Therapy Helped Me Find Pride in My South Asian Heritage

Brina Patel
Brina Patel

This APIA Heritage Month, we're talking about mental health. Because, for too long, it's been stigmatized among our community. That's why PS is spotlighting mental health journeys from APIA perspectives — to confront the shame around going to therapy, seeking help, and talking about our feelings. Read the stories here.

In the fall of 2019, I hit my lowest low. My chronic illness had given me no choice but to quit my job and put my career aspirations on hold. Yet the cultural expectations echoed in my ears, rising to a roar as they reprimanded me: you're a failure, you're a failure. I could no longer uphold the facade of perfection, nor did I want to.

On the surface, I was battling the common concerns of a 20-something: pressures to figure out my life, my shifting social circle, and the learning curve of adulthood. But an array of personal problems eclipsed them.

I was still struggling to accept my parents' 2013 separation. Because divorce remained a taboo topic in our Gujarati community, I didn't know how to exist in this new reality. I was figuring out how to cope, physically and emotionally, with my chronic illness. And I was also dealing with lifelong patterns of anxiety and people-pleasing that had affected my relationships and ability to feel in control of my own life.

Growing up, feelings were a topic my family never dared discuss. Mental health issues were always somewhat of a joke, and we often brushed off people dealing with them as gaando or gaandi, which means "crazy" in Gujarati. Like many from non-Western cultures, we operated from a community-first mindset, with the question, "What will other people say?" at the forefront. I'd learned to keep quiet and bury my emotions. A fear of tarnishing my family's reputation trailed at my heels.

But I began to see the issues lingering in our family and community, and I became frustrated. My great-uncle died by suicide several decades ago, back in India, yet he was seldom spoken of. I found out about several relatives who'd been divorced and remarried, their first spouses seemingly erased from the picture entirely. When women in my extended family spoke of the early days of their marriages, I was shocked to learn how much sexism and verbal abuse they endured.

Why weren't we talking about any of this? What were we gaining by staying silent? It felt like we were working our hardest to uphold an image, to maintain the shiny veneer of "we have it all together."

I believed on some level that detaching from my South Asian heritage would give me the emotional freedom I sought, not therapy.

Though I'd studied psychology in college, I never considered the possibility of personal therapy. I still clung to the belief that it was for those who lived with severe mental illness. And I also feared what therapy would reveal: that it would confirm I was a failure, reinforcing the cultural messaging I'd grown increasingly frustrated with. I believed on some level that detaching from my South Asian heritage would give me the emotional freedom I sought, not therapy.

Non-South Asian friends of mine had gone to therapy and spoke frequently about the relief it brought. I'd noticed the ease with which they were able to identify — and openly talk about — their emotions. They didn't seem ashamed. They seemed empowered. Gradually, my attitude toward therapy began to shift.

When I hit my lowest low, I realized I couldn't carry on with the way things were going. I no longer had a stable sense of who I was or how I would move forward. The emotional intensity consumed me, and I needed guidance and clarity.

So in November 2019, I finally connected with Michelle, a marriage and family therapist with a public health background. Though Michelle wasn't South Asian, she possessed a deep level of cultural sensitivity and wove my Gujarati upbringing into the work we did together.

Michelle and I dug back into my childhood, revisiting generational patterns. We connected my people-pleasing tendencies to the behavior I'd observed in my mother, grandmother, and aunts. We discussed my anxiety, which I'd dealt with since childhood. Through ongoing exploration, I learned how much of it stemmed from the pressures of South Asian cultural expectations. There had always been an unspoken competition between me and the Gujarati kids my age. The bar was high — and only seemed to climb higher — when it came to earning perfect grades, gaining admission into top colleges, and entering one of the few respected professions in the community's eyes.

Michelle's understanding made me feel seen and slowly chipped away at the wall of shame that surrounded me. She gave me the tools to feel more empowered, encouraging me to set boundaries and build self-compassion. But beyond that, she showed me the importance of having conversations around the typical "hush-hush" topics to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

I started talking to my parents about their experiences growing up and asked more about our family history. I learned that my family lived through colonial rule, poverty, expectations around arranged marriage, and race-based discrimination and violence as immigrants in the US. Their lives were solely about survival. I realized the stigma around discussing mental illness — and other taboo topics like divorce, health challenges, and sexuality — was rooted in the traumas they've dealt with, in a need to protect themselves from further oppression and uphold the model-minority myth.

My South Asian identity is an important part of me, and I don't want to run away from it anymore.

I've now spent over four years in therapy, and it's been one of the best decisions of my life. I started this journey wanting to detach from my South Asian heritage, but I now feel a deep sense of pride in my cultural roots. My South Asian identity is an important part of me, and I don't want to run away from it anymore. I see the resilience my predecessors cultivated, and how they were doing their best with the limited resources they had. I honor the struggles my ancestors have gone through, which have allowed me to live with the freedoms I currently do.

I also see my role in speaking out against ongoing stigmas, in using my voice, especially when my ancestors — particularly women — never had one.

Above all, therapy has shown me that keeping quiet about our struggles perpetuates shame, fear, and separateness. But discussing our traumas builds a bridge for deeper connection. I acknowledge that there will be differences in the way my family and I think. Instead of harboring feelings of resentment toward them or trying to hide parts of myself I believe will be unlovable, I continue to have challenging conversations with my parents. I'm standing in my own truth and encouraging my family to share theirs to break the intergenerational stigma around mental health. Little by little, I believe change is possible.

Brina Patel is a content writer and copywriter whose work primarily covers mental health and BIPOC representation. In addition to POPSUGAR, her work has been featured in Business Insider, Well+Good, Verywell Mind, Wondermind, and Byrdie. She also writes the biweekly Substack newsletter The Tuesday Tapestry, which delves into a variety of topics — travel, relationships, creativity — through her perspectives as a first-generation South Asian American.