The first time I was able to be my true self in front of my parents was when I was 31 years old.
We stared at each other on Zoom, three boxes of Korean faces spanning multiple generations and cultures — me in my box, my parents in theirs, and our family therapist, a middle-aged, Christian Korean woman who I specifically chose because I felt I could help bridge the years-long chasm between us.
It wasn’t always so bad between my parents and me. There was a time when I felt love from my traditional, immigrant parents. While they never explicitly stated it, I knew they loved me by the way they fed and clothed me, held me when I cried, and how they brought me to America in their search for a “better life.”
“Did you eat yet?” was their way of saying “I love you.”
“You’ll thank us later” was how they justified dismissing my emotions.
Christianity brought us to America, and as the years went by, I found myself growing farther and farther apart from them and their life purpose of spreading God’s word. My pastor father and submissive mother had only one condition for me to earn their love — to be a God-fearing, church-going Christian — but I just couldn’t be that for them.
I didn’t know how to reconcile with the endless shame and the belief that I would never be good enough. I left home at 18 years old, making sure to put as much physical distance between me and them as possible. After years of fighting, running and hiding, I reached my rock bottom and finally sought help.
Therapy changed my life in that it gave me hope for a different kind of future, one that felt more authentic to me. Prior to therapy, I always felt like my life was shared with my family due to our Korean collectivist culture and our enmeshed, codependent family dynamics.
However, with the help of my Korean-American therapist, I was able to identify my personal needs, values and boundaries ― and came to the conclusion that the healthiest choice for me would be to limit my contact with my parents, who just weren’t capable of accepting and loving me as I am.
Months turned into years and during this time I rebuilt myself and my self-esteem from the ground up. I grieved the loss of the parents I wished I’d had and knew I deserved. I learned to give the love I used to give away to others — desperately yearning for them to return that love — to myself.
I became a therapist, specializing in immigrant populations and folks who also struggle with differentiating from their families and reconciling with the clash of collective and individualistic ideals.
My clients’ stories validated me but also made me feel like a hypocrite at times. I thought I was setting boundaries, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was also avoiding, which has often been my way of coping.
Nonetheless, family has always been an important value of mine, and something I always longed for, which is no surprise since love and belonging are basic needs. So I decided to try something new.
I wrote to them and asked them if they would be willing to talk through our differences in family therapy. To my disbelief, they actually agreed.
I knew my mom would be open to it, given her passion for Christian counseling. But I never imagined in a million years that my old school tiger dad, who could never admit any wrong, would agree to discuss our feelings with a complete stranger in family therapy. This was something my younger self and my inner child would have never believed possible. That’s what I love most about therapy— it’s opened worlds and paths for me that I’ve never been able to envision before.
In family therapy, my parents and I traveled back in time to the very beginning, to those early years when my dad would wake our sleepy little bodies and strap my brother and me in our car seats so we could all drive our mom to work at the hospital in the dark streets of K-town, the sun still asleep. We confronted the cultural clashes, language barriers and miscommunication that widened the gap between us.
My parents believed that our biggest issue was our language barrier, so I intentionally chose a bilingual therapist to help us communicate. My parents shared their stories in their broken English, and I shared mine in my broken Korean.
As our sessions progressed and my patriarchal father continued to monopolize our sessions, our therapist finally came to my rescue. She said, “I know you guys think that the issue is the language barrier, but the real issue is that you’re not listening to her.”
That validation alone was worth the agonizing hours of having to bite my tongue as my dad interrupted me again and again and rebutted every little thing I had to say. It also explained why I’m more of a listener than a talker, as I rarely had the opportunity to speak in our household.
I got so flustered and frustrated that I pleaded with our therapist to teach them how to listen reflectively. She taught them that people need to feel like they’re understood and acknowledged in order to foster healthy dialogue where both parties feel heard. She said that reflective listening is as simple as restating or summarizing what the other person said in your own words. I added that reflective listening doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with what the other person is saying, but that you’re simply acknowledging them.
My mom was able to catch on quickly, but my dad struggled through it.
“Why should I say something that I don’t agree with?” he grunted.
“Because otherwise you’ll never get to hear what she’s saying and how she truly feels,” she replied.
I talked earnestly and openly about my values and beliefs for the first time ever. We talked about our boundaries and what it would take for us both to accept each other and what that kind of relationship could look like. In doing so, I had to again grieve the relationship with my parents that I always wanted so that I could accept them for who they are, acknowledge their limitations and adjust my expectations.
Although it only lasted one or two sessions and probably was a massive blow to his ego, my dad did try to listen to me until he inevitably reached his breaking point and yelled at me through the screen, telling me to get over it and move on already.
He stopped coming after our fifth session and although I felt abandoned all over again, I also felt relieved. I had done all I could at that point. I had laid it all out there, and how he received it and reacted was out of my control.
I had to grieve again. Except this time I let go of the fantasy that I would ever be able to fix our relationship once and for all. I convinced my mom to keep coming to family therapy with me, without my dad.
Like life, my relationship with my father has been a long journey full of many twists and turns, that’s still ongoing. While I’ve never expected a happily ever after, mostly because that only exists in fairy tales, I’ve grown to accept that healing comes in stages and sometimes you have to take a few steps back in order to take a giant step forward.
For me, being able to be real with myself and my family and to release so much of the shame and resentment that I had been harboring was worth it. Knowing that I’ve tried all I can has allowed me to accept my present reality so that I can move forward intentionally and authentically.