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Balancing Cultures and Emotions: Navigating Relationships in a Korean American Journey

by Paul Kang, MA

It feels like we spend a lot of our time scrolling on social media. I know I do. Some messages I often see while scrolling through TikTok or seeing influencers talking about lifestyle and mental health are “you don’t need others,” “protect your peace,” or basically “if someone mildly inconveniences you, just cut them off.” Although these messages might be needed for certain relationships, they also may be a bit too black and white.

Growing up as a Korean American—a culture that reinforces collectivism—I recognized how individualistic relationships and mental health can be here in America. As these decisive posts on navigating relationships increase, it can feel confusing on how to make sense of it all. Because for the longest time, I made choices in consideration of the collective, and American individuality told me that’s not how I should make those choices. Furthermore, I recognized that some mental health and relational language from the American part of my identity really does not exist on the Korean side of my identity such as “boundaries,” “compromise,” and “apologies.” Well, there were apologies in my Korean home. They were usually offered in the form of cut up Korean fruit and me eating the fruit signified an acceptance of the apologies and all was made well without any vulnerable or open expression of how both parties were feeling. You can exhale now.

As I observed the cultural and social phenomenon of my Korean identity, I developed certain strategies to maintain my cultural dynamic. For example, instead of expressing an unpleasant emotion to be vulnerable with a friend or family member, I withheld the emotions because I believed that making someone feel uncomfortable with my uncomfortable emotions is rude and selfish. However, as I work with clients of diverse cultural backgrounds and do my own work in myself, I challenge that. By leaning into discomfort, we find an opportunity to cultivate deeper connections. By gently expressing those unpleasant emotions, we give ourselves the possibility to be seen, known, and loved.

I believe we can honor the ways we’ve learned to engage in relationships from our cultural and familial backgrounds along with these messages we see on social media.

But I leave you with something to reflect on: How are the ways you learned to show up in relationships serving you now? Are they aligned with the way you envision your life? And as the holiday season is upon us there can be many uncomfortable emotions that come up. To be aware of those feelings and to help navigate them, here are some suggestions:

  1. Feelings are feelings — when you feel loneliness, emptiness, disappointment, sadness, or other unpleasant emotions, that’s ok. You are a human being. Your emotions hold information about who you are. What are they telling you?

  2. Find your limits and boundaries — holiday stress and plans can make it challenging to have space for your needs. Your time and energy are sacred and worthy of your consideration.

  3. Compassion for yourself — As mentioned above, you are a human being. We all have areas of growth and we are always in process. As you learn to accept your humanity, compassion for yourself and others can become more in reach.

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