AAPI Mental Health: Boundaries in AAPI Families
In honor of AAPI Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, our intern Amanda will be addressing AAPI mental health topics every Monday this May! Amanda is a queer, neurodivergent Vietnamese-Filipina clinical mental health counseling student currently interning at Cut Fruit Collective for her master’s program. Today's topic is boundaries in AAPI families. If you like this series, you can show your support to Amanda here.
Boundaries help us protect our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing by encouraging us to reflect on and express our needs. When we set clear boundaries, we can take the time to make sure they are flexible and adaptive by considering the current context, our needs, and the other person’s boundaries. This way, we can establish space for ourselves while maintaining our integrity and respect for others.
Your parent has cut some fruit for you. You finish the plate of cut fruit and tell your parent, “Thank you for the fruit! I’m feeling very full now and I won’t eat anymore fruit this morning.” This is an example of clear boundary setting. You expressed your needs and current state (gratitude and no longer being hungry) and state what actions you will be taking (you will not eat any more fruit this morning).Your parent starts immediately cutting more fruit and says, “Nonsense, you need to eat more,” and puts another plate of fruit in front of you. In response, you say, “Thank you for always taking care of me when I'm home. I'll enjoy this fruit for dessert later after dinner,” and put the fruit into the fridge. You’ve enforced your boundaries (not eating anymore fruit this morning) in an adaptive and respectful way (expressing your gratitude and stating that you will eat the fruit later).
It can be difficult for us as AAPI to set boundaries, especially within the context of family. Many AAPI may feel a need to honor our elders & uphold our family’s reputation, whether that’s due to pressure from our cultural norms or a sense of gratitude to those who came before us. Loyalty to one’s family is a core tenet of many Asian and Pacific Islander cultures, from hiya and kapwa in Filipino culture to 孝 (Mandarin: xiào) in Chinese culture. While we may love our family dearly, this pressure to uphold family reputation can make it hard for us to define our own identities as individuals and openly seek mental health care.
At the same time, this family loyalty is often framed in direct opposition to the push from individualistic Western cultural values to be hyper independent and completely self-sufficient. We may have even been told that some of our cultural values of community care and devotion to family are harmful or toxic because they make us “too dependent” on our family and others. However, it is precisely those values that have helped our people thrive and care for each other for hundreds of generations.
This is not to excuse real behaviors or patterns that are damaging, traumatic, or abusive. Rather, we can add nuance and push back against biased narratives to reclaim our mental health with cultural context, asking “How can we as people of Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora hold boundaries that respect our needs while also honoring our culture and heritage?” We do not have to choose between ourselves or our families. It is possible for us to honor both.
Like all skills, learning to set boundaries takes practice and patience. There’s nothing wrong with taking small steps first. Boundary setting as AAPI may look like:
- Affirming your right to privacy. You are not obligated to be open with everyone, even your family members. When you feel pressured to share in an unsafe environment, try keeping certain details to yourself to preserve some amount of privacy.
- Embracing chosen family. Boundaries are not just about keeping people at a distance. They can also reflect who we would like to keep close. Allowing yourself to be celebrated by those who fully see you is not a rejection of your family’s love and care.
- Intentionally creating distance. Stepping away from family matters, current events, or other emotionally draining situations does not make you a less caring or loving person. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You may feel more equipped to offer understanding and support when you’ve had time to recover.
- Clearly expressing your physical, emotional, and communication needs. This can feel very scary and vulnerable, so take time to reflect and assess the situation to make sure you feel safe enough to do so. Try writing a note or sending a letter if expressing the boundary face-to-face feels too big.
- disrespecting your personal space, such as searching your belongings without permission
- bringing up sensitive topics when you have explicitly asked not to discuss them
- ignoring your autonomy, such as making decisions on your behalf without your permission or input
- dismissing your emotions and mental health concerns by saying it’s not a “big deal” or comparing them to “worse” problems other people have
When your boundaries are ignored, know that feelings of betrayal, hopelessness, numbness, grief, and anger are valid. It can also feel hard to trust that your boundaries will be respected in the future. We can take time to step back, affirm our feelings, assess if the boundary we set was clear and flexible, and re-engage when we are ready to reiterate our boundary. Remember, protecting your boundaries in the moment may feel difficult, uncomfortable, or scary, but doing so is an investment into your long-term wellbeing.
Affirmations for AAPIs:
- You do not owe anyone an explanation for your boundaries and are lovable even after you’ve set them.
- You are honoring your heritage by protecting and nurturing your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
- Having mental health struggles does not mean you are ungrateful for your family’s love and sacrifices.
- All of who you are is worthy of love.