Roots Of The “Unhappy Asian”: Understanding Patterns of Relating

As a therapist who works with Asian clients, I see firsthand the distresses many of my Asian clients have. I see what some of the primary causes of their distress are, and have explored these topics in my book, Flex Your No Muscle: Being Asian, Being Happy, and Finding Emotional Health.

One such cause is what I call “patterns of relating.” In the below excerpt, I explain a little more in detail what this is and how it affects my Asian clients.

Mike's story

“I stay later in the office than everyone else. I put in the extra effort on all of the projects. But it seems like I never get ahead. My coworkers stroll into work late and leave early, and they’re the ones who get promoted. It’s unfair, and it’s frustrating.”

You couldn’t miss the stress on Mike’s face when he came to see me. He had just been passed over again for a promotion, one he had felt sure that he would get. We had been discussing how he had been stuck in the same role, and how for the past few years he never seemed to advance.

Mike worked in finance, a fast-paced, competitive environment. Mike, for his part, liked to put his head down and get things done. He thought this time his work ethic would pay off, but for some reason other people in his office would leapfrog him, people he felt were less experienced or underqualified.

At first, Mike was hesitant to talk about his past. But that day Mike wanted to get to the bottom of this issue. So when I asked him about his family and his parents, he didn’t hesitate to share.

Mike was born the child of Vietnamese immigrants. He grew up in San Marino, a neighborhood near Los Angeles known for having many Asians and for having some of the most competitive schools. As a child he remembered how at home his mother would “run the show.” “It was usually her way or the highway,” he shared. “We all felt her looming presence all the time at home. She was the boss. All of us, including my dad, would be scared of her when she wanted something a certain way or when she got upset.”

Mike recalled how on the first day of fifth grade, his mom wanted him to wear the new jacket she had bought him. “But I like my old jacket,” he said, putting on his jacket, ready to go out the door.

“Mommy went to so much trouble to buy this coat and would be really sad if you didn’t wear it,” his mom said. Unable to bear her feeling sad, Mike relented and slipped on the new coat before catching the school bus.

Later, after Mike came home, his mom sat him down and said, “You know, Mommy was very sad this morning when you talked back to her.” Upon hearing this, Mike crumbled. He couldn’t bear the thought of making his mom sad. He never brought up his preference for clothes with her again. As we continued to dig for clues, we saw how conflicts like these around Mike’s freedom and choices would come up again and again between him and his mom.

Situations where Mike could not express his freedom continued outside of the home as well. Mike was active in his church from middle school through high school. He sang in the choir, was the leader of small groups, and taught Sunday school. Though Mike enjoyed serving, he noticed how the pastor ran a tight ship and emphasized obedience and hierarchy.

During spring break, Mike had planned a camping trip with his friends that happened to coincide with an upcoming church retreat. When Mike found his name on the schedule of events for the retreat without having been notified, he called the pastor to tell him he couldn’t make it.

His pastor wouldn’t take no for an answer. “We can’t have the retreat without you. I don’t have a replacement. Besides, don’t you think helping out the church is more important than whatever plans you have with your buddies?”

Once again, it did not take much for Mike to relent. He asked his friends to reschedule the camping trip, but since they couldn’t, he was forced to miss it.

Mike sat across from me and his head sank low. “From an early age, I was taught that no is a bad word. No can hurt people’s feelings. No causes conflict.”

Norms Hidden in Plain Sight

To relate this background to Mike’s current problem at work, I told him how a way of interacting, or “pattern of relating,” was set in place at an early age. This norm of behavior is something he learned and adopted for himself and it had a direct relationship with how he was doing at work.

There are ingrained, often unconscious ways we were taught to relate to others. For you, the pattern was that saying no would bring disappointment, disapproval, or sometimes anger from someone else. But when someone else operates under a different norm, your old pattern ends up causing you more harm than good. Though your mom and your pastor disliked your no, your boss might like to hear a clear no from you.”

Following this pattern had worked for him in the past—it got his mom off his back, it appeased his pastor, it helped him feel less guilty. But this pattern didn’t serve him well in his present, which is why he was surprised to see that he wasn’t getting the approval he expected.

Mike started noticing his pattern at work when he had a tendency to ask, “Is this OK?” before moving forward on any decision. He saw how he needed permission and felt anxious to check to be sure he was “allowed” to do things.

To him he was just making sure he was being respectful and that he wasn’t stepping on people’s toes. But his superiors did not see his behavior as being respectful and considerate. Instead they interpreted his behavior as a lack of initiative and a constant need for guidance.

Understanding Patterns of Relating

In terms of roots of the “unhappy Asian” it is important for us to look at these patterns of relating.

For Mike a norm was established that saying no brought disapproval. For you, it could be something else. There are many different patterns of relating that can get set in place, depending on your culture or your family.

It is to your benefit to recognize these patterns, such as:

Depending on when and with whom these norms were set (e.g., with a parent or at a vulnerable age), these patterns of relating become hard to break free of once they get established. They become hard-wired and such a part of us that soon we consider this way of interacting as the way to relate to others, instead of a way to relate to others.

The picture gets more complicated because these patterns of relating are not always bad. Depending on the situation, a certain pattern of relating can be appropriate.

For instance, when my grandmother gives me a gift of fruit I do not need, that is not a situation where I would need to assert my independence and freedom of choice. It would be rude to refuse it. In this instance, just taking the fruit I do not need would communicate courtesy and respect. It is important to see the difference between making a compromise and being compromised. Here, taking the fruit is a compromise, but it does not mean I am being compromised in any way.

As you examine your own patterns or that of your family, see if they are doing more harm than good. Just because something is a norm does not make it normal. For Mike, his pattern of relating—rather than having him be seen as considerate and polite—caused him, now, to be seen as passive and indecisive.

Emotional and relational pain caused by unhealthy relational patterns

When we “carry” an unhealthy relational pattern from our past into other areas of our lives, it can be the cause of deeper emotional and relational pain, such as:

How to break patterns of relating

If we want to break these patterns of relating, our task, then, is twofold.

  1. Recognize patterns: First, we need to recognize these patterns. We need to do some self-examination to see if we have been affected by our culture to act in an unhealthy way.
  2. Undo the negative patterns: Second, we need to try and undo the negative patterns by learning new ways of relating. This takes a degree of discernment on our part, because as I mentioned, there are some occasions where the pattern of relating can be a good thing.

It is not easy to go up against culture. Norms are hard to change. People are used to doing things a certain way, and you follow suit, and other people in turn follow your lead. And on goes the cycle. The ones who perpetrate these norms may be your parents, your company culture, or the media. Since the norms are set in place, the influences, both good and bad, lay hidden in plain sight.

Taken from the book: Flex Your No Muscle: Being Asian, Being Happy, and Finding Emotional Health. John M. Kim is a therapist who practices in Los Angeles, California.