Jane's Mental Health Source Page

One of the Web's Oldest Personal Mental Health Sites [Est. 1998]

Asian Shame, Asian Guilt


Guilt is a normal feeling in humans, and has an evolutionary purpose. If no one feels any guilt, then no one feels remorse for any wrong doing. Children when taught social rules of reciprocity, will learn to feel guilt, and this is a normal feeling.

What is abnormal is when guilt is used as a weapon and when shame is used to control a person to comply. Parents who want to exert total control over their children’s being does this through physical violence (physical abuse) and emotional manipulation (emotional abuse). We may be talking about Asian parents in general, but I suspect there are situations of abuse and control across many cultures. The Asian culture may have linked this to social norms that is not accepted in other cultures.

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

In Chinese cultural tradition, the notion of filial piety permeates every aspect of a parent-child relationship, and is codified in an ancient text called the 24 Filial Exemplars (The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars / 二十四孝_忠孝雙全).

Please pause and consider this: filial piety has been codified as a set of expectations that every single child I knew growing up (at least, in Taiwan) has been exposed to, and have been brainwashed to aspire to.

Seriously, who can live up to those exemplars who take off their shirts to let mosquitoes drink their fill so the mosquitoes would spare the parents? What about the exemplar who laid down in the snow to melt out bamboo shoots because doctor said parent needs to drink soup made of bamboo shoots? (This was only upended by the story of the exemplar who went to an icy lake to melt out a couple of carps because evil stepmother had a craving for carp… )

What about the exemplar who was too poor to feed both his mother and his young son so he and his wife decided to bury his young son: nice choice between infanticide and matricide. But a happy ending: he finds a pile of gold as he was digging his child’s grave so Yay!Everyone’s!Saved! Some of these tales have even been modified and changed; for example, my most vivid memory of an exemplar story that is not found in these 24 was about a son who sliced off a piece of his own flesh (thigh?) to make meat broth for his ill mother.

A quick read through these tales suggests two core mental programs:

Parents are deities. Parents should be worshiped, parents can do no wrong, and parents have the right to treat kids anyway they choose because parents are supreme. This means parents’ needs and wants take priority over the kids’ and kids’ affiliations (including their spouses and children).

Filial piety is connected to the forces of nature. If you are pious, the heavens will be moved by your piety and you will be saved. Ice will melt, the sky will part, murderers will suddenly see the light and spare you, and you’ll find gold. But if you’re not pious… the world may be your poltergeist.

Over time, these programs become automatic. Even when the parents are not there, the scripts run in the background, and the children grow up checking themselves with guilt and shame to ensure they don’t step out of the filial piety line.

These programs are so powerful, they subjugate entire nations of people: Infantilize the people and appoint yourself the people’s father. You reign supreme (North Korea).

The only true start to overcome this depth of brainwashing is to treat this like a contagion and put enough physical distance AND time (mental distance, emotional distance) from this contagion until you can build a level of immunity.

This means moving away from parents and extended families (since extended families especially abuse ones are the same contagious entity and may even offer opportunistic infections of additional mental programs).

Stay far and long enough away, such that you can recover some of your innate self-preservation, absorb healthy messages, connect with emotionally healthy relationships/friendships, and begin to discern “normal levels of guilt” from “programmed pathological guilt”. Get enough practice speaking up for yourself and standing your ground (in some cases, I suppose get strong enough to physically fight back although if this were the case I prefer complete severance of contact).

Now this part is going to sound extreme and horrifying, but if you’re from this culture, you’ll know what I mean:

This means you must be willing to choose YOUR LIFE over YOUR PARENT’S life.

In other words, if the parent pulls out the big guns and starts thrashing weeping screaming that s/he might as well kill herself/himself and die right now because this impious evil-incarnate that is you won’t do what s/he demands: you stand your ground and choose your own life.

Basically, you are showing/telling the parent that you are prepared to lose that parent to suicide, if you are forced to make this kind of choice.


It sounds that f*cked up.

Because it IS that f*cked up.

Additional reading:
Letters from Readers: Jane Chin, for Joy
Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (9780814758458): Erin Ninh
My Page on Emotional Abuse at Chinspirations.com
with Elliott Chen for Jane – Eats Tiger Moms for Lunch

Written by Jane

August 27th, 2015 at 9:19 pm