This is for Your Own Good

Today I had a meeting with someone where they made me cry. We met about a project and they provided feedback in a cutting, abrasive way. Over the Zoom call, I forced myself to stop the tears from falling. This person told me that they believed in my project and that they intended their feedback to only increase its quality.

This interaction reminded me of growing up with my mother. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mother abused me in both academic and nonacademic contexts. In terms of academics, she would yell at me if I got anything less than an A on anything. When my teachers emailed her grade reports, she would look at every assignment, and if I missed any points – a 4.5/5, a 9.7/10, a 95/100 – she would make me explain to her why I missed those points and admit to her that I could have tried harder. She asked me who I considered the smartest peers in my classes and then grilled me throughout the academic year about how I performed compared to them. She would always say that she did this for my own good. Once, she said that even if I chose to never speak to her again once I left for college, I would always have her to thank for my success in life.

As I grow older, I see my mother’s behavior with more complexity. While nothing condones her abusive behavior, academic or otherwise – she once told me she would rather have a dead son than a gay son I mean honestly being attracted to men is awful because men are so incompetent and boring but even if an emotionally available top never emerges, I don’t want to be dead over it lol – I understand more of the racialized context for her actions. At one point someone in my family told me about how my mother and her whole family, after immigrating to the United States, would crawl around and clean dirty movie theater floors to pay rent and have food on the table; I know my mother wanted more for me. I am reading The Asian American Paradox by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou now, and I recognize from their writing how my mom pushed me towards perfection so that even if racists discriminated against me for being Asian, they could not erase my prestigious accomplishments. I remember overhearing comments about my father’s coworkers disrespecting him because of his “flawed” English, despite my father’s brilliance and how he carried his company to greater heights than they had ever seen. I get at least in part, my mother’s relentless expectations for me stemmed from a desire to shield me from the racism my father faced.

When I cried today though, I flashed back to just how painful my childhood and adolescence felt. After the meeting, I went on a walk while listening to “Feel Special” by Twice, because the song reminds me of how my best friends and myself make me feel. On this walk, I had vivid memories of how I felt suicidal as a kid, then I cut myself for a little while, and then I starved myself to the point where I could see the visible outline of my ribs every time I lifted my shirt in front of the mirror. Recalling these feelings and behaviors made me pause and think to myself: holy shit, my childhood was really, really traumatic. And though it’s hard for me to even write it, no one deserves to go through that level of suffering, myself included.

Ok so it was 11:34pm one minute ago and I was contemplating what pictures to include in this post and then I thought about how if I got pink hair in my childhood my mom may have literally, literally murdered me. So, feeling my agency in procuring this hair made me smile which led to this selfie – I’m grinning behind my hand. (:

Over the past few weeks, I have reflected a lot on my trauma and how in some ways, this experience, or least my reaction to it, did make me stronger. I do love the intense work ethic I learned from my family, the rigor in which I engage in not just my work, but my hobbies, relationships, and self-reflection too. I am grateful for how through experiencing the intense trauma of my childhood and the less intense yet still unfortunate trauma of academia, I have cultivated a deeper perspective on what makes life meaningful and a passion for approaching my relationships with sensitivity and caring. In some ways, I recognize that the person I met with today and my mother both believed in me – they pushed me because they believed in my ability and that I could accomplish a lot.

At the same time, these people hurt me when they did not have to. They could have held me to high standards while still practicing kindness and compassion. They could have communicated their expectations in a gentle yet firm way instead of presenting their feedback with cruelty, in a nonnegotiable tone, or through yelling and screaming at me. I don’t think expecting excellence and being an empathetic person are mutually exclusive.

If I’m being honest, I’m still hurt by the meeting I had today. I imagine the scars of interacting with this person will take a long time to heal, if ever. Still, I’m going to do what I can to help dismantle the systems of oppression, namely patriarchy and white supremacy, that in part motivated my mother’s behavior and continues to let this other person’s behavior persist. While writing this post, I got an email from one of my undergraduate research assistants that they won a competitive internal research grant in which I guided her application process. I’m committed to treating this student and all the other students I work with with intentionality and self-awareness, providing both high expectations and high levels of compassion, and owning up to my mistakes if I ever do hurt someone and taking action to make amends and improve myself, regardless of whether anyone else is watching. These actions are what my grandmother and my feminist mentors would have wanted. Perhaps more importantly, they’re what I want.

I never thought I would stan Twice, however this song literally brought me so much relief today. It’s literally about the power of a secure relationship in diminishing the effects of adversity and toxicity on one’s life? Makes me appreciate my secure relationships with my best friends and my secure relationship with myself thank goodness.

How have you coped with similar types of relationships in your life, or difficult relationships of other varieties? How have you tried to process and make meaning of adversity broadly? General reactions or feelings about this post? I had another post related to children loosely sketched and then this meeting happened today and I was like, well, we’re gonna go with this now lol yikes. Until next post!

12 Comments

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12 responses to “This is for Your Own Good

  1. I’m so angry that someone did that to you. Some people think this is “tough love” but have no idea how destructive this is. I think all that person wanted to do was to demonstrate their superiority. Nothing else.

    I had an exec that just hated my guts. She kept pushing me out of my division, paused when my mom was in the hospital and then passed away. As soon as I returned to work, she was on my case as if nothing happened. I’m convinced she has a dark and wounded heart – perhaps an unresolved past trauma(s). Who knows. Sometimes you just have to steer clear of these people.

    While you are wounded, I’m glad you continue to lead by example. The world needs more people like you. My only advice is not to let others control how you react to a situation (from Stephen Covey). I hope you don’t have to work with that person again.

    Totally unrelated, I’m still working on my post. You often update your blog on Mondays and I had hoped it would be done by then. My apologies – it’ll be a bit late.

    Don’t let that person ruin your outlook this week. Stay positive.

    • Aw thanks so much for your supportive words Matt. I won’t go into describing more about this person for the sake of confidentiality, however I will say I appreciate your note about leading by example and working through one’s issues to avoid taking them out on others consciously or subconsciously. I enjoyed reading your most recent post and am excited to continue blogging together. (:

  2. I’m so sorry that this happened and this person triggered you with their unpleasant and unacceptable behaviour. I’m sure they THOUGHT they were doing it for your own good in some way, just like my parents BELIEVED they were toughening me up for later life, helping me in some way, doing the best they could. And like your mom likely BELIEVED she was doing the right thing too. However, in all these cases their thinking is flawed and they are not doing the best they can do or the right thing.

    How wonderful that you have broken the cycle and can help others exceed their expectations with love and compassion. How truly amazing that you’ve been able to do that – I know how hard it is to break cycles and I massively salute you.

    I hope you can take the content (they do believe in you and think your work good) away from the mode of delivery (they’re behaving like a prick) in time. You are awesome.

    • Aw Liz thanks so much for drawing those parallels and for your own vulnerability! Yeah the lack of even checking in with me (e.g., how was it for you to hear this feedback?) definitely felt minimizing and uncaring. I appreciate that we both have taken time to invest in our own healing and self-awareness to break the cycle. You’re awesome too and I so appreciate our e-friendship always. (:

  3. As always your vulnerability, insight, resiliency, and humor never fails to amaze me. It’s so encouraging to see you responding to tough situations with a determination to learn, grow, and take care of your own heart. I’m so sorry to hear that you had to bear that pain and suffer the brunt of someone’s anger like that. Your statement “I don’t think expecting excellence and being an empathetic person are mutually exclusive”, really resonates with me. At the end of the day, their cruelty says more about them than it does about you, and there is no reason that they had to behave that way. Fear isn’t motivating, it just makes putting one step in front of the other that much more difficult. I really relate to your response to that situation at work, because abuse instilled a panic response to any words or tone of voice that are even remotely negative. This makes hearing even gentle criticism difficult to hear, and harsh rebuke devastating. It’s good to know you went for a walk and listened to some healing music (also Twice- NICE). You’re such an intelligent and warm-hearted person and I hope you always take the healing time you need to decompress and feel the love that myself, your readers, and loved ones are sending you. As always thank you for sharing a bit of your heart. You’re truly a gem, and I’m absolutely obsessed with your pink hair!!! (Pink hair Park Jimin is my fav and you got that exact charming and handsome pink prince thing going on like him, omg, Slay Thomas, SLAY) Sending big hugs your way!

    • Awwww omg thank you so much for your kind words, my heart is so warmed! Resonating so much with what you share hear about how using fear as a motivation is not kind (and research has shown it can be outright ineffective) as well as the importance of taking care of oneself and responding to stimuli with compassion. It means so much to me that you took the time to both read this post and to provide such a caring response. Also lol yes I suppose I can channel Park Jimin and pink-haired Rosé from Lovesick Girls in all of my gender flexibility. Hope your weekend is going as well as possible. (:

  4. I resonated so, so deeply with this post. Our childhoods sound eerily similar, as well as some of my more complicated feelings about trauma and abuse, where I recognize the good intention, or their “best way” of doing, while still trying to hold space in knowing that yes, my childhood was traumatic and it didn’t have to be that way. Something my therapist reminds me of often is that I should remind myself that I’m no longer in that environment or instance in time – it’s okay if I’m not perfect, it’s okay to let myself fail at things, it’s okay to spend time and effort on people that aren’t my blood family. I feel like there’s been more open (and mainstream) discussion over the complexities of the Asian American experience, so I’m grateful to be able to have these conversations in a safer way with my friends and peers, too.

    An automatic response I have to any sort of harsh criticism (even someone just raising their voice slightly or getting angry at something) is that I’ll freeze up and start to cry. It’s come up before when I see professors during office hours to ask for advice or discussion, and suddenly I’m in tears in a place I didn’t want to be. I’m sure the person that critiqued you certainly thought it was more helpful than hurtful, but I’m a big believer that maybe it’s more radical not to press and push – what would it be like if instead, we fully conveyed our belief in someone, and pushed them to believe in themselves, too?

    Something that I think about sometimes is, “wow my childhood was really traumatic”, but it also comes with a comment that I’ve received a few times over the years: despite all of your trauma and hurt, you still managed to come out kind, caring, and sensitive of others. I’m grateful to know you and to know the ways you advocate for and discuss with your colleagues and peers, and I’m proud of us for being radically different from how we were raised.

    • I totally resonate with what you’re putting down here and thanks for sharing about the complexities of the Asian American experience. I feel like it’s so important to honor the complexities of our experience. I wish people didn’t stereotype us so much – like, from my clinical experience and life experience, I know a ton of white parents who were/are abusive, gaslighting, manipulative, etc. yet I’ve never really heard people stereotype white parents as that way. And I do know friends who have Asian parents who were and are kind, firm yet gentle, etc. yet those stories rarely make it to the media. Even my father was not really harsh with me in terms of academics or how he treated me; while he was definitely absent in a lot of ways, he was supportive overall whereas my mother was the one who was abusive all the time. I feel like it’s important for me though to share my experience even if part of me is like ugh, I hope people’s takeaway is not that I want further stereotyping of Asian families.

      Also yes to all of what you’ve shared about the receiving of feedback! Totally love the notion of cultivating self-awareness about how the past may influence our present day reactions. I also remind myself that I’ve worked with many supervisors and collaborators who were kind and warm or even just not-abusive who didn’t make me cry, people who provided thorough feedback and ideas without hurtfulness. These interactions remind me that the abusive elements that I’ve experienced really are unnecessary and shouldn’t be normalized.

      As always thank you for your reminder that we are still doing our best to thrive and heal and be different from the hurtful folks who’ve come before us. So grateful for you!

  5. Ovid

    It’s really difficult but can also be really rewarding to grapple with childhood trauma that is more insidious or not so ‘obvious’ in retrospect. Even well-meaning parents can be emotionally immature (that is, negligent of their children’s emotions in favor of external merits) and stunt their children’s wellbeing. I’m glad you were able to reflect on this and come away with a positive outlook. I relate a lot to the sense of rejection and hurt you describe in your Zoom encounter; it’s not something I think about, but it tends to happen to me somewhat often, too.

    • Yes, totally agree that it’s rewarding to address and heal from childhood trauma that is nuanced and perhaps not as readily detectable! It sucks that that sense of rejection and hurt happens to you too, and I’m sending warm and caring vibes your way if you do continue to deal with that experience, regardless of what actions you may take either for yourself or for those situations if they continue happening.

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