Ask Sahaj: I grew up pleasing others. Now I don’t know my own values.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy and a mental health professional, is answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for her, please submit it here.

Dear Sahaj: I am a 23-year-old Chinese American woman living on my own for the first time. I thought living on my own would be liberating, but it has been the opposite: I find myself constantly feeling lost, indecisive and empty. When I am around other people, I opportunistically pretend to share their values and interests so that I can “fit in.” But if you asked me who I am or what I value, I would come up with nothing.

I think this is in part due to my upbringing. Like many Asian Americans, growing up I was expected to follow a certain life path that would give me and my family “face” in the community. Every time I achieved something that kept me on that path, I received a stream of praise and validation from parents and strangers alike. Conversely, I was shamed and shunned whenever I expressed interest in anything that threatened to “distract” from that path.

I feel like this carrot-and-stick upbringing has turned me into an addict for approval. I spend so much time laboring for the next hit of achievement and praise that I feel like I’ve lost control of my life. But it’s hard to imagine another way of living when I don’t even know what’s important to me apart from winning approval. How do I let go of my need for approval and identify my core values?

Values chameleon: You’re not alone. Many of us, especially Asian Americans, struggle with a need for external validation. Often this is rooted in parental expectations and feelings of guilt and fear for letting them down.

When you’re not clear on what is important to you, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of following societal norms or doing what other people want. This can lead to approval but not necessarily personal fulfillment.

It makes sense you feel lost right now. But this is a chance for you to be curious, to try new things and to learn more about who you are when you’re not trying to be what someone else expects of you.

Rethink your success narrative.

One small reframe that may be helpful: When you catch yourself naming your success or achievement, take a minute to consider how you got there. Was it through hard work? Being a good leader? Take it one step further and think about characteristics you’ve demonstrated in attaining certain successes — like persistence, problem-solving or creativity.

When you shift from what you did to how you did it, the focus turns to your own personal strengths and character — thus helping you build a stronger internal sense of self.

Because your own instinct has been diluted by others’ opinions, consider taking time before agreeing to do something, before sharing something with another person or before making a decision. Instead, sit with the initial feelings you have. This can help you gain clarity on how you really feel about something.

Practice disappointing people.

Stay with me here. Seeking approval from others is rooted in pleasing people. It’s not just that it helps you feel worthy, but it also validates that you are making someone else feel happy or comfortable, too.

Growing up, you were seeking approval because it allowed you to get your own emotional needs met. Now, with friends or in groups, you seek approval because it allows you to feel a sense of acceptance.

It can be incredibly hard to accept that you may disappoint people. But disappointing someone and wronging someone are two very different things.

So, find a safe person to disappoint. This can look like setting micro-boundaries, saying no to something, or sharing something about yourself that feels vulnerable or scary. By practicing this in a safe relationship, it will help you build a tolerance for discomfort as well as confidence that neither the relationship nor your sense of self will crumble if you don’t get the external validation you have been used to.

Get clear on your values.

We all have cultural, family, professional and personal values, but these vary depending on the systems and environments we exist in.

It may be helpful to spend some time considering the different values of those around you. With some of my past therapy clients, I have asked them to consider the three most important values in their cultural community (your Chinese culture). Then, write down three important values in your host culture (American culture). Then, write down what you think your mom’s three most important values are. Then your dad’s, sibling’s, and maybe a best friend or partner, too.

Now take a second to look at how similar or different these values are from one another — and also in what ways you find yourself adopting certain values because of the people you surround yourself with.

Another exercise: Consider what ideal values you’d want to live by. Who are some people you admire or look up to? What values do they live by? What would it look like for you to adopt these values into your life?

Finally, spend some time reflecting on these questions: What is important to you? When are you the happiest? What values are being honored during these times? Alternatively, when are you the most unhappy and what values are being suppressed or crossed?

Right now, you are living a goals-driven life and not a values-driven life, so it makes sense that you are constantly chasing the next thing rather than making decisions rooted in what is important to you. But once you start being able to excavate those values, you can reorient your life toward your own sense of security and happiness.

I know these moments of self-discovery can be overwhelming, but be patient; change doesn’t happen overnight. Ultimately, it’s an act of courage to explore who you are.

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