Eating Bitterness: The Notion of “Sucking it Up”

3 min read
Photo by Cala on Unsplash

Photo by Cala on Unsplash

Growing up in a Chinese household meant eating bitterness both literally and figuratively. We hated it when our parents would serve us bitter melon soup, so much so that I’d cry when this was being served to us. I was told despite the taste, the soup was “good for us” in terms of health.

In the same vein, there’s also a Chinese idiom, 吃苦 (chīkǔ) with the literal translation being to “eat bitterness.” The meaning, though, is to persevere through hardship without complaint, or even to suffer. In the U.S., we have similar phrases such as “no pain, no gain” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

Culturally, Chinese society and many other Asian cultures subscribe to this belief of stoicism in the face of trials or tribulations. The ability to emotionally suppress your feelings is considered a virtue. It’s not only emphasized and encouraged but to do the opposite — expressing oneself — would be deemed culturally shameful. Asking for help is considered anathema, let alone seeking professional help from a therapist. But to not do so, means many Asians not only suffer in silence, but the toxicity of suppressing one’s emotions takes a toll on a person’s body and health.

As a therapist specializing in Asian shame, I see Asian American clients initially resist, defend, and minimize their problems. They tell themselves some of the following:

“My parents did the best they could.”

“My childhood wasn’t that bad.”

“All marriages are hard.”

But their bodies and minds reveal the truth. They have unexplained physical ailments such as muscle tension, sleep disturbances, digestive issues, and headaches, to name a few. Emotionally, when not putting on a face I can see they are anguished by pain, depression, or internal conflict.

Empathy is also lost for those who rely on this mindset of “eating bitterness”. Because they endured this form of psychological repression, they expect others to do the same when faced with hardships. If others can’t do so, they may ridicule those for being “soft” and “weak”. Lost in the process is compassion for the suffering. Connection is replaced with condemnation and contempt.

Clients who have spouses or children can unwittingly carry this pattern into their families. They may struggle to listen, relate, connect, and bond with those closest to them as they want their own kin to “eat bitterness” like they had to do so in childhood.

But Asian kids growing up in the U.S. have friends from other ethnic backgrounds and cultures to compare experiences with. They may not know initially that “eating bitterness” is bad for the soul, but through time and conversations with them, they may learn that the Asian cultural mandate to swallow one’s pain to garner honor and respect isn’t working. To break the silence, more Asian clients are entering therapy or speaking out to friends or family members who will listen to their issues. Most importantly, they are learning it’s permissible to not only have issues but that it’s okay to want and need support through challenging times.

I’m not knocking the virtues of perseverance, grit, and overcoming hardships. If anything, I believe those are virtues we need more of. But in addition to enduring pain, asking for help, expressing emotional pain, and acknowledging our need for healing should also be viewed as virtues to be honored and respected within the Asian community.

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