How to talk about mental health in the Asian American community : Life Kit : NPR
What does it mean to come to the house? A house is a place with a roof, windows and doors, but residence is a feeling.
For psychologist and author Jenny Wang, home is made up of four elements that work together: safety, belonging, authenticity and compassion. The absence of one or more components “will impact how I moderate and present myself in this space,” says Wang, “it changes the way I engage with people.”
When you live between different cultures, as many Asian Americans do — when your identity forces you to constantly navigate between different languages, customs, or cultural ideals — that sense of psychological safety can be hard to come by.
“In many ways, I think Asian Americans are now intent on building themselves a home,” says Wang, who just posted Permission to Go Home: Reclaiming Sanity as Asian Americans. She says a sense of belonging can come “from our creativity, our organization, our networks and our communities.”
Regardless of background, Wang says creating a sense of belonging requires ongoing self-awareness and definition of values. To find and define your home, she says, you must first understand the different cultural forces that shape your mindset and your view of yourself and the world.
Although no culture is a monolith, Wang’s work revealed the common mental health burdens of the Asian American experience. Here are some of those ideas and tools to help you deal with it.
Recognize your common goals to chart your own path
Deference to elders and authority figures is a highly valued value in many Asian American homes. This can have its benefits, such as instilling order and family unity, but it also creates a hierarchical structure that can socialize children into not challenging decisions or expectations of their elders, Wang says.
“It creates a dynamic where the person with less power may feel like they’re somehow silenced in this relationship,” she says, “or they may feel like they need to be more. small to fit within the confines of this hierarchy.”
What’s important to remember when navigating the intergenerational divide, Wang says, is that everyone is on the same team and working towards the same goals of safety and success.
“A lot of immigrant parents came here with very little or were alone and didn’t feel safe,” she says. This may affect the types of jobs or level of education they want their children to pursue. “[They push for] All of these landmarks that they believe will lead us to a better life, which is, for many of them, the reason they came to this country in the first place.”
But you might have a different idea of the life, job, or education you want to pursue. By choosing a “safe” or parent-approved career, partner, or lifestyle, you may be setting yourself up for resentment.
Instead, give yourself permission first to make the best decisions for yourself, says Wang. Recognizing that you share the same goals as your family for security and prosperity, and communicating your needs with clarity and kindness, it will be easier to find common ground.
Claim your space in the world
The myth of the model minority is “a caricature of hard-working, docile, highly educated individuals who are passive in the face of mistreatment,” Wang explains.
This trope is problematic for many reasons: From a mental health perspective, Wang says it “creates this facade that Asian Americans don’t struggle” and can reinforce the idea that you should keep your problems for you to avoid shame. The myth also reinforces cultural assimilation and the idea of saving face.
All of these expectations work together to downplay the lived experiences of Asian Americans, making it difficult for many people to fully know themselves or present themselves as themselves.
It’s a larger societal and structural issue, but on a personal level, Wang says there are many small ways to better inform your sense of self and take up more space in public spaces.
Do you have a good idea at work? Speak as soon as you have it instead of waiting to be asked. Say a confident hello to your neighbor instead of looking down as you pass. Learn and share your cultural heritage or family history.
“And that can be really scary for people of color,” says Wang. “But at the same time, if we conform or become complicit in our own invisibility, we will never be seen as genuine people.”
Approach failures with compassion and curiosity
In many Asian American households, perfection seems to be the norm. Coming home with a bad grade or a missed job opportunity can feel like a big family disappointment.
Feelings that you’re never good enough can keep you from trying new things or being vulnerable around loved ones.
Instead, Wang suggests finding ways in which failure might serve you. How can this moment be an opportunity for growth? How can this current failure be an opportunity for future success?
Beyond questioning any singular failure, it’s important to separate your identity from your accomplishments. “We need to start detaching ourselves from these results as markers of identity or self-esteem,” says Wang.
A poor grade in school doesn’t make you less lovable, and your identity isn’t defined by your job title. Practicing self-compassion and maintaining a strong sense of core values can help anyone not sweat the small stuff.
Set boundaries – and stick to them
In cultures that idealize sacrifice and the collective good above self, drawing boundaries can trigger feelings of guilt. But there’s nothing to feel guilty about.
“When we don’t have boundaries, it means we’re basically giving away our time, our energy, all of our resources without knowing whether or not we have the capacity to give those things,” Wang explains. It’s a recipe for anger, resentment and exhaustion.
In times of repeated discomfort, she says, find a firm but flexible boundary. This might mean setting limits on how long or how often you show up to family events, agreeing to avoid certain topics at dinner, or simply learning to say “no” when you’re overloaded.
Remember that boundaries can and should be communicated with kindness, but should also be reinforced. Once you draw a line, stick to it. Otherwise, relationships may stagnate or deteriorate.
Wang knows this process isn’t always easy, but setting boundaries, like maintaining our sanity, is a practice of love and care – for ourselves and our community.
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The audio portion of this episode was produced by Michelle Aslam. We would love to hear from you! Email us at or send a voice note to [email protected].