If there is one thing that I know for sure, it’s that the clients that I teach are highly motivated and ambitious. Many of them put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed.
They put pressure on themselves to excel in their jobs, their research, and in their college studies.
But they aren’t always the only ones putting on the pressure.
Moms and dads and families back in their home countries can add an element of stress that—despite the distance—can be felt “loud and clear.”
I have spoken with a few clients lately, and they have mentioned that oftentimes they feel acute pressure to succeed from their families in their home country.
Why It Happens
Sometimes it's cultural. Some cultures are known for their emphasis on high academic and work performance. Perhaps you come from one yourself.
Other times family dynamics are at play.
For example, if you pick up any book on birth order theory, you will discover that your position in your family's birth order (i.e. oldest, middle, youngest, or only child) can have a significant effect on the relationship you have with your parents and your desire to succeed.
In other instances, families are depending on the son or daughter’s success to pay some or all of the bills back at home.
Sometimes our parents themselves felt intense pressure as kids and know no other way to parent. They think that they are motivating and encouraging their children when, in reality, their high-pressure conversation style can have negative consequences.
In other words, there can be many reasons why parents, in particular, push an adult child to succeed. Needless to say, it can be emotionally taxing.
Miko, one of my clients from China, told me that the pressure was so great that she ceased calling her parents for a period of time. She writes,
"I have been in the US for almost 3 years and the first two years I couldn’t call my parents because they’ll add pressure on me by asking me if I can keep staying in States or how is my application to a PhD program? I feel painful because they criticized me without any pragmatic assistance."
Criticism causes pain. We can feel attacked, especially when we know how hard we have been working to manifest our dreams.
We might think:
Can’t my family see how hard I am trying here? Isn’t it obvious?
We want our families to not only notice our efforts but appreciate them. Not only that, we want them to be proud of us.
The desire to please our loved ones is inherent in most people. We want to do well, so that we can secure their love and affection. It’s a human nature, and one of our most innate survival skills.
So, how can ESL learners who are working hard to build lives away from their country of origin deal with the high expectations that their families have for them?
Here are 3 Ways to Deal with Family Pressure:
1. Set loving boundaries with your family members.
Boundaries are limits. Boundaries can be tangible things like fences between neighbors or borders between countries. But we can also set boundaries with our time and our emotions. If fact, setting boundaries with your loved ones is instrumental to emotional health.
One of the easiest ways to do this is by setting a limit around how often you talk to your family.
Now that Miko has a full-time job, admittedly some of the pressure she felt has eased. She feels more confident, but she still chooses to set boundaries with her parents. She limits her phone calls to 30 minutes each day on her way home from work.
Whether it’s 30 minutes a day or 30 minutes each week, deciding how often and how much you want to talk to your family at home is important. Set a schedule that you can manage. If talking to them every day causes your blood pressure to rise and negative emotions to flare up, then it’s probably too much for now.
But, who knows? It might change in the future as you build up your confidence and emotional fortitude.
2. Focus the conversation on what is happening in their life at home.
Yes, this can seem a little passive aggressive, but it’s a practical tactic when you simply do not want to discuss your perceived successes and failures with your family. Use the conversation as an opportunity to learn more about your family’s life while you’re away. Ask questions about their hobbies, struggles, and successes.
If they question you about how things are going on your end (i.e. if you’ve found that job or not...if you were offered that fellowship or post-doc) choose a safe and sincere sentence that you can memorize and recite to them. It can be something as simple as:
I don’t have any new information, but I’ll let you know when I do.
And, that’s all you need to say. If they press, you can repeat the sentence kindly and courteously, but it’s not your responsibility to elaborate.
And, last but certainly not least...
3. See yourself as worthy and ENOUGH (even if you have to “act as if” for a while)
The reality is that it’s an inside job; this means that it starts with you. As soon as you see yourself as worthy and enough, then others will begin to see you that way, too. Yes, that can be a lifelong process, but I believe it is worth it. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher professor Brené Brown writes,
“When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness—the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.”
Easier said than done, as they say, but it's well worth the effort. Consider for a moment what it would feel like to let go of everyone's expectations of you?
Now, you might notice that I didn’t advise you “to speak your mind” to your family—in other words, to assert yourself. If you’re able to do that in an effective way that doesn’t damage your relationship, that is great.
In my experience, it took some time before I was able to verbally express myself assertively and clearly with my loved ones; I simply didn’t have a lot of practice. Until you gain that skill and experience, I hope the tips that I listed above will help pave the way for a less stressful relationship with your family.