“Western Therapy Doesn’t Work On Eastern Minds"
Updated: Jul 21
In the Netflix series, "Beef", the main character Danny Cho, played by Steven Yeun, says this line, "Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds." When people try to give him advice about what he is going through, how he is coping and reacting, and when topics of his emotional and psychological well-being come up, he repeats this line: "Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds." I will process that line from the series.
1. Denial of mental health.
Asian Americans do not prioritize their mental health. They tend to prioritize education, work, financial stability, others, and social status above their individual well-being. They will deny and let their mental health deteriorate in order to succeed in those other priorities. If they feel bad mentally and emotionally, they do not think it's important. Since they deny that it's a problem, their mental health goes unaddressed.
One reason why Asian Americans deny their mental health needs is because for many 1st and 2nd generation Asian Americans, their experience of surviving poverty, war, famine, and immigration to the U.S., was so traumatic that they have a hard time accepting care for their mental health. They would rather just to deny, avoid, and ignore their mental issues.
Admitting that we have a psychological and emotional well-being to take care of, is the first step to address our Eastern minds.
2. Saving face. Loss of face.
A strong value for Asian Americans is saving face. Saving face means to be accepted by your family and community, to have a good social reputation, and to be seen in a positive light. This means that weaknesses, imperfections, mistakes, and failures are often swept under the rug, kept secret, not addressed or discussed openly to "save face". To lose respect in the community is a "loss of face".
Western therapy, with it's emphasis on vulnerability, authenticity, and emotional expression, is often in direct conflict with the Eastern mind wanting to save face and avoid loss of face.
One strategy to address this East vs. West conflict is to view mental health from a strength-based perspective. For example, you can discuss mental health as organizational, productivity, executive functioning, mental toughness, and goal-achieving skills training instead of talking about depression and anxiety.
3. Respecting your parents and elders: Filial piety.
There is a scene in the series where a therapist (Dr. Lin, ha! :-) says, “When we're stressed, we revert to the pathways we created as children. But acknowledging this is just the first step. In order to create new neural pathways, we have to uncover what lies underneath our awareness."
Asian Americans are resistant to address their mental health in the context of their family of origin because they want to honor their parents. We are raised to put our parents in a positive light, not to place blame on our parents, or say anything bad about them.
We can face stressful situations more productively, if we addressed the reactive negative thoughts and behaviors modeled for us from childhood. Life doesn't have to be lived in survival, defensive, and attack modes all the time.
Be willing to understand how your family dynamics affect you, this is a helpful step to addressing our Eastern minds.
4. Anger. Pride.
Many Asian cultures have a vocabulary for anger that describes violent angry outbursts as acceptable. Hwabyeong is a Korean version of righteous anger from experiencing an unfair situation. Shengqi is a Mandarin Chinese word to describe being angry that denotes being "crazy mad". For many Asian Americans, having angry outbursts is normal and accepted. For many, expressing their anger loudly is a source of pride. Therefore, when Western therapy talks about anger management and learning healthy ways to express your anger, Asian Americans often ignore it.
It is helpful to acknowledge the hurt and destruction caused by anger.
5. Collective self-esteem. External locus of control.
Asian Americans put their family's interest before their own individual needs. They will play the martyr, they'll give up their personal dreams for the care for the needs of their family. This makes them feel better. Seeking out Western therapy and addressing their individual mental health is often viewed as selfish and too individualistic.
A helpful strategy is to focus on relational therapy instead of individual therapy. With the cultural value of harmony and collectivism, it makes more sense to the Eastern mind to utilize therapy to address family and relational well-being.
6. Honor and Shame
Many Asian Americans avoid addressing their mental health out of shame. For many, it's unbearable to introspect and see their psychological problems. They can spend their entire life repressing, denying, and ignoring their emotional issues. This is often guised as honor, to take the high road by focusing on external aspects of their life.
Asian Americans value frugality. Since care for our mental health often has a financial cost, they won't pay for it.