How I broke the stigma of seeking therapy as an Asian-American

·Senior Writer

“You know I’m here for you, but I can’t be your therapist.”

My college boyfriend was the first person to nudge me toward seeing a licensed professional. 

There’s a strong stigma around therapy in the Asian American community. As the child of Korean immigrants, I was taught to save face, not to air any dirty laundry and most importantly to never talk badly about your family. So the concept of downloading the nitty gritty story of your life to a complete stranger was not only humiliating but unacceptable to them.

In high school, I remember telling my parents I was feeling stressed from schoolwork, tennis season and college applications. My dad responded with his words of encouragement: “Stress is in your imagination.”

At the start of college, I felt I was able to manage my stress on my own. But spring semester of my junior year, my mom was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. She had just celebrated her 50th birthday and thought she merely had a frozen shoulder before eventually seeing a neurologist.

As an only child, she and I were deeply intertwined, emotionally enmeshed, and I found it nearly impossible to compartmentalize final exams and essays with my mom’s diagnosis, which sat like a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. I felt an overwhelming wave of helplessness and despair envelop my whole being. 

Therapy has helped me get better acquainted with myself so I can navigate this world more peacefully and intentionally.

After much deliberation, I made that first appointment at my college’s counseling center, which offered free sessions. I continued seeing a counselor there for the remainder of my college career, and sought out therapy after graduation. 

I saw four therapists in New York City before finding Hilary, a Chinese-American millennial with a diverse background of training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Psychodynamic Therapy. She and I connected very deeply and I saw her weekly for two years. 

Reset Your Mindset: Click for more.
Reset Your Mindset: Click for more.

During this time, I did share my therapy experiences with my mom, who wasn’t keen on hearing many of the details as she still didn’t understand why it was a necessary practice for me. And, I was thinking of moving out to Los Angeles, which would be a huge change in our dynamic, as my mom was based in New Jersey. 

But then Hilary suggested I invite her to audit a session, as long as I delineated clear goals for the hour. 

These are a few of the objectives I shared with Hilary before our session with my mom:

- How is my mom feeling about her health? Her ability to take care of herself?

- How is my mom doing in relation to my move (she had 'given me her blessing' but was not thrilled about it). How do I cope with this?

- What does she want/expect from me as a daughter

My mom, who was initially reluctant to audit the session, got very emotional and vulnerable with me. That hour felt like a massive step in the right direction, where the woman I revere and love the most was able to directly witness my need for a safe, cathartic and healing space. 

Therapy has helped me get better acquainted with myself so I can navigate this world more peacefully and intentionally, and treat the ones I love with more kindness.

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