I imagine that the title of this post is making some of you wary of me, so before I continue, let me assure you: I am, by all accounts, a fairly normal person. I’m very outgoing. I have a lot of friends. I’m usually happy. I have a great family. I have no shortage of quirks, but I’m not a weirdo. (Though most weirdos don’t think they’re weirdos, so that’s probably not the most reassuring statement. But for what it’s worth.)
So why on earth was I in therapy?
A massive understatement: Though it’s not nearly as taboo as it used to be, therapy is still stigmatized in much of the US. Even in areas where it’s more common — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — it’s still often viewed as a luxury for those with money, time, and ego in excess.
Therapy is especially stigmatized in Asian American communities, where saving face is of utmost importance. Acknowledging your problems is akin to admitting weakness; discussing them outside of your family would bring them embarrassment and shame. (Even a mentor can be viewed with confusion or suspicion.) Talking about your problems with a stranger, then — let alone a stranger whom you have to pay — is practically unthinkable.
In addition, Asian cultures generally don’t have a huge vocabulary for feelings or value them highly in the first place; we simply aren’t encouraged to pay attention to them. Thus, many of us have limited awareness of our emotional experiences, let alone words to describe them. On top of that, talking about yourself is generally viewed as immodest in Asian cultures, which place a high premium on modesty. Through that lens, making regular appointments to talk about yourself seems self-indulgent at worst and uncomfortable at best.
The hurdles don’t end there. Asian cultures tend to be vastly different than the Western ones from which most therapists, and the process of therapy itself, originated. In some regards, such as the emphasis on the individual vs. the group, the cultures are diametrically opposed. Thus, there’s often a fear that cultural issues will be misunderstood or pathologized in therapy. (These fears are not unwarranted; the field has an embarrassing history of misinterpreting cultural nuances as personal shortcomings.) There can also be a language barrier to contend with, especially with Asian immigrants. Finding a bilingual therapist can be tricky even in New York, LA, and San Francisco, let alone in the rest of the country.
The numbers reflect these realities: Though Asian Americans have the same rates of mental health concerns as other racial and ethnic groups, they’re far less likely to utilize therapy. And in my personal and professional experience, when Asian Americans are willing to consider it, it’s often because the problem has metastasized to the point where it’s virtually unfixable. In many cases, an earlier intervention would have been much easier, less time-consuming, and less painful to implement — and yielded a far better outcome. But because of the aforementioned barriers, the client waited until it was pretty much too late.
The fact is that Asian Americans have problems, just like everyone else, and most of us could benefit from seeing a therapist. For one, we have the same problems that everyone has — depression, anxiety, family and relationship issues, identity questions, traumatic experiences. On top of that, we have our own unique stressors. There’s often significant conflict between our parents’ values and those of the society around us, with which we have to wrestle as we figure out our careers and relationships. A lot of us face incredible pressure to achieve, to the point where it can be crippling. Some of us have been significantly impacted by our immigration stories or by experiences of racism that we’ve never had a place to process — or a chance to fully heal from.
When I hear people’s stories and suggest that therapy could be helpful, I’m often told, “I can just talk to my family and friends.” Don’t get me wrong — having social support is fantastic, and also critical. But our friends and family aren’t the most objective people. Often, they’re rooting for a certain outcome — or, frankly, their advice isn’t helpful or they aren’t good at listening. Most of us could benefit from processing the things we’re going through with someone who isn’t biased toward one outcome or another, who’s trained to help people work their stuff out.
So why was I in therapy?
Simply put, I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore. I had meticulously mapped out my professional future during my sophomore year of college, and for 5 years, I followed that plan without question. But I was starting to have serious doubts about the direction I was heading in — and I was halfway through a long and costly graduate program. In addition, I was starting to notice a few patterns in my interactions with men that reminded me a little of how I interacted with my dad, whom I adore but with whom I have not always had the most stable relationship.
I was lucky that my graduate program was in clinical psychology, where being in your own therapy is highly recommended, if not required. (Because if you haven’t worked out your own ish, odds are good that it’ll play out with your clients, and that’s not good for anyone.) Thus, I was in an environment where therapy was not only accepted but also considered a professional necessity. So when I hit this little existential crisis 3 years in, none of my peers were surprised that I went to see a therapist. In some ways, it was a relief to join the club; it proved that I wasn’t one of the therapy-dodgers in our program, at whom we raised our eyebrows for training to be therapists without being willing to go through the process themselves.
Because my issues were laden with very specific cultural values and family dynamics, and because of my great fear of those issues being misunderstood, I thought that seeing an Asian American therapist would be ideal. Since I lived in LA, that was a legitimate option. A close friend of mine referred me to one who worked a mere 2 blocks from my apartment.
For 7 months, we met every week and hashed out my stuff. And it was really helpful. It was not like the movies, mind you; there were no dramatic emotional outbursts or Good Will Hunting-style revelations. But it was incredibly helpful to have a space to process my uncertainty about what I was doing with my life and to figure out whether or not I wanted to continue grad school, apart from anyone else’s expectations. Sure, I had other people to talk to, but they were my parents (who, both having PhDs themselves, fully expected me to stay in school), my community (all of whom were students whom I had met in school), and a few professors (who taught at my school). Not the most objective crowd. My therapist, in contrast, was ultimately invested not in whether I stayed in school but in helping me to be as honest as I could with myself, to explore the ramifications of my options, and to make a decision I was satisfied with. (In case you’re wondering: I decided to stay in school. Six years later, I’m still happy with that choice.)
Therapy also gave me a place to process my relationship with my dad and how it affected the kind of guys I was choosing to spend time with and the ways I interacted with men in general. I certainly could not discuss this objectively with my parents, nor was I willing to impose on my friends the substantial amount of time and focus this discussion required. The insights I gained in therapy, as well as the feelings I was able to express and process and work through, were invaluable. I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that I met my now-husband almost immediately after my therapy ended — I was finally looking for a healthy relationship instead of one that felt familiar — and my relationship with him is very different from the one I had with my dad. (Not that everyone will find a spouse right after being in therapy. But I’ll wager that after some good therapy, their relationships will probably be healthier.)
Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you’re crazy; many of the most stable, self-aware, comfortable-with-themselves people I know are that way largely because of their time in therapy. Seeing a therapist simply means that, like everyone else, you could benefit from talking to someone about your issues. From getting tools to manage sadness or anxiety. From having space to process your relationships with your parents, your friends, your partners; to heal from painful experiences; to figure out what you’re doing with your life.
I’m a huge advocate of therapy to everyone, but especially to my Asian American brothers and sisters — not because we need it more, but because so few people are encouraging us to do it.
And because there’s so much we stand to gain.