It's passive aggressive only if you're in the West
January 12, 2017 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How do you reconcile the fact that core aspects of East Asian interpersonal styles can arguably be interpreted as "abusive" through the Western lens? This is particularly challenging for me in the therapy setting.

The heavy use of guilt and shame, the suppression of anger and dismissal of strong or negative emotions, codependency, and use of indirect communication, are, according to many Western writings, hallmarks of abuse. They are also fundamental to East Asian cultures and have obviously worked just fine for thousands of years. I found that this paper illuminates some of the differences; here is a relevant excerpt:
In European American contexts, a “good relationship” is one in which each partner remains autonomous and partners mutually strengthen each other's individuality and independence. [...] It is important for this kind of relationship that partners are able to take a stance or assert their desires; (constructive) conflict is not eschewed but rather considered a necessary bump in the road to strong relational ties. Emotions such as pride and anger appear to be functional in European American relationships since they reflect individual self-worth and personal autonomy; shame and guilt, on the other hand, are less valued since they may threaten a positive self-view.

In contrast, “good relationships” in most East Asian cultural contexts are those in which partners are interdependent and interconnected and adjust to each other's expectations. In order to meet these relational expectations, individuals need to be aware of and improve on their shortcomings; hence the focus is on negative information about oneself. In East Asian interdependent cultural contexts, emotions such as shame and guilt appear to be conducive to building strong relationships because they highlight flaws and shortcomings and thus promote alignment with social rules and relational embeddedness. In contrast, anger [is] highly undesirable in interdependent relationships because it may threaten relational harmony.

For me, this means that I feel that psychotherapy essentially pushes me towards this Western ideal of an independent woman who can identify what she wants with ease, doesn't hesitate to assert herself to get her needs met, and knows it's okay to be angry... which is, in other words, further and further away from my cultural roots and my home. My therapist keeps asking me, "but what do you want?", and saying things like, "well, when you've always had your family tell you what to feel and how to react..." and I find it very irritating because I feel like her questions implicitly pathologize core aspects of my culture and the way emotions are regulated in my culture. Sometimes I'm just like, "but you don't get famine culture! If you lived in a society where everyone had to work together to survive, someone who has decided that it's every man for himself would simply not make it out alive!" ... and so I spend a lot of energy defending my culture instead of focusing on the specific issues I sought to work on.

I find certain aspects of therapy helpful, but perhaps psychotherapy, being so individual-focused, is inherently Western in outlook? I get that being an effective human also means being able to code switch and size up the cultural context and move forward accordingly, but is it okay or truly desirable for me to continue moving towards this direction? It doesn't feel okay to me-- sometimes feel like I'm being torn away from my home when I go to therapy, and I already get enough of that by simply existing in the US. After all, this isn't just an intellectual exercise-- these are my closest and most meaningful relationships I've been in all my life, and this is the universe they exist in. (I've also had one therapist tell me that this is a sign of Stockholm syndrome, so it seems there's no way out of this.)

I posted a previous and related question here, on white therapists and minority clients.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Would it be helpful to seek out a therapist with more awareness of your cultural context?
posted by bunderful at 8:23 AM on January 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm so sorry this is a thing you have to deal with -- feeling like you have to fight to be heard or seen in therapy, the place that's supposed to be safe from that, really, really sucks.

Full disclosure, I'm white, and I'm a New Yorker, which is as Ask Culture as I think you can get (possibly the most Ask Culture place in the world), so my cultural background is very much in line with the western ideals you are having trouble with.

That said, I find I'm wondering how this aligns with gender stuff. Some of the stuff you've mentioned as Western ideals read more properly to me as feminist ideals, which is definitely not the same thing.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:36 AM on January 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

For me, I've had to decide which aspects of each culture worked/not worked for me. My east Asian family never communicated about their emotions, never said "i love you" or even "i'm sorry" (this may or may not be just my family being dysfunctional, still trying to figure that out). This lack of emotional connection might appear to be common in east Asian culture, but it has not served me well as I now have issues communicating my own feelings. Whether or not it's a part of my family's culture, this was not good for me. On the other hand, certain aspects of east Asian culture like respecting your elders and familial responsibility did resonate with me and I think they will play into the way I parent in the future if I have children.

Being a child of two very different cultures, I think you have to create your own and decide what is important to you and what makes sense to you. Dictate that to your therapist as your framework (and if they're judgmental of it, then probably a new therapist is in order).
posted by monologish at 8:44 AM on January 12, 2017 [23 favorites]

I don't think any of us will be able to tell you who's right and who's wrong, between your perspective here and your therapist(s?). There is just no way for us to see enough of the picture, which embraces both your life and history, as well as the history of the therapeutic relationship.

Actually I don't know that there really is a right answer. There is no contradiction, for example, between some relational styles being widespread and in some sense "working" on the one hand, and them being damaging to individuals on the other hand. The question is more, what resolution will you find for these conflicts?

It is important for you to see a therapist you trust, I think, so it is possible that you should try to find one with a background more similar to your own, if that would make you feel less like you had to choose between your own health and loyalty to your culture. Or you could share your research on this with your current therapist, if you haven't yet.

But I also kind of think the issue of cultural norms is not quite the heart of things. I think you are worried at some level that even being in therapy at all represents a betrayal of your family, an implicit indictment of the way you were raised. And this is related to core stuff to work on in therapy.
posted by grobstein at 8:52 AM on January 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

I have immediate family who were subsistence farmers in the Great Depression and after... their frame of reference for what is "healthy" is kind of messed up, but in the US this is considered a generational thing rather than a cultural thing. Some of my other family and friends are Asian refugees and I see some similarities with the subsistence farmers: self-indulgence is shameful, self-sacrifice is expected, help the family... and yet my Eastern refugee best friend's family is probably one of the more emotionally healthy families I know, even in a Western context. I think less is explained by East vs. West than people like to assume.

It is possible that a therapist who doesn't understand the culture would not be as able to help you tease out what you personally need. Have you tried perhaps finding a therapist who shares something of your cultural background, perhaps who over Skype if you're not in a convenient geographic area? Or maybe just a more experienced therapist?
posted by zennie at 8:59 AM on January 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

There's a fair amount of research though that short term talk therapy works well within Asian social mores, and there are a lot of Asian therapists treating Asian patients that way over here in Asia. I don't know about the long-term Woody Allen-type psychotherapy, but I know plenty of people from different Asian cultural backgrounds who've been treated for eating disorders, depression and other mental illnesses, plus lots of family therapy situations.

Of the therapists we've dealt with, two of the better ones have been non-Asian but long-term residents who worked in the area long enough with Asian clients to understand the context, e.g. filial piety, local dating pressures etc.

I think you just haven't found a therapist you click with yet, and want someone who you don't have to 'translate' personal concepts constantly for. Unless this turns out to be a pattern with multiple therapists, including Asian therapists, in which case you may be shooting the messenger.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:05 AM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

In contrast, “good relationships” in most East Asian cultural contexts are those in which partners are interdependent and interconnected and adjust to each other's expectations.

This is a very challenging question, and it sounds like you may need a more culturally-sensitive therapist, but this line caught my eye. Notice how this scenario is described in gender-neutral terms. Sounds fine, right? Does it actually play out that way? Who does the adjusting? Who is the actual beneficiary of the focus on the family? Is mutual good the actual result?

That's how I would, tentatively, try to separate out cultural difference from abuse. Does everyone actually benefit (though maybe not simultaneously), are everyone's needs reasonably getting met, or is this system being leveraged to benefit (e.g.) the men or the oldest at the expense of everyone else?

(Though, I have to tell you, Western culture has a bedrock basis of abuse and destruction, so there's no particular reason to believe that just because something is "culturally appropriate" it can't be abusive.)
posted by praemunire at 9:10 AM on January 12, 2017 [29 favorites]

As has been said earlier in thread, you might benefit from finding a therapist who is at the very least cognizant of your cultural background. Therapy is not "one-size-fits-all."
posted by anansi at 9:11 AM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is a fairly established issue in public health, and that extends to counseling.

There are a number of, for instance, ethnic minority psychological associations that strive for focused culuturally-relevant approaches. The Asian American Psychological Association is one of them. If your questions is psychotherapy-specific, consider reaching out to the American Psychotherapy Association (contact form & other contact info here) and ask if they have an AAPA tie-in program or registry of practitioners, or if they can otherwise direct you to resources along those lines.

Edited to add that, when I was in grad school, one of my professors was active in by-phone consultations with patients looking for therapists and treatment relevant to Kenyan ethnic Kikuyu people. Therapy can be very personalized or tailored to cultural expectations. You may have to actively seek it out, and it may not be easily accessible in-person in your immediate area, but these resources can help you locate them.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:14 AM on January 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'm second-gen Chinese in America, and I think just about every ABC (American-Born Chinese) that I know has to parse through a version of this.

For me, it's been helpful to work through my upbringing and family dynamic, and ask myself what was:

- Culturally Chinese and acceptable (significant value on the needs and opinions needs of family members and close friends, sharing money and physical possessions, the importance of helping the young and the old, the value of education and bettering yourself, a certain amount of communication triangulation)
- What was culturally Chinese, and possibly not abusive in a Chinese cultural context, but was definitely harmful to me (fat-shaming, corporal punishment, being verbally berated and having affection withheld as punishment)
- What was just straight-up wrong (my father physically and sexually assaulting my mother, my father controlling my mother's physical appearance and not letting her wear sneakers or jeans)

Every ABC I know has their own breakdown. My sister's looks different than mine because of the way our families treated us differently. Particularly important for me was the second category, which meant giving myself permission to realize that just because something was Chinese, it didn't mean that it was good for me. Because I'm only ethnicallyChinese. I don't live in China. I live in America, I've gone to American schools for my entire life, I married to a white dude, and I have a mixed-race child. For me, pretending that all parts of Chinese culture are good for me is just as ridiculous as pretending that all parts of American culture are good for me, too.

It can be hard finding a therapist who is plugged into diaspora issues.
posted by joyceanmachine at 9:20 AM on January 12, 2017 [74 favorites]

You deserve a therapist who you feel like understands you or at least seeks to understand you rather than impose their own values and perspectives on you. Ideally, you would find someone who already has some fluency in your culture, though that might be hard.

As a second option, you might find some luck with someone trained as a marriage and family therapist (MFT); you're right that psychotherapy has a pretty strong individualistic bias and is deeply Western. MFTs generally draw from systems theory, focusing on family units rather than individuals, although they can and do work with individuals.

A third option might be a client-centered therapist, who at least would be more likely to eschew imposing their own interpretations/perspectives and instead seek to understand and reflect your experience. Still very individualistic...

I hope you find a therapist who's a much better fit!
posted by overglow at 9:46 AM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

1.5 gen Korean-American here, and I think joyceanmachine nails it on the head in terms of the breakdown.

It may be difficult to find a therapist from the same cultural/diasporadic background, but I think finding a therapist with any experience with such issues might help. I think that the experience of balancing cultural norms that are healthy, cultural norms that are unhealthy, familial norms that are healthy, familial norms that are unhealthy in the context of another culture may be an experience or concept that's difficult to thoroughly explain to someone who has grown up with it before.
posted by suedehead at 9:56 AM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just echoing that there are therapists who specialize in particular cultural approaches for various backgrounds. [My therapist in fact, is Korean-American, and has a practice working with first and second generation Korean-American clients. But also white dudes, obvs.]

For folks more interested in cultural lenses divorced from geography: My particular family also came from abject poverty and soul-crushing abuse, which apparently, I have been informed, maps very nicely to certain Asian familial styles of relating.

Speak to your licensed health-care professional for references. Obviously folks in larger metro areas will have a significant advantage.
posted by mrdaneri at 10:03 AM on January 12, 2017

To address your general question about what is okay or not, apart from culture (and setting aside the therapy aspect for the moment): I tend to think that abusive forms of interpersonal relationship share characteristics across cultures, and have damaging consequences for everyone, regardless of culture. It's true that different cultures value different types of behaviour, but these behaviours can be enacted in ways that are harmful or ways that are not. So, for example, the presence in the relationship of guilt and shame, the assertion or silencing of individual desire, the insistence on either avoiding or enacting conflict, on either suppressing or voicing anger -- all these things can be done abusively, or they can be done non-abusively. Parents can point out that their child has done something wrong, and the child can feel guilt, in a manner that doesn't destroy the child's sense of her own worth, because it happens against a background of stable, affectionate, reliable parenting. That isn't abusive. Each person in the relationship can keep her opinion or desires to herself, or choose to politely avoid conflict, and that isn't abusive, assuming that everyone is freely choosing these behaviours and that no one is imposing it on anyone else. Conversely, you can voice your anger in a relationship in a manner that is frightening, or violent, or contemptuous to your partner, in a situation where the partner feels unable to express anger back. That is abusive. You can assert yourself as an individual in a manner that is harsh and unkind and walks all over the individuality of the other person. That is abusive too.

I don't think abuse is about specific relationship styles or priorities, in other words, which can vary enormously and still be perfectly healthy. It's about inequality of power and the misuse of power. I think any behaviour is non-abusive when (1) everyone in the relationship values that behaviour; (2) it doesn't impose unequal burdens on anyone; (3) it doesn't involve inherently damaging elements like contempt, hatred, physical violence, and the pursuit of total control (e.g. social isolation from friendships or other family members, deprivation of access to property or money). Now some elements in traditional patriarchal cultures - East or West - do validate inequality and violence. Those are bad, and it doesn't really matter how traditional they are. But I don't think that the East/West distinction is necessary to describe those traditions. They are authoritarian traditions, usually patriarchal, and I think they are morally indefensible because violence and abuse of power is always morally indefensible. If you are in the territory of fear, violence, contempt, and assertions of control by one person against the will of another (adult) person, you are somewhere alarming and unhealthy, wherever you live and whatever your culture is like.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:11 AM on January 12, 2017 [12 favorites]

Before I talk, disclaimers and qualifiers - I'm a straight white USian man who has lived in China for 13 years, I'm 33, and I speak Mandarin fluently enough to have been a translator of movies, books, and other cultural products for a decade, and I make a pretty good living at it. I don't know if that qualifies me to speak directly to your issue, but in terms of a "Westerner meeting the East" from the opposite direction, I can conclusively say I've had my head buried in artwork that focuses on these issues, and my paymasters are people who think deeply and shape public debate about these issues. What follows is in large part shaped by views I've absorbed from them.

First of all, I'm with dorothyisunderwood in that you haven't found the right therapist. Even in Beijing, I've known people who benefit from talk therapy, and I've known people who clash badly with their therapist. Therapists have their own biases and limited perspective, and some will get it and some won't, and you shouldn't have to be fighting them over that.

Second, I've seen what I consider healthy Asian family relationships in Beijing, and to me, they look a lot like the healthy parts of my own family relationships.

a “good relationship” is one in which each partner remains autonomous and partners mutually strengthen each other's individuality and independence. [...] It is important for this kind of relationship that partners are able to take a stance or assert their desires; (constructive) conflict is not eschewed but rather considered a necessary bump in the road to strong relational ties.


“good relationships” are those in which partners are interdependent and interconnected and adjust to each other's expectations. In order to meet these relational expectations, individuals need to be aware of and improve on their shortcomings;

sound to me like two necessary sides of the same coin.

In my more garrulous 20's I used to be very angry at concepts like "filial piety" and "collectivism", and God bless the patient Chinese people who, rather than punching me in the face like I deserved, showed me by example that the "collective" is there to enable the individual. On balance, China's response to my Not Getting It was, "You will one day, here are the tools, we're just gonna stand here and let you bang your head against the wall until you stop, and then we'll be there with the towel to help you mop up the blood, because that's what we do, and one day you'll be holding the towel mopping up someone else's blood." Translated, those aren't my words.

Many people I've met here acknowledge (sometimes so loudly I get embarrassed for them) that the "Eastern" social system has its flaws, but those who acknowledge those flaws are almost universally the same people who don't tell me my "Western individualism" is a mistake or inferior. The "collective" is there to support you. If it's not doing that, it's broken and needs tweaking, and healthy collectives acknowledge that. I hear admiration and respect for "Western individualism" because it's a workaround for broken collectives. I hear derision for it from people...who are, to put it generously, having a bad day.

Every ABC I know has their own myself permission to realize that just because something was Chinese, it didn't mean that it was good for me.

If I had a nickel for every many screenwriters, authors, and artists working through this same thing. One good thing about being Chinese in China is that you get the freedom to do anything and call it Chinese. I've been in the room when that knowledge hits and the scales fall from their eyes. Not saying that's your issue, but I've seen plenty of Chinese people call others out for emotional abuse, "heavy use of guilt and shame, the suppression of anger and dismissal of strong or negative emotions, codependency, and use of indirect communication". At least here in China, a good number of people, most I've talked to, tell the emperor he's naked. It's liberating and inspiring to be around people like that, and against the usual expectations, the cultural East is where I've found those people in my life.

For every parent I've seen pressuring their daughter (or son) to get married or their son (or daughter) to study, I've seen 5 more who are set up xiangqin (dates arranged by parents) because their daughters (or sons) asked for help because they're too busy or buy their sons (and daughters) Playstations and skateboards as rewards for good grades. I think every culture that produces functioning societies has more healthy than unhealthy manifestations. Chinese culture wasn't designed to hurt people, and when it does, it's supposed to self-correct, and when it doesn't...well, these are the same people who list Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh among the four great classic novels of their civilization. It's not "part of the culture" to tolerate abuse, and it's definitely part of the culture to call BS. Circumspect Orientals my butt these people are some of the loudest complainers you have no idea.

I wish it hadn't taken me a decade to figure that out, but part of the reason it did is that my home culture, America, has a tendency to think it's always right. I think it's right about a lot of things, like its relative acceptance of psychotherapy, of but boy could it use a refresher course on pretty much every other culture ever, and it would be nice if it could stop lecturing and listen for once.
posted by saysthis at 11:20 AM on January 12, 2017 [22 favorites]

Kind of the quintessential chicken/egg problem. Minorities tend to be less present in many places, so it's hard to get consideration of minority contexts. Not just therapists, but mentors, managers, etc.

I think there are a couple ways forward here - one is to actively search out someone who has expertise in both your issues and your cultural context. This will be hard given the state of play, today.

Another route is to feel out the person with whom you're working. Let them air their advice, given what they know and their experiences. Follow-up by asking them if their advice changes given your cultural context. Here's the key: just cause they haven't lived your life, that doesn't mean they're useless to you. The question is - did they hear you? Do they try to account for the context you're sharing with them? If so, then maybe it's worth continuing with them. If not (as in they're immediately dismissive or even openly hostile), find someone else.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:00 PM on January 12, 2017

I can't comment on the specifics of culture (I'm native white British in the U.K.) but one thing that stands out to me is that you need a therapist who is qualified to help you work through what's troubling you.

Are you able to state what your goals for therapy are? That should help you define whether there's an intersectionality to your needs - i.e. whether the specific issue you are seeking therapy for is actually exacerbated by culture clash.

If so, you need a therapist who can deal with the problem in context - your current therapist may be very experienced with issue X but clueless with issue X in context Y and it's not your job to educate them.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:59 PM on January 12, 2017

I don't share your cultural background but I have told a professional that shame is my favorite emotion, that suppression is my preferred method of dealing with unpleasantness and it works terrifically for me, and that passive aggression is one of the character traits I admire most. he does not concur with any of this, but he has never come out and told me I am wrong in so many words, even though I wish he would so that I could explain why I'm right. Tolerance for opinions and values a therapist doesn't share and may not immediately understand is part of their skill set; you should be able to get that as a minimum and not have them demand to fix what you tell them isn't broken, even if they disagree, which they will.

I don't think you can get around having a therapist want what's best for you, as an individual; that is indeed their job. but that doesn't mean they know what is best for you, and competent ones understand that.

but also it's completely reasonable to want a therapist who understands your cultural background without you having to explain it again and again. you should be able to trust that if they criticize your decisions or family, it's based on more than stereotype and incomprehension. Feeling (being) misunderstood and attacked is no good. Though if you got similar feedback from someone who did understand and share that background, it might be even more painful, so that's a risk.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:32 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

My general opinion on this is that older cultures with relatively high population densities, like Asian cultures, have no choice but to be more "passive aggressive" etc than younger cultures with lower population densities, like the U.S.

You might search Metafilter for comments on Ask vs. Guess culture. You might search the internet for the terms high context and low context cultures.

You could also look for gifted parenting lists, sign up and just lurk. My experience with such lists is they tend to be highly multicultural, members read a lot of the latest research and participation was often incredibly therapeutic for the parents who subscribed to figure out how to help their kids, then found themselves having tremendous epiphanies about their own lives.

Either get a different therapist or strike out on your own to explore this in whatever way works for you. Read interesting books on the subject. Watch good movies. Start a journal. There are many ways to skin this cat and if this therapist or therapy in general is not working well for you, then go do something else that helps you sort this out without running up against this kind of ignorance and prejudice.
posted by Michele in California at 3:52 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to pretend that my cultural mismatch is anywhere close to being a visible minority. But I'm a liberal Southerner living in San Francisco, with my family being very Republican. There's also quite a bit of Hispanic erasure that is partially inflicted by my hispanic side, and exacerbated by an expectation to assimilate by the non-hispanic side.

During the election, I hit a similar wall where I felt that my therapist just didn't get it, and I was spinning my wheels because I was so busy defending the parts of my culture I like to really examine the parts of my culture that weren't working for me.

Eventually I apologized, and said that I needed to zoom out a bit and discuss politics so I could tease out my emotional response in a family argument. I was just so overwhelmed and couldn't easily access if it was fear or anger or disgust. And it worked surprisingly well.

It's still a negotiation. Sometimes I get so caught up in discussing social norms, I forget to try and tie it back to my own emotional response to those norms. Or I'll be spinning my wheels and take a bit to realize I'm relying on an assumption he doesn't see as universal.

I think an integral part of the work is to examine social norms and deciding if conforming relieves your symptoms or exacerbates them, rather than reacting to your upbringing or the culture you live in. And unfortunately that's twice as much work if you are trying to navigate two competing cultures. But regardless of your therapist's identity, they should be setting that aside and trying to figure out your personal relationship with both cultures and how you can best live between them.
posted by politikitty at 6:15 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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