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Asian Comparisons: The Shame of Not Measuring Up

How to heal from cultural shame.

Big Dodzy / Unsplash
Source: Big Dodzy / Unsplash

With the holidays upon us, it’s not lost on me that get-togethers with Asian family members invariably lead some to feel inadequate and inferior. With more contact with extended relatives, the conversations will focus on cultural expectations of achievements, attractiveness, or status within the Asian community. Part of this includes hearing elders make comparisons such as, “She’s smart!”, “You’re fat!”, or “Why you not like him?!”

The comparisons are a form of Asian shame. The intent is to motivate or spur a person to action but the shaming person is emotionally oblivious to how comparisons can erode a person’s self-confidence and lead to even more doubt and self-hatred.

Even in cases when clients have reached a certain level of academic or financial success, they report feeling like an imposter or fraud. In addition, they often can’t shake the feeling that the shame has left on their soul. “I’m not good enough” or “I’m only loved because of what I’ve done”. Their ability to understand unconditional love is compromised. They may continue to strive and prove to their parents or others that they deserve validation through their achievements but the external validation never fills the emptiness from within.

Their relationships may start to be impacted by the shame. Defensiveness, pride, and self-righteousness may set in and friends or romantic partners may struggle to connect with them. Or their partners may be exhausted by their efforts to validate them only to be told that they’re not validating them enough due to their past shame wounds.

Whether in couples therapy or individual work, the goal is the same-shame reduction. Shame reduction is helping Asian clients see the reality of their past as many have strong defenses against any negative attention given to their caregivers or close relatives. Once this is acknowledged, the healing can begin. But the beginning is one of tapping into the deep grief of loss.

The lack of familial care, encouragement, and unconditional acceptance are explored in-depth. I’ll use questions such as the following as trailheads to discern a client’s sensitivity and willingness to explore his family of origin: “Did your family praise you just for who you?” “How was bonding impacted when your family used shame as the motivating voice?” “What did your family do that you would never want your own kids to experience?”

Sometimes, Asian clients come in with struggles with compulsive behaviors such as alcohol use, gambling, or pornography use and this acknowledgment of self-medication helps them see how the behaviors are being used as a means to protect them from feeling the deeper feelings and shame messages they received in childhood. Other times the behaviors are more subtle but just as damaging: people-pleasing, perfectionism, striving, or judgmentalism.

Regardless of why they seek help, I am quick to offer words of praise and encouragement for their courage to start the journey of healing, since traditional Asian family members scoff at the notion of therapy and can cling to the pride of self-sufficiency.

Healing from Asian cultural shame is vital to access one's true, authentic self. Otherwise, their life may look great on paper and may even be functional to a degree but without a connection to their core self, they lead lives that are less than optimal. Any time you are operating outside your true self, you risk slowly losing yourself to outside forces: relationships, addictions, and performance or accolades to name a few.

Healing means taking the courageous steps to invest in yourself and rid yourself of any behaviors, thoughts, or feelings that keep you mired in shame, self-blame, or cultural expectations that you want to free yourself from. The invitation is there, but will you accept it?