How to Find Mental Health Balance as a South Asian Millennial

South Asian Millennial

The following post is sponsored by Parthi B. Patel, a therapist focusing on intentional and holistic approaches that aim to elevate your therapeutic experience by taking YOU into account: your values, beliefs, and personality. It is her goal to work together and communicate effectively to build a healthy, intentional foundation for you. Book a consultation here.

As a South Asian millennial and child of immigrants, it is hard for me not to look at the world differently than my peers, those who only know a Western lifestyle. It was difficult growing up in a space where I felt the need to fit into two different cultures – American and Indian. I always felt behind. For example, I was socially behind with my friends because I was sheltered. I felt culturally behind because I wasn’t always surrounded by a reminder of my heritage. This can be a difficult experience. As a therapist, I want to share a few tips on how to find mental health balance as a South Asian millennial.

I was often struggling to find a sense of belonging between two opposing cultures. I couldn’t relate to my American friends — I couldn’t watch all the movies, I didn’t know all the slang, and I surely didn’t know what it felt like to live a “normal” life [according to American standards]. That meant no hanging out after school, parties, and having the earliest curfew of all my friends. On the other hand, I couldn’t relate to my family members in India because I was “too Americanized.” Being pulled into a “one or the other” was not only difficult but it made it hard to find myself without having to try to adjust or fit in.

A struggle like this can make it difficult to connect with immigrant parents. In hindsight, my teenage and young adult years were probably the toughest to connect with my parents or any South Asian adult. This disconnect extends into the therapy room as well. Traditional Western models of therapy often do not work with South Asian clients because it is nearly impossible to involve all or some family members. The revelation of therapy, boundaries, and differences in opinions can create negative communication, projections, or parents who perceive it as their own failure. Projection is a defense mechanism that helps to keep the discomfort about ourselves suppressed and outside of our consciousness. It can sound a bit like, “I went wrong somewhere,“ “Why is this happening to me?” or “How can you do that to us?” which are all enough to guilt and shame you. Triggering, right?

[Read Related: Supporting the Mental Health of South Asian Aunties and Uncles]

Generational gaps are hard to navigate with immigrant parents and elders, especially with hopes of keeping a relationship with them. We don’t often see our parents changing as quickly as we change with the (Western) world. But what we don’t realize is that it doesn’t mean they won’t ever change or understand you. This takes time, gentle persistence, and patience. It means acknowledging that very idea of generational trauma to create healthier relationships and boundaries. Once you acknowledge that, you learn to create peace and take responsibility for what you can fix, instead of blaming who created that trigger or trauma.

How to Take Responsibility (of yourself)

Taking responsibility means a lot of self-reflecting: identifying your triggers, reflecting on your upbringing, and effectively finding healthier ways to improve. This also means identifying your personal experiences and learning to communicate (to yourself and others) your needs and boundaries. As important as communication is, it doesn’t end there. Communication is just a part of the process. What comes after is even more important — truly understanding another perspective and validating their emotions, whether you agree or disagree, is where the work truly begins. 

Generational trauma can lead to a few things, such as constant comparison, self-worth tied to material things and productivity, feeling “not enough”, and constant critical (and sometimes negative) feedback from parents, and other adults. The criticism can sometimes even come from yourself, especially when pursuing your next milestone or aspiration. Generally, children of immigrants develop traits such as over-communicating, staying in unhealthy relationships or friendships, codependency, overcommitment, prioritizing grand gestures vs small ones, internalizing, and black and white mindsets. Take for example relationships — you may find yourself giving too much of yourself to the relationship and overcommitting to responsibilities or “doing too much” because it was never shown how to set healthy boundaries. Instead, you become neglectful of yourself. Or you may have a set way of thinking of how things should be vs how they can be.

[Read related: I Think you Should Start Therapy: Processing Trauma as a South Asian]

Prioritizing your mental health does not mean you are rejecting your culture, it means breaking generational trauma. When working to navigate through this, it is important to remember that feelings of resentment are common. Resentment is hard to work through emotionally. I encourage anyone who is working through their issues with their childhood and generational trauma to remember that immigrant parents did the best they could. Mental health just simply didn’t exist and it wasn’t an option for them. They adjusted to survive. They were taught to be self-sufficient and asking for help wasn’t wrong but unfamiliar. Immigrant parents don’t know what it’s like to grow up in America and you don’t know what it was like to move to America. 

Here are a few things you can do to break the generational cycle: 

  • Create conversation to understand them instead of shaming them on their experience
  • Reflect on and reframe your own stories that are intertwined with your parents. Recreate a new narrative that you want your children to embody 
  • Cultivate a sense of compassion for your family and the struggles they experienced. Despite their flaws, past generations worked hard for the next generation to have a better life and this should be celebrated and embraced
  • Set clear boundaries — why is it important to set these boundaries? How strict? What is the outcome you are looking for? Reflect on who you struggle to set boundaries with and why
  • Learn to celebrate your success and growth, no matter how small or large 
  • Reflect on your patterns, find your triggers, and acknowledge the existence of trauma
  • You seek help — whether that may be therapy or creating a support system 

Setting Healthy Boundaries

When creating boundaries, it doesn’t mean you have to share those with any particular person. Learning to discipline yourself is important — especially when you are in between reacting and responding to an overstepped boundary. More often than that, reacting to boundaries leads to misunderstandings and fights. Thoughts like “that’s just who they are” or “it is what is, is” come to mind. Specifically, in South Asian families, it is difficult to create a boundary with a family member and then speak on it. The key here is to continue to self-reflect and focus on improving your inner child which leads to finding and keeping peace emotionally.

[Read Related: What it Means to be American: My Journey From ‘Other’ to ‘Us’]

As you begin to self reflect, here are a few ways to set boundaries:

  • Inner child work — understanding your upbringing and cultivating a new life with balance 
  • Codependency — developing a new sense of independence and not creating 
  • Keep in mind that you are in charge of how you choose to feel about the situation 
  • It is okay to not engage in conversation
  • The differential between guilt vs shame 
  • Know your limits, values/beliefs, and priorities 
  • And lastly, remember that boundaries are not one size fits all. Boundaries are specific to each and every person. 

Looking for where to start? 

I recommend taking time to look at your resources and researching therapists. This is really important in order to get the best out of your therapeutic experience, it is essential to be comfortable with your therapist to create a genuine connection, allowing you to thrive in creating a healthier holistic lifestyle. It is okay to “interview” your potential therapist — think of it like you are buying a new car — you have to do your research and the more research the more comfortable you will be and more likely to stick with therapy. 

Here are some resources:

  • South Asian Therapists — utilize when you are looking specifically South Asian therapists and specific language spoken 
  • Advekit — utilize it if you have a therapist who doesn’t take your insurance. Advekit can work with you to discover your out-of-network benefits and send insurance claims. The best part? Advekit waits on the reimbursement and you only pay for what you owe! 
  • Brown Girl Therapy — community or children of immigrants. Great resources for feeling supported and validated. Check out their Therapist Database. Sign up for their newsletter and follow them on Instagram! 

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.

Photo Courtesy of Nadia Snopek

By Parthi B. Patel

Parthi B. Patel is the owner and practicing Licensed Professional Counselor at Intentional Therapy, PLLC. She loves to travel and … Read more ›