You’re too fat. That’s not an A+, that’s an A, do better! Your cousin just became a doctor why can’t you? You’re not pretty like that, you’re never going to get a husband. You’re so stubborn and difficult no one’s going to love you, how will you ever marry? Stand up straight! Stop being so sensitive! Fix your face! Your Aunt’s youngest daughter is a doctor now, when will you start doing something worth talking about?
Does any of this sound familiar?
Growing up I would often hear these types of comments from my parents. They were a reminder that, to them, I was inadequate, not good enough, or smart enough, which would ultimately result in me having to work harder for their approval and love. As a child, I would feel guilty for disappointing them and I’d try to “fix” myself to what they deemed was correct so that I could earn their approval. But then somehow I would magically lose it again as if the approval was merely on a loaner basis, and the cycle of criticism and fixing myself would begin all over again.
As I grew up, I realized these adjustments that they wanted in me weren’t just for them, it was so that I [and they] can “keep face” within our extended family and the cultural society that they hold value to. Otherwise, I [and they] would have to deal with the ultimate feeling of rejection and embarrassment, as I would have brought the family shame. So not only was I feeling guilty for failing them, I was made to believe that I was not worthy of their extension and to be “shown off” to society and the rest of my family. I rebelled, a lot, and suffered quietly alone in my spiraling negative self-talk.
Many of us don’t realize that our parents’ criticism is actually seeds of guilt, self-doubt, but the most toxic emotion of them all is shame. The more they criticize, the stronger roots of guilt, shame, and self-sabotaging embeds themselves within us.
First, Why do Asian Parents criticize?
To understand this, we need to understand how the Asian culture fundamentally operates and what the culture, as a collective, holds value to.
Unlike Western culture where independence and individuality are much more celebrated, Asian culture values social harmony and collectivism. It would be accurate to state that collectivism is the opposite of individualism. This means it is one of the main principles of Asian culture to place high value over the collective goals and structures. This practice believes that the power or benefit should be within society as a whole (which relates to communism) and promotes group solidarity over personal goals, wants and needs.
What this translates to is not only will our actions affect us but it also impacts our family, relatives, past ancestors, region, and even an entire country. When we bring honor, prestige, and respect to ourselves, it extends to all that is interconnected to us. So when something causes shame within any aspect of our life, whether it be education, profession, behavior, relationships, religion, etc., it will cause the rest of the collective to “lose face” or to be dishonored as well. This mentality is also the fundamental virtue of Confucianism’s Filial Piety.
According to Confucianism, “a man who respected parental authority would respect the law and one who accepted filial responsibility would honor his social obligations.” Therefore, the virtue of filial piety was more than just passive obedience: it was a personal commitment to the well-being of one’s parents and extends beyond that because of an obligation towards one’s ancestors. With this said, it’s easy to argue for the fact that Asian culture is shame-based.
Parents use fear, disapproval, humiliation, and shame as a tool for motivation and setting higher standards within the family lineage to maintain “face”. This is also known as criticism. The parenting mindset behind this is believing that if their children were aware of their shortcomings, they would be motivated to fix them. These parents, often with well intentions, would reason “how else would my child know what they did wrong to fix? It’s my responsibility to point this out, they are my family. If they were a stranger, I wouldn’t care.”
Some parents even fear that by giving too much praise and compliments they may risk making their child lazy. They strongly believe that by knowing shame the child would be able to have a strong grasp of right and wrong.
What Parents’ Criticism Does to Kids
Some consequences of repetitive parental criticism include low self-esteem, dependency on external validation, negative self-talk, no sense of self, and hopelessness. When we feel like we’re not good enough we turn to activities that numb us and we are not engaged with the world in a way that supports our personal growth. The emotions that cast a lingering shadow throughout a child’s life and well into adulthood are guilt, humiliation, self-doubt, and the most crippling of all – toxic shame.
When we are being humiliated, we know we don’t deserve it, and we recognize that we are being treated in an unfair manner. This doesn’t lead to shame or guilt, it leads to hatred towards the one that is humiliating us. Humiliation still allows us to maintain our self-worth as we are able to discern whether the way we are being treated is justified or not.
While guilt focuses on behaviors of doing, or not doing, what’s expected there is the possibility of repair with guilt. Guilt acts as an internal conscience and gives our values a chance to be reaffirmed.
With toxic shame, the focus is on the self. No longer did you do something bad, you are something bad. It gives us a mindset of “you are defected or damaged goods.” Shame is the hardest emotion to recognize within ourselves and is cripplingly painful as it has the capability to encompass and spiral into other negative emotions such as guilt, rejection, and grief.
It refers to a chronic feeling or emotional state of feeling fundamentally flawed. It is called toxic because it is unjustified – which means the emotions you bear do not fit the facts that are being used to shame you with leading you to feel alone, exposed, and worthless.
Shame thrives on being undetected and is detrimental to our mental health as it can be silently demoralizing us. However, it manifests itself through how we respond to the world. It goes to the core of us and has the ability to make us think that there’s something inherently wrong with who we are. According to the research of Brené Brown, shame needs three things to survive: silence, secrecy, and judgment. The only thing it cannot survive is empathy.
Growing up with a negative view of ourselves causes us to be more likely to engage in self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors with high risks and low rewards. Our relationship with ourselves and others lacks substance, direction, growth, honesty, and purpose.We can quickly respond to others with anger and frustration because we don’t have mental and emotional clarity of our own inner self to navigate the outside world.
We are literally unknowingly suffering because the seeds of all these negative emotions have slowly rooted themselves within our psyche that it has become the norm for us, we live autonomously with shame not knowing that it poisons us every day because it masks and manifests itself in other ways. And because most are suffering in silence – shame correlates with suicide rates, depression, addiction, eating disorders, among other things.
On the other spectrum, toxic shame can lead to narcissism. Some develop grandiose fantasies about how they will become rich, famous, and powerful. They believe that this will make those painful feelings go away, which is not what happens even if they succeed.
Living with toxic shame is also living with constant rumination of our shortcomings and it paralyzing as shame focuses only on itself. It produces irrational thoughts and beliefs as we are incapable to accurately process new information and relationships because we are using our past cognitive errors to evaluate this information. Worst of all, we risk being abused and going through more trauma again. All of this only further fuels the endless cycle of shame
What’s the difference between guilt, shame, embarrassment and humiliation?
- In shame a person feels that she/he is bad. You focus on your inner thoughts and swirl about the events. Shame doesn’t help in changing behaviour or growing. You feel like you’re the only one that is so awfully worthless.
- In guilt a person acknowledges having acted poorly. Guilt activates the will to confess and fix, grow and improve.
- Humiliation is born out of unjustified shaming. Humiliation causes hate.
- Embarrassment is a light and fleeting feeling, which often eventually turns into laughter. Everyone does embarrassing things and we are not alone with that feeling.
How to Cope?
The first step is to take a step back and start using our observing mind to analyze our life, self-talk, and become aware of our behaviors and emotions. Upon doing so, have self-compassion and treat yourself with kindness. Know that everyone makes mistakes and is wrongfully judged and accused. You’re not flawed or a failure. You’re a human, you have a purpose, you are worthy of love — especially your own love.
Understand that self-love doesn’t happen overnight. You have to nurture it before it can flourish. Exploring positive traits about yourself, or personal values you consider important can help you practice strengthening self-worth. Toxic shame often cuts deep, but self-love can smooth away the scars it leaves behind. As mentioned before empathy and self-love are the only things that can annihilate the feeling of shame.
Emotions love themselves. The more we feel an emotion, the more we engage in behavior that makes us feel that emotion even stronger. When we’re sad, lonely, and depressed, all we want to do is curl up in bed for hours on end, usually not eating, not talking to anyone, listening to sad music. The problem with this, is the more we lie in bed not doing anything, the more physiologically depressed we become. This then leads to us feeling even sadder, and eventually, we can be demoralized when we look around and realize we’ve wasted the whole day.
So don’t ruminate, start doing opposing actions to the emotions you’re feeling. Get out of bed, even if you don’t feel like it, or even if you may think it’s not going to solve anything. Break your emotional body cycle to start gaining clarity.
Most importantly find the courage to talk about your emotions. The more you can be open and talk about it, the less power these unjust emotions will have over you – including shame. Know that courage will always dominate as it takes a tremendous amount of strength to pull oneself out from the pit of mental and emotional darkness to turn their life around. In fact, it’s inspiring to do.
What To Do With Our Parents?
Growing up I was oblivious to how much excessive and unnecessary emotional baggage my parents were giving me. It’s not until I became more aware of myself in my adult life did I realize that the world I was groomed to live in, doesn’t exist.
To tell you that I reacted like a complete saint towards my parents, upon self-discovering, would be the biggest and most horrible lie I’d ever tell the world. I’m human, and it’s human nature to feel angry and sad. I had my youth stolen from me, and my growth was stunted by them, in many ways. But the difference with this anger and sadness was not because I felt unworthy or inadequate – it was because I was grieving my childhood. I was too busy healing, deconditioning my beliefs, finding my true values, and grieving that the pain shame, guilt, or humiliation became insignificant. How can I hold myself accountable for my feelings of shame when I was just a child, and these feelings are inequitable.
While I can’t speak for all parents out there, I can tell you that this is my experience – my parents’ inner self conflicts and how they were raised have caused them to engage in many behavioral issues, including narcissism. However, knowing this and humanizing them, their criticisms, past or present, no longer has any grip over me.
In all transparency, I would hold my parents accountable should they have known how much damage they were causing me by choosing to nurture me the way they did. But they themselves haven’t healed, emotionally matured, and are still stuck within the old Asian culture of collectivism, so how would they know otherwise? With this insight, there was nothing left for me to do but to accept things for what they are. I cannot expect them to change or have remorse. I can’t demand them to accept me for who I am. I can’t control them but I can control how I respond to them and to the world. To do anything other, like hold a grudge and not forgive, would be me inflicting more suffering on to myself because they would still be none the wiser.
With that said, it’s important to acknowledge and reiterate that most Asian parents who criticize their child have well intentions for their child. These parents just haven’t healed themselves and may not know of any other way to nurture their children.
Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step guide on how to specifically handle overly critical parents – because every parent that utilizes this parenting tactic has their own root causes, beliefs, and is at different emotional, behavioral, and mental states. For example, talking and expressing yourself to your parents may work for your family, but it won’t work for others.
The only consistent factor in dealing with overly critical parents is healing yourself. In this article To Humanize and Love the Unlovable, you will find a more in-depth breakdown of how I was able to humanize my parents to find acceptance and forgiveness so that I can navigate my life with or without them.
However, I hope this read on How to Accept Criticism with Grace will help you personally because we’re bound to receive healthy criticism from time to time.