The Normalization of Loyalty and Enmeshment in Asian Family Systems
Updated: Mar 4
As I listen to my female Asian and Asian American patient's stories, a theme emerges of needing to be obedient and wanting to be their own person. I recall a kind and hardworking Vietnamese woman in her 40's who was living a fulfilling life in America with her husband and children before her 80-year-old mother was going to come from Vietnam and live with them. She and her mother were both my patient. She always brought her mother in for care every month. The mother talked about everything aching and tingling and refused to stop smoking, as most elderly patients do. We worked on stabilizing her chronic conditions and managing her 20 medications (I know, polypharmacy, right?). However, a few months later, the daughter started getting severe acid reflux that wouldn't go away and her mood started changing. I treated her for her reflux, but asked her what was happening at home. She started crying and told me, "I feel like my mom's slave. I do everything for her and she still yells at me all day and tells me how bad of a daughter I am. I can't make her happy." I listened as this woman sought love and acknowledgment from her mother and the sadness she held that she would never be enough in her mother's eyes. It didn't matter if she took care of her every needs, tried to connect with her mom emotionally, or accomplished a successful life.
With my younger Asian American patients, again, all very intelligent, hard working, and independent, they have clearer personal identities which they are proud of, but fighting with themselves to love parents who they know aren't capable of emotional connections and somehow feel enmeshed or tied to them in a deeply loyal way. They struggle with holding these two conflicting values of obedience and self-worth in their bodies. They feel angry, sad, and confused.
I ask them if they know what are they loyal to? Is it loyalty to their role? Is it loyalty to love or secrets. What are your boundaries? This language of boundaries doesn't exist in Vietnamese, Chinese, or Mongolian language (per my patients), so I start describing it to them. "It's knowing knowing where you start and I begin. Obviously we have different bodies, but it's more of the mental and emotional awareness. It's knowing that I can love you and also love myself versus trying to please you so you love me." They start looking wide-eyed because the concept hasn't existed in their purview. A concept like this would be deemed as "selfish" or "American behavior" and immediately dismissed and unable to be explored. However, boundaries are crucial for a healthy self-esteem based on your own self-acknowledgment and self-trust, which then helps you grow into your own mature psychological adulthood and build healthy relationships.
When you're from a dysfunctional family, love is defined as loyalty, even when you're harmed. They expect unlimited forgiveness, weak boundaries, and to quickly move past harm caused by others."
-Nedra Tawwab, therapist and NYT bestselling author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace
Why boundaries are so important:
Respect: Boundaries help to establish mutual respect between individuals. When you communicate your boundaries clearly and respectfully, others are more likely to respect your needs and feelings.
Safety: Boundaries also help to establish physical and emotional safety. By communicating your boundaries, you can set limits on behavior that is hurtful or inappropriate, and establish a sense of safety and security.
Personal well-being: Setting and maintaining boundaries is an important part of self-care. When you have clear boundaries, you are better able to prioritize your own needs and well-being, and avoid overextending yourself or neglecting your own needs.
Healthy relationships: Boundaries help to establish healthy and positive relationships. When individuals respect each other's boundaries, it fosters a sense of trust, honesty, and mutual support.
Communication: Establishing and maintaining boundaries requires clear and honest communication, which can help to improve communication skills and foster deeper and more meaningful relationships.
Holding boundaries in Asian families can be challenging, particularly if there is a cultural expectation of collectivism and deference to authority figures. However, it is important to establish and maintain healthy boundaries in order to maintain your own well-being and autonomy.
Here are some tips on how to practice holding boundaries in Asian families:
Identify your boundaries: Start by identifying your personal boundaries and what you are and are not comfortable with. This can include things like how much personal space you need, what topics you do not want to discuss, and what behaviors you will not tolerate from others.
Communicate clearly and assertively: When communicating your boundaries to others, it is important to be clear, direct, and assertive. Use "I" statements to express your feelings and needs, and avoid being accusatory or blaming. Remember that it is okay to say "no" to others and to prioritize your own needs and well-being.
Be respectful and understanding: While it is important to assert your own boundaries, it is also important to be respectful and understanding of the cultural context and values of your family. Communicate your boundaries in a way that shows that you still value and respect your family members, even if you disagree with their actions or beliefs.
Practice self-care: Holding boundaries can be emotionally and mentally draining, so it is important to practice self-care to maintain your own well-being. This can include things like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
Seek support: If holding boundaries in your family is particularly challenging, seek support from trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals. They can provide emotional support, advice, and guidance on how to navigate challenging situations.
Holding boundaries is hard on its own, but even harder with controlling people who feel like they "own" you. You will most likely experience their rage, guilt trips, gaslighting, etc. It's a delicate art to enforce boundaries, especially with very controlling individuals, so I always recommend developing an awareness of what makes you feel safe and unsafe and commit yourself to protecting your safety above all else. It's not easy when it's tied to a dysfunctional notion of love deeply embedded in your body and subconscious, but it's a start to recognizing what healthy and unhealthy love is.
I recommended my Vietnamese patient to get more support with therapy, but I didn't put the onus completely on her. Although I'm much younger, there is a cultural respect for a clinician's opinion so I brought this up with the mother. "It seems like your body is hurting, but maybe your insides are hurting too?" Her mother felt very fearful of being alone and used tactics to get her daughter to fulfill her needs. We were able to have an honest conversation, not blaming her, but also letting her know that she can't keep doing this because her daughter is hurting. I can't be sure if there was any huge change, but I think it allowed both of them to be sad without bringing them both down together.
Let me know if you have questions on boundaries and what have been some ways you've practiced holding on to your boundaries.