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Ask Sahaj is a series from The Lily with Sahaj Kaur Kohli, a therapist-in-training and advice columnist. She will be answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Kohli, please send her an email.

Dear Sahaj,

I am a 29-year-old, Japanese American woman and never really understood the concept of biculturalism until following your work on Brown Girl Therapy. As the first in my family to be born in the West, I never had the language or understanding of how my two very different cultures impact every part of my life.

Recently, I have been reflecting a lot on how stifled I feel in my everyday life. A big part of this, I realize, is because my Japanese grandparents and parents who live close to me expect me to always be available to them and inform them of everything I am doing. Often, they have something negative to say about the everyday choices I make — anything from where I get my groceries to how I want to spend my weekend. I am finding that there’s no choice I can make that will get a positive response, and this makes it really hard for me to feel like I am a good daughter/granddaughter, let alone a good or capable person! I feel like I am constantly being judged and weighed against the sacrifices and choices they made in their life.

I feel like I was expected to be an adult as a young kid, translating and helping my parents as the oldest child and grandchild, and now as an adult I am expected to be a child. The more independent I get, the more control my parents/grandparents exert.

I love my family. I really do. But I feel like I am so far behind my peers when it comes to having confidence, freedom and independence.

I guess I just want to know: I’m not alone, right? How can I reclaim some of my life so everything I do doesn’t feel wrong? How can I start to understand this from their side and approach it with compassion?

— Feeling stifled

Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)
Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)

You are definitely not alone.

It’s not uncommon for children of immigrants to be parent-ified when they are young. This means that as a child, you were expected to perform and play the roles of an adult or parent that were beyond your age and development but were necessary for your family’s survival or adaptation into a new country and culture. While not always detrimental, this can have negative implications on how you view your own personhood.

Family systems work the way they work because each member plays a role in helping the system function. As a child, your adultlike contributions were essential to the family’s function as a whole. That’s a lot of pressure! When someone no longer plays the role they have been playing or is expected of them, someone else in the system tends to adopt it. Now as an adult, it doesn’t seem your role as the parent/adult figure for your parents is needed as much and so the dynamics in the system have shifted. Where does that leave you?

It’s easy for humans to understand how we should behave and what is expected of us via the roles we play in our lives. This contributes to our self-concept, the process in which we learn about who we are and how we perceive ourselves. But here’s the thing: Self-concept is learned. You’ve been taught that your self-concept centers on how available and of service you are to your parents/grandparents and their approval of your choices.

Of course, the goal is not necessarily to withdraw or differentiate yourself completely from your family system or family relationships. However, it does sound to me like you are searching for some agency. The stifled feeling you describe can be a sort of suffocation when things are happening to you without you having any control or choice in it.

Maybe it’s time to reflect on what narratives you’ve been told about who you need to be and how that ties to your definition of worthiness and goodness as a daughter, a granddaughter and generally, a human being. Part of having a strong self-concept and generally, a strong bicultural identity, is reflecting on your own values and how they may overlap or differ from the various cultures and systems you exist within.

It sounds to me like you value confidence, freedom and independence, and that they may be conflicting with the values your parents or grandparents hold. Consider spending some time reflecting on what it means to live authentically as you, and how that compares to the values you are actually living by. This can help you get clarity on what is important to you and how you can protect and prioritize it in your life.

The fact that you’re looking for validation in how you feel tells me that you don’t trust yourself. It’s hard to know what you want and what you need when you’ve never been encouraged to explore it. It’s also hard to know that you are a good person who is capable of making choices for herself when your every decision is being criticized. You are trying to aim for a moving target, and it seems like this is setting you up for failure no matter what you do. So what could happen if you determine what the target is, incorporating the values you want to prioritize, rather than trying to hit a bull’s eye on someone else’s target?

Existing as a bicultural person can induce feelings of stuckness between differing cultures and values. It can be painful to reflect on what actually serves you, where these values come from in your family, in society and in your cultures, and make choices to incorporate or replace them. It’s also a beautiful thing to be able to choose values that serve you. Ultimately, this strengthens your self-concept, your rootedness in who you are and where you come from, and protects your mental health and happiness. Plus, this can allow you to show up more willingly and more happily within your family relationships.

I think it’s admirable you are struggling and still have the space and desire to consider how you can meet your parents and grandparents where they are. This is a testament of your love to your family. Sometimes our parents and elders adopt a love language that includes (or is mainly) constant worrying about our well-being.

It can be hard to see our family members for who they are and what they’ve lived through outside of how they treat us. Consider learning more about them and their fears. Ask them more on what worries them about the choices you make. Maybe this will lead to a larger conversation around their own experiences that created these fears. Or maybe it will allow you to understand where they come from and communicate your own needs and feelings around their questions and behaviors. Curiosity is a great way to initiate conflict resolution, and by briefly tweaking family interactions and conversations, you will eventually see a ripple effect that can positively change the family system as a whole.

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