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Asian People-Pleasing: When "No" Is a Bad Word

Being agreeable can be helpful in some ways and damaging in others.

Photo by Lan Pham on Unsplash
Photo by Lan Pham on Unsplash

Asian cultures revolve around the concept of collectivism, which, in short, means working toward group cohesion, harmony, and goals. Individual desires and feelings are to be supplanted by what’s best for the group lest it lead to dissension or arguments.

Centuries of this kind of collectivist thinking means Asians may disown their individual parts of themselves and tend to be very agreeable, at least in public. Denying a request or offering criticism must be done in more oblique ways since a direct “no” can be viewed as disrespectful and impact someone’s sense of “face” or public honor. In private, they may have a differing viewpoint but will keep it to themselves.

As a therapist specializing in Asian-American issues, this can play out when individuals or couples come into therapy. They may have been indoctrinated to think this way so much so that in adulthood they don’t know how to say “no”. They are afraid to hurt someone’s feelings (i.e. romantic partners, colleagues, and friends).

In practical terms, they may agree to extra responsibilities at work. With their spouses, they may do an inordinate share of the “heavy lifting” (chores, parenting, planning). And with friends, they rarely pass up an opportunity to “be there” for their friends when they need their time, money, or advice.

What to do when they agree to things but internally are conflicted? They may want to stop saying “yes” to certain obligations or responsibilities but the word “no” is not in their vocabulary. Since it's so intimidating to set boundaries in the real world, the initial task at hand is to help them learn to say “no” to me in therapy. This could mean practicing just saying the word “no” and seeing what comes up within their bodies and minds. Some find the word “negative” and I help them discern that the word should be viewed more neutrally. If anything, I guide them to see that their true desire to say “yes” to things can be obscured if they don’t learn how use the word “no”.

Another option is to teach clients how to not overly commit by using the word “maybe” instead of rushing to say yes. I tell clients that "maybe" is a way to give them time to think and sort through what they really want to do with their time or resources.

Culturally, saying “no” can be wrought with danger because Asians may have been scolded or labelled “selfish” for thinking of themselves for doing so. Another hard part of therapy is praising clients for learning to think about their own needs and wants, which is seen as an anathema within Asian societies.

Imagine my consternation when working with Asian couples when both sides have learned to operate by being agreeable yet seething internally with resentment due to unmet needs or wishes. My objective is to give them permission to speak honestly and freely within the four walls of my office, letting them know that what’s said here can be seen as a new way of relating to each other. Sure, we must work through the cultural issues of feeling offended, hurt, or disrespected but over time I stress this is a necessary skill to learn, especially since we live in America and the Western mindset is one, we must adapt to if we’re to be more successful in those contexts. But even on the home front, it’s important to know how to set boundaries with others by saying no to them, otherwise it can lead to resentment and feeling taken advantage of in myriad ways.

More from Sam Louie MA, LMHC, CSAT
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