How I overcame cultural expectations to regain control of my mental health

Edmond T. Cheng shares the journey of how he overcame parental and societal expectations based on conservative Asian values engrained in him from early childhood. He embraced vulnerability by showing himself compassion. Cheng realizes that he must take care of himself first so that he is able to take care of others.

As a gay, Chinese Canadian, learning how to balance parental and societal expectations can be stressful. Add a pandemic, rising anti-Asian sentiment, and the holidays on top of that, and overwhelming becomes an understatement. 

Growing up, I struggled having to constantly balance between living my own or my parents’ expectations.  And I really mostly mean my father’s expectations, which included the pressure to marry an East Asian woman, have children, graduate with a business degree, and achieve material status.

I haven’t met my father’s expectations, but I’ve tried. Years of failing to meet his expectations left me feeling lonely and empty, while starved for validation, affection and control into my early adult years.

As a child, I was also taught by my parents that a 堂堂男子漢 (pronounced “tong tong naam zi hon”)—which means “manly man” in Cantonese—does not show emotions, which has made reaching out for help difficult for me. No matter how difficult a situation or how unhappy I was, I’d always put on a brave happy face to mask how I truly felt.

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Over the years, I’ve put a lot of work into myself to heal and get to a place of wholeness while learning to recognize my trigger signs. Those signs include: periods of isolation which cause me to feel lonely and empty, a lack of human touch that results in a need for affection and validation, and uncertainty which leaves me feeling a need for control. 

As the pandemic drew on, I chose to take care of my parents’ needs first. I put on a brave happy face as I was reminded to do many times as a child, to avoid worrying my parents and spare them from the awkwardness of my emotions. 

As I continued to neglect my own needs, I found those deep feelings triggered again, and the signs became too loud to ignore.

Long periods of physical distancing, stress from economic uncertainty, and constant worries about my parents’ health mounted. Stress from potentially disappointing my parents if I were to experience economic hardship resulted in poor sleep, poor diet, a lack of motivation to exercise, as well as weight gain—all contributing to me feeling horrible physically and increasingly lonely.

I knew these were signs that I needed help, and I recognized then that I needed to take back control of my mental wellbeing.

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I also knew that I couldn’t lean on my family for support. Mental health is still very much a taboo topic in many Chinese-Canadian families, and my relationship with my father presented a significant barrier, so I revealed to a couple of close friends of mine what I was going through. 

Many in the LGBTQ2S+ community know that you have the family you were born into and the family that you choose. I will always love and take care of my parents, and I know that our differences in worldviews and values are barriers for them being able to support my mental health. The family I’ve chosen, do not have those barriers.

My friends helped me realize that in addition to showing kindness and compassion to my parents, I also needed to show kindness and compassion to myself. 

With that realization, I made a declaration to myself, “I will allow myself to feel everything that I feel. I will honour my feelings. I will even allow myself to cry. And once I have felt everything that I need to feel, I will be ready to move forward.” 

After I’d felt everything I needed to feel, I began to focus on re-establishing a relationship with my wellbeing. That meant, first, satisfying my basic physical needs of sleeping, exercising, and eating better before moving on to my mental health needs.

I ensured I slept a minimum of 8 hours a night by setting phone reminders. I went to bed and got up more consistently around the same time each day. I walked about an hour every day, and also planned and cooked most of my meals. I made sure to see my core bubble friends more often.

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As my physical health recovered, I was able to begin focusing on my mental wellbeing. Barry Neil Kaufman once said, “the way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.” 

So I asked myself, “how do I want to see the world?” 

I consciously chose to see the world with optimism. 

Optimism is hope. It’s the ability to frame adversity as temporary and changeable. It isn’t about hiding your feelings and saying everything is okay when it’s not. It’s about honouring your feelings with compassion and honesty, while holding on to the light to remind yourself that there is a brighter future. 

Optimism isn’t the same as positivity. When we tell ourselves to be positive, we add judgement to feelings and thoughts. The word “positivity” implies goodness, so any feelings or thoughts that are not “good” are then “bad”. But feelings or thoughts aren’t inherently good or bad —they just tell us who we are as human beings, what we need, and what we value. 

To see the world with optimism, I had to first recognize that I had things to be grateful for. Through this practice of gratitude, I realized that there were things that I could be hopeful about. By going through the process of recognizing the need to take back control of my mental health and taking action, I also became more resilient. Resilience is about how fast you can get back up after falling down without losing yourself, so every time you overcome adversity and uncertainty, you build your resilience.

It can feel strange and almost counterintuitive to choose yourself because we’re often told that family always comes first. But ultimately, if you don’t show yourself compassion, you will not only have nothing to give yourself, but nothing to give to others.

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