if his friends really like him for who he is, or like him just because of his consistent willingness to defer to them. He is always willing to host when they need a place to hang, always deferring to what they want to do. Tim wants to move beyond the transactional aspect of his relationships, be his authentic self, giving his own opinions, and feel closer and more secure in his friendships.
Value: The social norm of self-effacement, being modest, accepting one's flaws, not drawing attention to oneself.
Obstacle: We can develop an inferiority complex which leads to and oscillate with a superiority complex when we place too much of our identity in our insecurities.
How to overcome it: We can be confident in both our strengths and weaknesses. We need to balance out the negative aspects we see in ourselves with positive qualities.
Counterbalance: Confidence is knowing your strengths and abilities.
Example: Lisa is a natural born leader. She takes initiative, solves problems, and rallies people to work together. She has developed as a leader with her peers, and is starting to be recognized for her abilities at her workplace. As she steps into her new leadership role at work, she begins to question her leadership abilities, if her team is really in tune with her goals, if she is being too authoritative, or if she needs to step down altogether.
Value: The value of being thrifty with money or materials; avoiding waste and excess.
Obstacle: To spend money and time on therapy, to just talk to somebody, is wasteful. You can save that money. Mental health is a first world problem.
How to overcome it: Addressing your mental health is a good financial investment. You will receive a good return for your time and money if you spend money receiving mental health care. If you address unmet childhood needs, repressed memories and emotions, reframe negative thinking patterns and cognitive distortions, learn coping, organizational, executive functioning, and stress management skills, and establish a stable emotional life, then you will experience more happiness, productivity, and meaningful relationships and experiences in your life. The value of frugality cultivates a scarcity mindset: “that we don’t have enough”, and “we can’t spend in excess”. Instead, an abundance growth mindset says: “we have enough”, “we can invest to grow in other areas to be a well-rounded person.”
Counterbalance: Excess is spending and living in a way that is more than necessary.
Example: Greg is living the American dream success story. He immigrated from Asia to the U..S. to earn his degree. He has had a long and successful career. He is married and his children are grown and have families of their own. He has 7 healthy grandchildren. His finances are all in order and he has plenty to live off of, yet he still has a scarcity mindset regarding his financial practices. Some may say he is a good “saver”, but he won’t buy anything beyond basic necessities and looks down on those who do. He criticizes society’s consumerism and the capitalistic push of always needing to buy more.
Value: To recognize and express respect for a person.
Obstacle: You do not want to be dishonored by admitting you have problems. You want to be honored by (appearing to) having it all together and successful.
How to overcome: There is honor in knowing yourself accurately and clearly. There is honor in reconciling relationships, overcoming and maturing from hardships.
Counterbalance: Privilege is the benefit of being able to do something. Instead of emphasizing the need to honor someone, you are focused on what you get to do.
Example: Peter was a normal guy. He earned his college degree from a state university, and had a stable job. But as he got into his 30’s, Peter’s friends got married and started having kids. Peter would date, but his romantic relationships never got serious. By the time he hit his 40s, the perpetual people asking him when he was going to get married, started to affect him. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, but he felt like something was wrong. He started pulling away from his family. He felt like his presence brought dishonor to his family.
Value: The practice of shaming a person for not fulfilling an expectation.
Obstacle: You see yourself as "I am inferior, broken, unfixable, unloveable, less than, inadequate", so you do not see the possibility of healing, growth, or a positive self-esteem.
How to overcome: Understanding the difference between guilt (What you’ve done, “I made a mistake”) vs. shame (Who you are, “I am bad”) helps you establish a healthier self-esteem. Viewing shame as an emotion to be processed instead of a social construct of who you are, helps remove the burden of shame. Processing the baggage of regrets helps unburden the past and move us forward in life.
Counterbalance: Authenticity means being worthy of acceptance, flaws and all.
Example: Jim received a call into ministry in college and followed it. He received his M.Div. from seminary, was ordained in his denomination, and was called to serve at a local church. During his first pastorate, he was single and began a sexual relationship with one of his church members. When the relationship was discovered, he was disqualified for Gospel ministry due to the premarital sexual relationship. Although he repented, ended the relationship, went to counseling, and is no longer a pastor, Jim cannot move on from the shame of this failure.
Value: To act in a way to preserve your position in society, by striving to earn respect and honor. “Loss of face” is no longer being respected by people because of something you did.
Obstacle: You avoid addressing your mental health needs because it means acknowledging and admitting your weaknesses. Instead of receiving the help you need, you cover up your issues in order to save face.
How to overcome it: Instead of saving face and trying to avoid the problem, address it, face it, talk about, deal with it, and work through it. The confidentiality of therapy provides the safety that you can address your issues privately. Counterbalance: Vulnerability is the willingness to reveal your authentic self with the risk of rejection but for the possibility to be accepted and loved.
Example: Joy was a loving mother. She was a working professional but she was able to balance her career and be available for her two children. She committed to positive affirmations, praising her children often. She didn’t believe in punishments so whenever her kids did something wrong, she would not address it. Later in life, her children had difficulty receiving corrections or any type of feedback, and Joy still has difficulty addressing conflicts with her children.