The Process of Developing “Fractured Identity”
Analysis of categories led to the identification of “fractured identity” as the core concept, around which a narrative was built for understanding Asian American women’s self-harm and suicidal behaviors. Our study suggests that young Asian American women born to immigrant parents practicing disempowering parenting styles are at greater risk of developing fractured identities. Our analysis of 16 participants reporting self-harm and suicidal behaviors resulted in the identification of five characteristics of “disempowering parenting styles” that are linked to the “lived” psychological experience of fractured identity and integrated in a phenomenon that we call the “web of pain.” As shown in Table 2, all 16 women reported self-harm or suicidal behaviors; eight women who reported self-harm behaviors used “cutting” as the method for self-harm; six women reported suicidal ideation without any attempt; six women reported suicide attempt.
Disempowering Parenting Characteristics
We discovered five perceived parenting characteristics that represent a disempowering parenting style. These five characteristics include: abusive parenting, burdening parenting, culturally disjointed parenting, disengaged parenting, and gender-prescriptive parenting (thus termed “ABCDG parenting”).
(A) Abusive Parenting (Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Abuse)
The majority of our participants reported that their parents used harsh discipline methods, and they experienced abuse: emotional (13 cases), physical (7 cases), sexual (3 cases), or a combination of at least two of these forms of abuse (7 cases). Emily (23, Chinese) describes an incident of sexual abuse from her father:
It was with my father… I guess it was like right after I had started like, developing breasts and, yeah. [Laughs]… this feels really weird to talk about. I mean, I guess like touching of like that area. I was awake…. I don’t really remember, to be quite honest. I mean, I think it’s one of those things I try to repress a little bit.
Angela (19, Vietnamese) described her father’s prolonged emotional and physical abuse, which included beatings. Throughout her interview, Angela expressed a constant feeling of disempowerment and her only perceived way of regaining a sense of personal control was to self-harm:
My dad was definitely pretty physically abusive when I was growing up… I think that’s where the cutting came from ‘cause I was just angry that my dad was able to hurt me. So I kind of took it back in my own hands and would hurt myself on my own terms.
As commonly found in the abuse literature, all of the participants reporting physical abuse also identified experiencing emotional abuse. While physical abuse can leave visible marks or bruises, the effects of emotional abuse were just as damaging to these women, negatively impacting one’s sense of self. For example, Cindy (28, Korean) felt hurt, humiliated, demoralized, and alienated by her mother’s assumptions and comments about her promiscuity:
Like, even though I was a virgin, my mother was convinced that I was a slut. And she would constantly ask me these questions and be like, ‘I know you’re a whore.’ I felt abandoned by my parents… I thought, ‘Oh my God, if your own parents don’t want you, what’s wrong with you?’
(B) Burdening Parents
Nine out of the 16 participants in our study reported feeling tremendously burdened by their parents. This can be broken down into three distinct themes: (1) financial burden to repay parents for their investments in their daughter, (2) academic achievement, either by the daughters themselves or by proxy through an appropriate marriage to a husband who has attained high academic achievement, and (3) obligation to care for parents/elders.
For the daughters, these demands often felt one-sided in nature, serving parental needs. The societal expectation in Asian cultures describes an interdependent relationship, where parents sacrifice everything for their children (particularly for their education) under the expectation that this sacrifice will be returned when parents become old and dependent on their children. However, in these extreme applications of training ideology and Asian societal values, parents failed to evoke a sense of responsibility; instead, their claims for interdependence created an extreme burden, leaving daughters’ sense of burden compounded with a sense of powerlessness.
One example of burdening parents is exemplified in the financial burden felt by Winnie (20, Chinese). She spoke of the constant pressure from her mother to pay back all the money that represented familial financial support:
I owe her $150,000… it’s no interest for the first three years and then after the third year if I haven’t paid her back in full it’s like 3 % interest and then each year it increases by 1 % and I pay to—and I have to pay back by—in 10 years.
Many of our participants reported suffering from such a sense of financial burden toward their parents and recognized that their American friends do not have the same “sense of debt.”
Women interviewed also discussed the immense amount of pressure they felt from their parents to achieve “success,” as described by the second theme of burdening parents. Whether that success was defined through academic or extracurricular achievements (particularly common in music endeavors), or through good marriages (financially successful man from a good family), participants felt that their parents’ definitions were rigid and narrow. Specifically related to academic achievement, many participants felt a significant obligation to find success because their parents moved to the United States to give their children “better opportunities.”
One such story comes from Audrey (19, Korean), who grew up with an emotionally and physically abusive father who had divorced three times since her mother passed away. Having to deal with this loss is compounded by her father’s controlling and hypocritical attitudes. She says:
He had like my whole life planned, like what college I was going to go to, what I was going to do everything… the thing was because my dad’s career isn’t so stable, he expected me to just take care of all my school, you know, tuition, and everything… I am trying to live his dream and go to an expensive school, and pay for it myself.
She not only feels burdened by her father’s imposition, she also feels bitter toward her father’s hypocrisy and selfish attitudes; she perceives an imbalance between his expectations for her success and glory and his inability to support those ambitions, which are as much his dreams as they are hers.
Besides the pressure of repaying debt or being successful, many women felt a deep sense of responsibility to care for their parents, exemplifying the third theme of burdening parents. For example, Monica (21, Chinese) said that her father was “very Chinese” in his expectations of her when he was hospitalized with a terminal illness. Monica felt his expectations were unrealistic, yet felt guilty when she resisted his demands:
My dad was in the hospital for like two or three years…Every time he went into the hospital, he expected me to stay there the entire day even when I wasn’t needed…. If I didn’t stay there the whole time, he would be angry…I understand he was sick, but I couldn’t stay 24/7… there were times when I slept over at the hospital for like weeks.
These multiple types of burden, and the pressure placed on our study participants by their parents, often made the women feel trapped and as though they had “too many roles to fulfill.”
(C) Culturally Disjointed Parents
Our participants frequently cited the acculturation gap between parents and children as an ongoing frustration and integral component of parent/child emotional disconnect. In addition to differing cultural expectations of the externalization of feelings and emotions, the language barrier can also play a major role in disjoint, as experienced by Monica: “My parents don’t speak English or it’s very limited. Even though I do speak Chinese, there are always like subtleties like emotional words that, you know, you may not be able to express in the language.” The language barrier between parents and daughters was significant, but is not the only factor that creates cultural disjoint. Monica highlights her mother’s “traditional mindset” as another contributing factor to the existing cultural disjoint between herself and her mother:
The reason why I’m studying Chinese is because I want to be able to communicate [with my parents], more effectively. But just the mindset, especially my mom, the mindset she has is very traditional and very close-minded and hard to just explain things to in general.
(D) Disengaged Parents
Another common theme among the participants was the lack of parental validation of their own emotions and feelings; this style of disengaged parenting differentiates from emotional maltreatment, in which children are subjected to extreme blaming, direct terrorizing and hostility, or exploitation (Trickett et al. 2011). Rather, their feelings were repeatedly dismissed, belittled, or ignored by the disengaged parents.
Several participants discussed parents who “seemed not to care” or who appeared to be totally emotionally distanced from their daughters: their parents were physically present, but psychological absent from their daughters’ lives. This profound sense of alienation felt by the daughters was extremely damaging and hurtful to them as children, especially in comparison with other American families of their peers. Audrey felt that her father was particularly disengaged:
I want to have like a closer relationship with my father…I want to, grow that bond, you know, but then I think of how he doesn’t understand me as much and how, when I was in high school, he wasn’t really there for me to really accept… that I wanted to go my own path. So when I think about that, I get very angry and want to stay away from him.
Similarly, Monica recalled, “I never felt like they really praised me or that they were proud of me. That definitely affected my sense of worth.” Feelings of inadequacy are deeply engrained in our participants whose parents seemingly distanced themselves from their daughters; whether these sentiments would have been less extreme if these women’s parents were raising boys instead of girls brings us to the next perceived parenting characteristic.
(G) Gender-Prescribed Parenting
Five of our study participants perceived gender-prescribed parenting while growing up. Originating from the cultural prescriptive role of gender, these parents hold very rigid and strict views on how the boys and girls should behave. Feeling “less valued than their brother,” participants perceived differential treatment from their parents, citing “unfair treatment” that made them feel “powerless.” The most common example expressed by our participants was that of rigid parenting.
One participant, Diana (25, Chinese), said, “My parents are a lot stricter with me than my older brother. And I always thought that was like, such utter crap…my parents were a lot more protective of me than of my brother…. I was definitely treated differently.” Although this style of parenting may have been well intentioned, our participants perceived it as creating a familial gap that they were never able to overcome. Similarly rooted in her parents’ biased gender prescription, Kelly (22, Vietnamese), experienced rigid parenting: “There was all sorts of limits of what I could and couldn’t do, who I should socialize with… the time that I have that’s actually free where I’m not studying or doing activities should be my own—and who I want to talk with.”
The Double Bind
As shown in Table 2, 13 of the 16 high-risk participants displayed the recurring theme of a “double bind,” or the psychological confrontation of two opposing forces, where individuals are subject to two contradictory rules or standards, neither of which the individual can exhibit any control over. Our participants suffer from culturally defined opposing phenomena: the desire for approval and affirmation from parents and the desire to pull away, reject, or rebel from those same pressures. Pushing against either force in an attempt to practice self-autonomy results in a heavy psychological toll, including a deep sense of emotional discomfort and guilt for violating familial or social norms. When faced with such internal adversity of two non-separable forces that intersect and interplay, the human tendency is to dichotomize in an attempt to escape the resulting double bind. As a result, participants experience a fracturing of the self and are unable to incorporate either aspect of the double bind wholly into their personal identity during the adolescent identity formation process (Jamieson 1995).
Suffering from a sort of “perfect Asian woman syndrome,” our participants desperately strive to be the ideal daughter and wife, and practice Asian cultural values. The culture-bound symptoms of this syndrome often included attending an Ivy League school, becoming or marrying a doctor and being a “dutiful daughter” (i.e., abstains from premarital sex, does not use drugs, and honors her debt to her parents). Daughters strive desperately to fulfill the role of “a perfect Asian woman” despite deep anger and resentment toward their parents, as well as feeling intensely invalidated by them.
Despite this, they dissolutely want to reject and condemn the image of the “perfect Asian woman” and become resentful of the whole notion of Asian culture. They feel suffocated by the idealized Asian woman image and wished to escape these norms and instead follow their own desires, a path that often leads to involvement in risky health behaviors, including unsafe sexual behaviors and/or drug use.
This internal conflict, or “double bind,” was articulated by Audrey. She discusses how this inner conflict was externalized in her life by noting that, “You know, we’ve all had sex but we don’t talk about it because they want to be viewed as that like perfect Korean child… would not have sex, would wait till marriage, umm, will not do drugs, will just be an angel.” Audrey also talked about how much pressure she received from her father to succeed in school. Though initially a hard worker, she “rebelled”: she had 55 absences from school, started using ecstasy fairly regularly, and she fell in love with a guy who is “everything opposite of what a Korean son should be.” Like other participants, she strongly resents the Korean culture, one in which “women are in a lower class than men, and women always gossip.” Yet, at the same time, she discusses becoming a mother who exemplifies “a perfect image of a woman,” with a husband who is also from Korean culture.
Table 2 exhibits that a struggle with low self-worth was evident in most of our participant’s stories; 15 of the 16 high-risk participants reported low self-worth. Sarah (20, Chinese) focused heavily on the pieces of her life she was not satisfied with:
In eighth grade, I focused on my appearance, what I didn’t like about myself, and as I got older, it’s been more like I can never do enough or be good enough…I think overall, and for my parents especially, I probably set impossibly high standards for myself. Senior year, when I didn’t get into my top colleges, it was hard for me to take—my self-worth and identity as being academically strong faltered.
Similarly, Kelly described rebelling and talking back to her parents to gain more freedom in high school; yet, she still secretly grappled with low self-esteem and a lack of assertiveness:
I felt like I was never good enough. Like I was a perfect student – but you know, you want me to do – you want me to be a nun on top of it, you want me to go to church at six o’clock every day, you want me to do this, you want me to do this – the list was endless so I felt very insufficient.
Bound yet torn by two opposing forces, these women are unable to successfully integrate the facets of their identities as “good enough daughter,” “good enough woman,” “good enough Asian” or “good enough American.” Instead, within this struggle, each woman appeared to have cultivated a poor self-image and low self-worth; they were filled with a sense of “never being good enough,” resulting from an inability to assert their own sense of autonomy.
As they grow up, Asian American females often find themselves navigating between two distinct, very different, and often opposing cultural worlds, particularly in terms of gender role expectations and familial norms and obligations. Most find synergy or a way to integrate these two cultural forces; some women, however, remain unsettled or unbalanced. This was particularly evident in participants who grew up with parents exhibiting disempowering parenting styles, where the differences between the desire for parental approval and desire to pull away and rebel from those pressures were more pronounced. These women formed, at best, a “fractured identity” which ultimately led to a sense of low self-worth or the feeling that “I am never good enough” (Fig. 1).
Seven of our 16 participants reported substance abuse ranging from excessive alcohol consumption to illicit drug use, including cocaine, mushrooms, painkillers, or ecstasy. Exemplifying this common thread throughout the subset of substance users, Diana (25, Chinese) states, “It [ecstasy] was fun because, like when you’re on it you’re just happy. So no matter what happens at like at home, or whatever happened at school, you’re just happy.”
As a common unsafe coping mechanism for participants exhibiting parasuicidality, participants reported using alcohol to “boost their self-esteem,” or because “right now it’s kind of like a solution” in addition to just evoking careless feelings of happiness. Here, the focus was on substance use as solving a “problem,” as Audrey (19, Korean) states:
Umm, Ecstasy was a drug I did quite often… when I started doing drugs, that’s when it was like the worst time of my life, when I like rebelled from my family and didn’t want to go to school, so turning to drugs made me really happy. You know, I had no problems. I didn’t think of any problems while on drugs. Umm, it seemed like all my problems were solved.
Our participants’ relationship with substance use suggests that this phenomenon plays a significant role in the proposed causal pathway from disempowering parenting to suicidality.
Web of Pain
The consequences of fractured identity are expressed as psychological pain, despair, and emotional paralysis and numbness. Among our participants, this pain was expressed through self-harm behaviors, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts. We call this phenomenon “web of pain” because these women often suffer alone and feel immobilized, stuck in the lives they are leading. At this point, it is necessary for them to seek professional help; however, they are reluctant to seek treatment or accept help from friends, family, or health professionals.
Cutting to Achieve Self-control
Among our participants, cutting was the most frequent method used to inflict self-harm, an act that was often viewed by participants as a way to regain or assert control. Both Ingrid and Naomi expressed this view of cutting as taking control, whether as an act of rebellion or self-punishment. Angela states,
Cutting was kind of like a release of tension and it gave me control again… I was just like angry at my parents, so it was a way of almost like getting back at them. It was something they didn’t know about—it was like my own way of rebelling against them.
Naomi also expressed that her cutting was associated with her mother’s abusive behaviors. “There’s a Chinese saying for ‘hit your own mouth’—my mom would make me punish myself; or else, she’d threatened to hit me herself…. When I got older, I turned to cutting as self-inflicted punishment. I thought I wasn’t good enough.”
Suicidal Attempts and Invalidation from Parents
Out of anger, desperation, and sense of helplessness, women may finally take action to end their lives; however, their attempts fail to offer emotional relief, often exacerbating a sense of invalidation from their own parents. Six women reported attempting suicide. One participant, Amber (27, Chinese), struggled greatly with suicide attempts and the connection between her family dysfunction:
My mom thought [my suicide attempt] was a ‘silly’ thing to do. At first [after my suicide attempt], I had this hope because my mom agreed that she’d never be mean to me anymore, that we’d talk about things and she would be my friend, but it just didn’t work…she went back to her old ways. I could tell she didn’t understand where I was coming from and so I just couldn’t talk to her about it at all. And every time I try to tell her how unhappy I am, she just brushes it off like it’s nothing, like it’s not important…that I every negative thing I think is so trivial and so small…
Kelly, too, described how her father responded to her suicide attempt with anger and invalidation:
I tried to hang myself once after a big fight with my parents about the guy I was dating…but my father came home and found me tied to a rafter, already passed out…The next day I got the lecture about “you’re going to hell.”
The women who disclosed a history of self-harm described cutting as a way to objectify their pain while trying to keep it a secret. When Angela’s school friends noticed her scars, confronted her and told her mother, she experienced mixed feelings about getting help:
It was kind of embarrassing ‘cause it was like my thing and I didn’t want people to know about it in the first place…and I didn’t like being outed. But at the same time I guess I felt a little bit of relief knowing that someone else knew about this burden that I’d been carrying.
Monica also feels that there is a “stigma” against getting help. Similarly, Nicole (20, Chinese) was also trying to hide her cutting behaviors. She said, “My doctor kind of noticed that there were these scars on my arm, but I never told anyone except for like very close friends, just one or two of them.” All of the participants generally hid their self-harm or suicidal behaviors from others or, if revealed to their parents, found little support. These women were isolated and alone in their webs of pain.