Updated: May 11, 2022
Mental health is having a moment in the Western media. These past couple of years of fear and isolation during the pandemic have taught us to recognize the importance of mental health to overall wellbeing. But unfortunately mental health is still a taboo topic for many Asian cultures.
Don’t show emotion
Like most taboos, you can’t necessarily recall exactly when you realized that it was not okay to talk about something. I do remember that my mom used to chide my paternal grandmother for crying and complaining about how hard life was. She would become so angry when I cried as a child. I remember being so frightened and ashamed for not being able to control my feelings.
How do we reconcile familial values and programming with our Western beliefs?
Negative emotions in general are considered to be a weakness - the Chinese ideal of strength includes being calm and cool-headed, whether you are a scholarly intellectual or a brave warrior. And of course there is a lot of patriarchal messaging around allowable behaviors for women, but we are most admirable and impressive when we project an invincible armor that allows for softness only when being kind to children or caregiving.
Even at the height of the anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, we were hesitant to speak out. After all, most Asians grow up with this strong cultural messaging around conformity: Go along to get along. Blend in. Be quiet. Be obedient. Be passive, patient. Endure. Don’t stick out. For goodness sake, don’t be noticed.
We are taught that the collective - whether family or whatever unit - is more important than the individual. We are stronger together. Our individual needs don’t matter.
The problem is that those of us who are bicultural become very confused by the cognitive dissonance that this produces. How do we go about reconciling the values and familial programming that we grew up with, with our Western beliefs about the importance of advocacy and open dialogue to work through problems?
It’s not okay
Furthermore, in my family we didn’t talk about mental health problems unless it was in a strongly pejorative way. Labeling those with nervous breakdowns, depression, anxiety, or even attention deficit under the general term of “crazy”, or as having “something wrong in the head.” Condemning such people to being ostracized, stigmatized and feeling shame.
Stigma refers to nonacceptance or rejection, usually due to fear or othering. I have experienced stigmatization for being Chinese, for not being Chinese enough, for being an immigrant, for being female, for looking the way I do, for so many things - as we all have. It never feels good, because it’s ultimately a rejection of something about you that you can’t help, which then causes shame.
Stigma is ultimately a rejection of something about you that you can’t help
And for most Chinese, it’s not even okay to talk about all of this. Because that would be considered a weakness. Because it’s shameful to talk about feeling shame. Instead. we are taught to endure - in fact our ability to endure suffering as a civilization has been a tremendous source of cultural pride.
We have endured centuries of humiliation and shame by simply sweeping them under the carpet. and pretending that life goes on. The Chinese character for endure (ren3) depicts the heart radical (xin1) under the knife (dao1). We want to bear sacrifice and hardships with strength, without complaint. Silently.
Speak our truth
If I’m being honest, there’s a part of me that feels like I am sharing a state secret, and I’ll get in trouble for it. That’s how strong the programming is. But there’s another part that feels so much anger and sadness about the fact that suicide is the number one cause of death in Asian Americans aged 15-24.
That’s the part of me that is so passionate about the importance of mental health that I’ve all but left my day job as a primary care doctor in order to teach people about how emotional injury can hurt our brain health, and that there’s a better way to manage our stress. What if the cognitive dissonance of growing up Asian in the US has led our youth to feel the stigma of being wrong in some way?
In my panel interview with Brooke Castillo on The Life Coach School Podcast, we talk about Overcoming What You’ve Been Taught. Our group of amazing coaches in the Asian Life Coach Collective understand what it is to experience that cognitive dissonance, to feel like what you’re thinking is somehow wrong.
We make it safe to talk about feeling and being different. We are each unique individuals and our own stories to share, we have such tremendous gifts that are worthy of individual expression. It’s time to stop enduring the pain and suffering, to learn how to reconcile our family values, and to speak our truth.
Asian Life Coach Collective Podcast by Rae Tsai
I’m proud to say that Rae Tsai and I are founding members of the Asian Life Coach Collective. In her podcast, Rae shares conversations she’s had with a group of amazing coaches who share their unique stories about helping others through coaching. The content is fresh, informative and breathtakingly authentic.
The Life Coach School Podcast by Brooke Castillo