How Asian Shame Can Perpetuate Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is prevalent among the fellow Asians I see in my practice.
Posted Oct 02, 2020
When Asian clients come to counseling, generations of habits, thoughts, and beliefs follow them. One of the most pernicious is that these individuals sometimes believe they are an imposter.
They may have succeeded academically, professionally, or relationally by worldly standards (i.e. good grades, distinguished careers, or stable marital relationships) yet deep down, there’s a profound sense that something is awry.
It is not easy to unearth the truth, but with enough trust, honesty, and vulnerability built in the context of a therapeutic relationship, what sometimes seeps out is the acknowledgment that they are not who they think they are. In other words, they feel a sense of contempt, despair, and fear as the walls they have built through years of constructing an image of perfection begin to crumble.
As the need to maintain Asian cultural honor slowly recedes, what replaces it is the tender and fragile ego showing itself, wanting nothing more than to be seen, known, and loved unconditionally.
Unconditional love is a foreign concept in traditional Asian families and cultures predicated on achievement, education, and performance. For generations, one’s reputation rested in the Asian family name. In other words, if your family was known in the community as honorable you would be bestowed with respect, trust, and acceptance. This communal acceptance was earned by one’s ancestors for how they conducted their lives in both thoughts and deeds. If they lived within socially-sanctioned behaviors and norms, then the family name had the best opportunity to preserve its legacy to future generations. However, if one was to defile the family name, this legacy was jeopardized. But living by such rigid beliefs can lead imposter syndrome to set in.
By definition, an imposter is someone who practices deception under another character, name, or identity. While these Asians aren’t imposters in the technical sense, there is a deep-seated belief that they are hiding their true identity as a means to preserve filial honor.
In more practical understanding, what my Asian clients are asking is if it’s permissible to break the Asian cultural standards weighing them down. They earnestly want to be known for all their warts, faults, and shortcomings. These are areas that gnaw at their soul because they have been told to hide them and never express their imperfections. Even the thought that they are uneasy with what they’ve become can be shamed in the context of their culture.
What’s needed is an invitation to let them be. They desire to tap into their core beliefs, feelings, or fears within a safe relationship be it a friend, family member, or therapist. As safety grows so does the realization that the deceit or imposter syndrome they’ve been suffering is one of their own or culture’s making. While some may need to switch careers or escape unhealthy relationships to free themselves from the deceit of self, most only need to be graced by that their truth matters. When an Asian person goes through life striving for acceptance through performance, they lose all sense of healthy relational recognition, which is one free of judgment.
The fear of abandonment that lies beneath the fear of being an imposter in the world must be confronted, dismantled, and replaced by the belief that they are loved, cherished, and affirmed for who they are rather than what they have achieved. They must be known not for human “doings” but for human “beings.”