I recently started going to a therapist to help with my mental health. However, I feel like it’s something that I need to hide from my family, which is getting hard because I live with them. Every time I go to an appointment, I feel very guilty about it.
How can I stop feeling awkward about going to therapy?
— Guilty about therapy
Mental health and therapy in Asian cultures
I am glad you are reaching out for help. It takes a lot of courage to take control of mental health and start therapy in Asian cultures.
I am sure you have your reasons for not wanting to bring it up with your family. Whatever your reasons may be, you are not alone.
In a research study with 1.5 and second generation Asian American immigrants, many identified the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues as the biggest deterrent to getting professional help. Perhaps your family holds similar misconceptions about therapy. Or they lack the resources to have mental health conversations. Or perhaps, you are hesitant to disclose your issues in fear of their judgment and disapproval. These are valid concerns that many individuals, especially those who are part of the Asian community, can relate to.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are three times less likely to seek mental health services than White Americans. By starting therapy, you are breaking down the barriers and proactively improving your well-being.
Bring up your guilty feelings during therapy
For someone who is beginning their mental health journey, therapy can be a vulnerable experience. In order for it to be effective, you need to feel comfortable and secure enough to speak openly about your problems and feelings.
There is nothing wrong with feeling guilty from time to time about not telling your parents you have therapy sessions. However, guilt can grow and become a paralyzing force if you choose to ignore it. When you associate therapy with guilt, it may also affect your experience and potentially impede your progress.
Some of your guilt may arise from your cultural background and family views. According to the Journal of Community Health, many young Asian immigrant adults reported pressures of being academically and professionally successful. They end up denying or dismissing their mental health symptoms. Some of their parents also hold traditional Confucian values, prioritizing filial piety and viewing mental health as a way of burdening others. These factors all contribute to the stigma against mental health and therapy in Asian cultures.
If any negative thoughts are looming in your mind, bring it up with your therapist. Their role is to listen and help you unpack the root cause of these emotions, so you can cope with them in a constructive way.
If you experience challenges communicating these issues, it may be beneficial to discuss them with a therapist who has experience with culturally-sensitive issues, or is trained in cultural-competency. A therapist who understands your culture and background can make you feel more at ease and navigate the conversation smoothly.
If you are interested in exploring other options, the Asian Mental Health Collective has a great online directory for finding Asian therapists in your area.
Set your physical and emotional boundaries
You are only beginning your mental health journey, so take the time and space to figure things out by yourself before involving others. If you are not ready to tell your parents about seeking therapy, that is okay.
Setting boundaries not only protects your own state of well-being, but will also lead to a healthier relationship between you and your family.
Boundaries can be emotional or physical. They can include defining topics that you are willing to discuss, or accessing a personal space where you can be alone.
Once you are clear on what you are comfortable with, be firm in reinforcing your limitations. It can be difficult to communicate these to your family members. Do what you can by explaining clearly what your needs are. Sometimes, you might need to end the conversation as neutrally as possible and not engage further. Even if they ask a lot of questions, it is okay not to divulge details of your whereabouts. Just because they are your parents, you do not owe them your privacy.
Find a safe space to talk — in or outside the home
Physical boundaries are just as important as emotional ones. It can be especially hard to come by when you are living with your parents. Asian Americans are the most likely to live in a mixed-generational home than any other ethnic group. Hence, learning to set boundaries within an Asian cultural and familial context is more relevant than ever.
During COVID times, many health appointments have expanded to virtual formats, which poses a challenge for some. If you find it difficult to carve out a space where you can chat freely and undisturbed, then schedule time out of the house. Go to a friend’s place or book a room at the library, so your parents are the last thing on your mind when you’re about to enter a vulnerable conversation.
You might still feel guilty about setting these limitations, but communicating your boundaries is part of your mental health journey. It does not mean you are shutting your parents out. There might be an opportunity for you to share your experiences in the future, but it does not have to be now.
Seek alternative spaces for mental health conversations
In the ideal world, mental health and therapy in Asian cultures would be normalized. We could have conversations about it with health professionals, coworkers, friends, and family outside of therapy.
In reality, we all have different comfort levels with the topic. Part of that is informed by our unique ethnic backgrounds.
Being able to communicate and express yourself is part of processing and coping with your issues. If talking is not your thing, there are other options. Non-verbal therapy allows you to express your emotions without needing the right words. There’s also music, dance and wilderness therapy to choose from.
Another option is group therapy. It cultivates a safe environment of solidarity by bringing together people with similar experiences. This setting alleviates the fear of being judged and builds a sense of camaraderie. You feel like you’re amongst people who can relate and understand what you are going through. Online communities, like the Subtle Asian Mental Health Facebook page, have grown exponentially over the pandemic and are hailed as a main source of emotional support for many who faced barriers accessing help.
A path of continuous learning
Now that you have started on your mental health journey, it is going to be an endless process of learning and improvement. Certain things might not work out at times, or will feel awkward. But summon the courage that got you started in the first place to keep trying.
Take your time and feel free to explore as many avenues as you feel comfortable. Other than finding the right therapist, find your support network that will be there for you as you navigate your challenges. By opening up in different ways and situations, hopefully you will become more comfortable about sharing your own experiences in your daily life. One day, when the time is right, your family will be right there beside you too.
Always here for you,
Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. Or, subscribe to our newsletter to get Kiki’s advice straight to your inbox on the last Sunday of every month.
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