Updated: Aug 15
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
This post is focused on how certain factors that seem to be connected with South Asian culture could have an impact on the relationships you have with others – and with yourself.
These concepts may not apply to every person, situation, or relationship, but are intended as general ideas for you to think about and consider which ones could be relevant to you.
The content below is intended to help build self-awareness in an effort to shine a light on South Asian mental health and the importance of self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-reflection.
1. Family expectations of you
While growing up, the expectations that your South Asian family may have had of you could play a heavy role in your relationship dynamics in the family unit and beyond.
Its impact doesn’t stop once you surpass childhood and youth – it can continue into adulthood and may help explain why we think, feel, and act in a specific manner in the present day.
For example, have you ever noticed that you have communicated, interacted, and interpreted social situations in a similar way throughout your life? This could be linked to the implicit messages you received in your early life about what to believe in, what is valuable and important, and how to perceive others and social scenarios. And you may have been expected to follow these guidelines.
Even if you led your life a certain way up to this point, you can choose for yourself now whether these perspectives still hold true for you or if you want to try to create new relationship dynamics with the people in your life – or at least adjust how you engage with others to suit your current self.
2. Internal pressure to follow social norms
Feeling a sense of internal pressure to do things because you “should” do it is a common issue within South Asian culture. It serves to perpetuate rituals and routines that you may no longer want to participate in but you do it anyway because you are concerned about how a change of direction could negatively impact others. This feeling of guilt can keep you trapped in a cycle that negatively affects you emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
If you use this self-imposed pressure as an internal compass to guide your behaviour and personal choices, this may mean that you are not acting in line with your present-day priorities, goals, and needs. Take some time to think about what would help you feel satisfied, happy, and fulfilled – and do that – while trying to keep the feelings of guilt and shame at bay. Acting more in line with how you want to lead your life can improve the quality of your life and your relationships.
3. Worry about what other people will think
Being overcome with worry about what other people may think of our choices regarding our education, career, relationships, daily activities, appearance, and other life factors often occurs in South Asian households and can keep us stuck in patterns that no longer serve us.
Consider “what is important to me?”, “what will make me happy?”, and other questions so that you start to hear your inner voice over the multitude of others’ opinions about what you should or shouldn’t do. Learn to focus on your voice so that it becomes the primary one in your mind.
4. Difficulty with assertiveness
Do you have trouble speaking up about what you want? Is it hard for you to put yourself out there? Does this make you feel uncomfortable? If so, please know that you are not alone. Assertiveness can be seen as an insurmountable feat as South Asian culture often teaches us that silence or harmony is better than any type of disagreement or conflict and that being of service to others (also described as people-pleasing) is expected of you.
However, it’s important to know that there is nothing wrong with being assertive. In fact, being assertive makes sure that our basic needs are not overlooked or devalued by others.
5. Challenges setting boundaries
Similarly, a common difficulty for South Asians is that it is often very challenging to set boundaries with family and other important people in your life.
You might have learned in your childhood and youth that putting the well-being of others before your own is just something you have to do. Or you might have been told that boundaries are inappropriate or are disrespectful to others – particularly elders. Or maybe you might have just done what others want you to do because saying "no" felt uncomfortable or was not acknowledged by others.
This may help explain why complex family dynamics or marital and in-law relationship issues are key matters leading many South Asians to seek mental health support from a South Asian therapist who has a good understanding of the cultural nuances that may be at play while also helping the individual establish a new way of relating that reflects their own needs.
Just like there is nothing wrong with being assertive, there is nothing wrong with setting boundaries. We need boundaries to teach others how to treat us and to demonstrate that we are worthy of respect – just like anyone else. This may be a surprise to some, but boundaries actually tend to help our relationships function better because, if no one knows what our needs are, then how can the relationship help us feel cared for, loved, and supported? Let that sink in for a minute. Setting and maintaining boundaries is understandably hard – but with practice, it will hopefully get a little easier over time.
6. Not trusting yourself
As a South Asian individual, you may have developed a pattern of having difficulty trusting your own opinion, inner voice, perspective, and intuition because you may have been taught that elders know better or that you should listen to your family as they have your best interests at heart - even if what they want for you is different than what you want for yourself.
Perhaps what you are learning now as an adult and possibly through therapy or counselling is that your thoughts and feelings matter. That you matter. And that it is ok to trust yourself because you ultimately know what’s best for you.
This post discussed some of the key internal and external factors that are commonly associated with South Asian culture that could be influencing how you see yourself and how you interact with others in important relationships.
While some of these points may resonate with you, it’s ok if not all of them do – every concept may not be relevant to your unique situation. Hopefully, reviewing them was a helpful general overview.
Feel free to reflect on any ideas that stand out to you. And, if you have people in your life who could benefit from this article or if you are an advocate for South Asian mental health, please share this post in case it could be helpful for others as well.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
Read more blog posts about South Asian Mental Health.
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