Dr. Susanna La
Honoring Boundaries: A Necessary Practice to Preserve Mental Health in Asian Americans
Updated: Mar 10
Do you constantly say "yes" to others at the cost of saying "no" to yourself? Do you struggle with asserting your needs? Do you get conflicting messages from society and family about prioritizing others’ needs above your own?
In regards to relationships, boundaries can include physical (how close someone can get to us or how we prefer to be touched), emotional (what we are comfortable talking about or how much support we want to extend to someone), time (how much we allocate our time to certain activities), among many other areas. Boundaries are important because honoring them allows us to feel safe and respected. Boundaries can exist in any situation (personal and/or professional) and with anyone. Sometimes, we even have to set boundaries with ourselves! As Asian Americans, our boundaries can be influenced by messages from society, our families, and our own cultural/personal values.
Why It is Difficult to Set Boundaries
The challenge we can face as Asian Americans is that we are given conflicting messages about boundaries. While Eastern cultures focus on collectivism and prioritizing the needs of others above our own, American culture focuses on individualism and caring for one's own needs. It can be difficult to navigate conflicting messages because we can value both our Asian and American cultures, thus valuing both our family/community and our own needs.
From our traditional Asian upbringing, we may have been reinforced to sacrifice and disconnect from our own needs. If this has been your experience, it makes sense that you can struggle with setting boundaries and saying "no." Or, if you have said "no," you may be labeled as rebellious, uncaring, and even selfish. If this has been your experience, know you are not alone. The idea of boundaries may not have previously existed in your family unit due to cultural influences. The bittersweetness of being Asian American is that you may be learning/unlearning what works and what doesn’t for you and your relationships.
Why Setting Boundaries Are Important
When we do not listen to our boundaries, our mental/physical health can get affected. This can contribute to relationship conflicts, burnout, increased depression, anxiety, and overall poor quality of life. If you lead a life with multiple roles (as most of us do), such as parent, child, caregiver, employee, friend, etc., take time to tune into yourself and ask: "Am I taking care of my needs? Am I paying attention to my emotions? Am I taking time to recuperate?"
If you struggle with mental health conditions, are a highly sensitive person (HSP), and/or an introvert, setting boundaries is especially important. You can read more about HSPs (click here), introverts (click here), and burnout (click here) if you are interested.
How to Set Boundaries
There is no one size fits all approach, so we get to decide what our own boundaries look like. They can also change depending on our situation and can vary with different people. Take a risk and start small first.
Pay attention to your emotions and body. Before you agree to something, see if you notice any emotions (anger, discomfort, etc.) and tension in your body (e.g., clenched jaw, tense muscles, tightness). Our emotions and body will give us cues when we are approaching a limit.
Practice communicating with clarity. This can be as simple as saying “no,” “not at this time,” or “I can’t do that right now.”
There can be levels of boundary setting. We can say "yes" to a part of a request and "no" to other parts. For example, “I am working on something right now, but I can help you with this next week,” or “sure I can help you with this and we can find someone else to help you with that.”
We can say "maybe" and take some time to think about our decision. We don’t have to decide right when someone asks us for something. An example can be: “Thank you for thinking of me, let me think about it.”
Remember it is ok to change our mind after saying "yes." You can say, “I thought about it, and I am not comfortable with doing that right now.”
Practice makes progress. Practice your boundary statements with safe people like trusted friends, family, or a licensed mental health professional.
Our time and energy are limited. By honoring our needs and setting limits, we are not only taking better care of ourselves but creating more meaningful relationships. Setting boundaries helps to teach others how to healthily interact with us. With this in mind, it is helpful to remember that setting boundaries is actually not selfish because honoring our own emotional/mental health needs help us to be better in relationships. Remember, the next time you say "yes," make sure you say "yes" authentically rather than resentfully.
If you want support in learning how to set boundaries and want to work with us, you can reach us through our site.
“Love yourself enough to set boundaries, Your time and energy are precious and you get to decide how to use them. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” -Anna Taylor
Stay tuned. The next topic is "Gender."
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.