Contributed by Holly Mak
As Lunar New Year approaches, I’m sure many of us are looking forward to festivities and family time. I’m also sure that for some of us, family gatherings might bring about more complex feelings – anxiety, dread, or even shame.
Over the past year, I’ve been struck by how enduring a theme shame is in so many of my client’s stories. Many of my clients, like myself, are East-Asian Third-Culture Kids who grew up in multicultural communities. So where does shame come in?
A client who identifies as queer but is not out to her family shared that each year, at her family’s Lunar New Year dinner, her aunt would inevitably ask about her marital status. Last year my client begrudgingly shared that she was still single, to which her aunt reacted in horror and proceeded to share the contact details of various male suitors. “Can’t be too picky,” she said. This brought up shame and anger in my client, but she stayed silent out of fear that her aunt would get even more upset.
My clients often experience immense pressure to meet family expectations, ones couched in unwavering milestones. Attending a good university. Securing a reputable, well-paying job. Heterosexual marriage and children – the list goes on. These conditions of self-worth are unfortunately magnified at family gatherings, when conversations can feel like interrogations, rather than genuine exchanges.
Shame: when worlds collide
While Asian culture values collectivism and harmony, Western culture puts more emphasis on self-authorship and independence. These values aren’t necessarily opposed, but it can be tricky trying to balance them all at once.
Within cultures that emphasise conformity, rejection is a common outcome of challenging recognised norms, making it difficult to speak out or act differently. In Asian families, elders are respected at all costs, even if it means hiding your true feelings: this might look like appearing to agree with something even if you don’t, or going along with something even if you don’t want to.
This dissonance is jarring when you’re able to express yourself more freely in other spaces – with friends and colleagues; at your weekly tango or tennis class. When moving between cultures, it can be hard to navigate mixed messages around “good” or “bad” behaviour, especially when one behaviour, e.g. expressing yourself freely, feels right in one context, but wrong in another.
Therein lies the crux, and perhaps the beauty, of being in between cultures: a third space emerges when cultural binaries dissolve and contradictions are embraced, creating something new altogether. In the spirit of inhabiting this third space, here are some tools I share with clients to keep the stress of family gatherings at bay this month and beyond.
1. Check in with yourself
Shame is most prominent when we only hear voices of judgement in our heads, and our own voice either gets lost in the fray, or takes on the critical tone of those around us.
Going into a family gathering, you will inevitably be encountering perspectives different from your own. Setting a boundary between yourself and others’ opinions, especially if they have shaming implications, can prevent what a client of mine describes as “getting sucked in”. Checking in with yourself creates a base of safety you can always return to. Take a moment to yourself, take a few deep breaths, and ask:
– How am I feeling at this moment?
– Where am I feeling this in my body?
– What do I need at this moment and how can I provide this for myself?
– Is there anything I can do to lessen any discomfort?
2. Relocate your center of gravity
Another way of checking in with yourself is to picture your body’s centre of gravity. When we get overwhelmed by worry, our attention strays further and further from our bodies. When this happens, the mind and body disconnect from each other, and the worry is likely to feel more intense.
To support your nervous system in returning to safety, try to imagine your body as a stable, steady object, anchored to the earth by a strong centre of gravity. Your centre of gravity can be any part of your body that can root down to a surface, e.g. a chair, or the ground.
Some people like to focus their attention on their feet; some find it helpful, if they’re sitting, to reground their butts and backs into their chairs. These intentional shifts in attention allow your mind and body to find each other again, so your focus can return to the here and now.
3. Try the Grey Rock Method
In collectivist cultures, one person’s emotions can easily blend with another’s. If one person expresses concern about something, they may be inviting you to feel the same in order to have that concern validated. Interactions can feel intense when another person’s emotions start to escalate, and before you know it, you’re drawn into the same emotion. To prevent this from happening, using the Grey Rock Method can help.
Picture a grey rock: what comes to mind? Probably not much. The aim is to be as brief and boring as possible, so as to decrease the emotional intensity between yourself and the other person. If you respond to an intrusion of your boundaries with a minimal change in facial expression, tone and body language, the intruder is likely to lose interest. For example:
Relative: So, you’ve been married for two years now.
Grey Rock: (blank face) Yup.
Relative: And you’re not getting any younger.
Grey Rock: Right.
Relative: So when are you starting a family?
Grey Rock: I don’t know.
Relative: What? Aren’t you planning on it?
Grey Rock: We’ll see.
Relative: When I was your age, I already had two kids.
Grey Rock: Okay.
Relative: Why wait? You can’t just focus on work forever.
Grey Rock: Mm-hmm.
Working with shame in the long-run
Ultimately, these are tools for coping in the moment. In the long-run, healing from shame takes more work. Working with a therapist is a way of identifying childhood wounds and origins of internalised shame, so that our values and boundaries around preferred relationships can gradually be realised.
Finding supportive communities where we feel seen can also grow trust and self-compassion. While it may not be possible to completely tune out the shaming voices in our lives, we can practise de-escalating their power, while regularly tuning in to the voices that nurture and empower us.
Author: Holly Mak
Holly Mak is a mental health counsellor who works with members of the transnational, Third-Culture, and Asian diasporic communities. Growing up in Hong Kong as a TCK and having also lived in the UK, Canada, and Taiwan, Holly has extensive experience navigating multicultural identity challenges. By sharing stories about her counselling work, she hopes people can feel more connected and supported, no matter where they are in the world.