Conflicts for East Asians

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 Confucianism’s ‘interdependent’ self and Rogers’ & Winnicott’s ‘independent’ self

Hyunho Khang

My aim is to explore the concept of the ‘self’ from an Eastern perspective, considering the fundamental influence of culture, and also from the psychotherapy perspectives of Rogers and Winnicott. These perspectives will focus on the distinction between the interdependent and the independent senses of selves. Considering the development of multiculturalism, it is important to reconsider psychotherapy beyond its Western origins, to contemplate psychotherapy’s relevance to different cultures and to include the experience of migrants who face the challenges of two cultures – that of their origin and that of their new home. The Eastern perspective will concentrate on Confucianism’s enormously influential role in East-Asian culture. This analysis will include reflections on the ‘superego’, which efficiently illustrates the impact of Confucianism on the individual. Further I will briefly touch upon issues that may arise between the therapist and the East-Asian client, including those who emigrate to the West. Finally I will use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to demonstrate the moral judgement of comparing cultures.

The Confucian Self-Concept
Although much of East-Asia has undergone rapid industrialisation since the 1950s, the core Confucian values that shaped traditional East Asia (China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam) are still a great force in modern East-Asian life (Sorensen, 1994). More than Buddhism, Capitalism, Communism or Enlightenment, Confucianism acts as the framework for the values that guide East-Asian people’s social behaviours and their experience of self and identity. This culture emphasises collectivism with family at the core of society – “family is perceived as the ‘great self’, and the individual, the ‘small self’, is embedded within the family” (Ng & James, 2013:2). Tremendous emphasis is placed on harmonious interpersonal relationships, social obligations and interdependence over independence (Shea, Yang & Leong, 2010). Obligations, shame and emotional self-control are the traditional mechanisms which reinforce this social structure and ‘correct’ behaviour. “An individual’s personal action reflects not only on himself but also on his extended family and ancestors” (Lee, 1997:7). Intertwined with this focus on family and interdependence, Confucianism is authoritarian (Sorensen, 1994), emphasising the vertical structure of relationships, especially the obedience to elders.

Considering Confucianism’s emphasis on interdependence, its “values may encourage individuals to define self in relation to others in their social contexts and derive self-esteem from fitting in” (Shea, Lang, Yeong, 2010:2). Hence, “establishing one’s own presence apart from the family is not only far more difficult than in the West, it is often inconceivable” (Slote, 1992:436). Thus, Confucianism directs the ego to be other-centred rather than self-centred. “The intrapsychic sense of self tends to be less internalized than in most of the patients we are accustomed to treating. The locus of an inner sense of power and self-definition resides, to a far greater degree than we usually experience, in others (father, mother, elder sibling, ancestor, etc.) rather than within the individual.” (Slote, 1997:436)

Asia 1

The Confucian Superego
These deeply ingrained Confucian values of interdependence, relational harmony and authoritarianism all contribute towards an ethical code and a morality widely disseminated and known to all. These codes yield a powerful superego within East-Asians. “It appears logical to suppose that in a patriarchal culture reinforced by the images of numerous ancestor-figures, the formation of the superego…will be powerful” (Soddy, 1961:121). Later I will explain how this superego may manifest in therapy.

Rogers’ & Winnicott’s Self-concepts
Unlike Confucianism’s collectivism, Rogers’ view of the self places high value on the subjective reality of the individual. Similarly, Winnicott (1965a) views the individual’s emotional development as journeying from absolute dependence towards independence. Confucianism values the undifferentiated self, whereas Winnicott and Rogers value progress from an undifferentiated self towards differentiation. Therein lies a fundamental conflict, where, by implication, Rogers and Winnicott pathologise Confucianism and vice versa.

According to Winnicott, his theory of the “True Self” (1965b) is a sense of being alive, natural and spontaneous. This contrasts substantially with the Confucian mechanism of obligation and emotional self-control. How can one be spontaneous and unforced in a culture which demands deference to the elderly? How can one feel free when unable to challenge an unreasonable or even cruel elder? I suggest that Winnicott’s theory determines East-Asians as having ‘False Selves’, a mask of behaviour that complies with the expectations of others. However Winnicott does not exclusively pathologise the False Self. In health, a False Self is what allows one to present a polite and mannered attitude in public. He sees more serious emotional problems in clients who seem unable to feel spontaneous, alive or real anywhere, in any part of their lives, yet manage to put on a successful “show of being real” (Winnicott, 1965b:143). Such patients suffer inwardly from a sense of being empty, dead or ‘phoney’. Later I relate these experiences to social trends in East-Asia.

Conflicts of the Bi-Cultural
Although originating out of the distinct approaches of psychoanalysis and humanism, both Winnicott and Rogers oppose conformity and support movement away from the ‘ought’ view of oneself. They believe the developed self means cutting off the expectations that others have of you, the false faces that the others erect for you. Of course there are always numerous, complex factors and events to consider. However for the most part, for someone remaining in their native East-Asian culture, the issue of self-acceptance and individuation does not become a concern. “Supported by all social institutions, the family remains intact as the central unit of existence, and one’s sense of self is intrinsically interwoven within the totality of the family unit” (Slote, 1997:436).

Nevertheless intrapsychic and intersubjective conflicts arise when East-Asians relocate to the West, where they are likely to encounter a host of contextual and cultural challenges and are presented with “tantalizing alternatives, such as personal freedom, increased self-determination, and new, more flexible models of conduct” (Slote, 1997:436-437). As first or second generation East-Asian immigrants experience intense challenges in their social and cultural adjustments, their intrapsychic and intersubjective conflicts can impact their health.

Despite living in the West, immigrant children’s micro-environment is commonly East-Asian, with parents continuing to promote Confucian values in the home. Therein lies a conflict. Beyond their micro-environment is a Western culture with differing values, ways of interrelating and codes of conduct. These children are caught between two worlds – a powerful superego directing them to consider the wishes of their parents and society before self and to hold back emotional expression, yet yearning for more freedom and self-determination. They may struggle intrapsychically as their superego encourages them to do and be those things which elicit approval, for example an obedient child/sibling, while scrupulously avoiding or suppressing thoughts or feelings which would bring adverse judgement. These children may gradually become more distant from their True Self as their culture encourages looking to others for value and consequently they may grow not to value themselves and develop a sense of ‘worthlessness’ (Rogers, 1961). This may lead to intrapunitive patterns of emotional problems and somatisation, yet they may avoid therapy.

Treating a stranger in a strange land
The nature of Confucianism raises various challenges for the client and therapist. For an East-Asian to even consider psychotherapy could be a deeply conflicting one and one which many would avoid. Their superego directs them to focus externally, not on the self, to avoid expressing strong emotions and to avoid disrupting any in-group harmony. If an East-Asian actually makes it to therapy, the culturally-aware therapist will need to consider the influence of Confucian values on the self.

Due to a powerful superego, many East-Asians carry the burden of fulfilling the expectations of their parents and native society, with little sense of self-respect or personal worth. Despite the damage they have already suffered at the hands of those who have tried to direct their lives for them, such clients may attend therapy searching for another expert to tell them what to do. Rogers believed that “therapists, while accepting and understanding this desperate need for external authority, will do all they can to avoid falling into the trap of fulfilling such a role.” (Mearns & Thorne, 1999:6) Hence the therapist should be mindful of the East-Asian’s superego and not automatically interpret client compliance as signs of ‘attunement’ or understanding.

Asia 3For instance, “Mr. K was deferent to clinicians and staff, and never questioned his treatment plans and decisions. He tended to avoid conflict and disagreement by suppressing and concealing his negative feelings, sometimes with the aid of alcohol” (Shea, Yang & Leong, 2010:219). The therapist should be mindful of “the amount of anxiety that may be aroused by confronting the hostility toward family members that may have been suppressed over a lifetime” (Slote, 1992:437). This hostility could emerge in a client’s transference so that just as an East-Asian struggles to challenge their parents, he may avoid expressing anger towards his therapist. Yet questioning the client’s inability to express anger could induce shame, causing the client to feel unsafe and retreat. East-Asians can easily feel shamed as it is a common Confucian mechanism used to control children and ensure their adherence to social rules.

Safety in the native Confucian culture?
I have earlier suggested that problems only arise for East-Asian immigrants in the West, that natives are generally immune to severe intrapsychic conflicts as they are supported within consistent social structures. However I would like to explore briefly the more specific impact of Confucianism upon its native inhabitants. I focus here on South Korea, the most extreme in its adoption of Confucian values (Slote, 1992). At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, it appears that Koreans are a chronically unhappy race. There are complex and diverse reasons behind Korea’s notoriously high suicide rate (McDonald, 2011) but perhaps a contributing factor is that the emphasis on interdependence deprives Koreans of a sense of personal freedom and value of self. Perhaps Korea’s focus on the external where the ego tends to be ‘other’-centred rather than ‘self’-centred results in a valuing of external beauty over inner beauty, contributing to Korea’s obsession with cosmetic surgery (Bates, 2013), fashion brands and trends. I argue that it is these numerous Koreans who consider suicide, undergo cosmetic surgery or obsess about fashion who have an unhealthy False Self and who Winnicott would describe as suffering inwardly from a sense of being empty, dead or ‘phoney’.

Of course it is too simplistic to state that these perspectives of a culture reflect on all individuals as there are many variables and complex factors within one society, but considering the power of Confucianism’s collectivism, such speculation has greater relevance than if we were discussing a more self-focused society. As we now touch on complex moral issues including the judgement of Confucianism in comparison with the West, I will next explore Maslow’s theory to support the Western view.

Maslow’s Pyramid
At the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954) sits Rogers’ self-actualisation and Winnicott’s True Self, and I suggest Maslow’s pyramid efficiently illustrates how Confucian collectivism neglects the self. In recent history (1970s), where pre-industrialised South Korea suffered widespread poverty and Koreans were concerned with fulfilling their basic needs, the majority of Koreans were not in any position to consider self-actualising. That society is still adapting from poverty and is at the middle stage of fulfilling its social needs and sense of belonging. As Korea continues to flourish I theorise that it will reconsider its view of the self and take the final steps towards self-actualisation.

Considering this judgement of interdependent societies, it is also worth noting the dangers of individualism. Clearly the West is not to be idealised as there are strengths and disadvantages in both cultures. For instance, isolation and depression are widespread and a major problem in the West. The journey towards independence can lead to an individual that is unhealthily non-relational, whereas an interdependent culture encourages harmonious relationships and a sense of belonging, both of which are vital to health. Neuroscience confirms the importance of a sense of belonging as social exclusion is processed in the brain in the same way as physical pain (Eisenberger & Cole, 2012) Although suicide and social studies in East-Asia suggest ‘hikkomoris’ (Japanese phenomenon of recluses, Teo, 2013) are actually more prevalent than in the West, certainly it appears that care for the elderly is more respectful in the East. There the elderly traditionally live with their child’s family whereas in Britain the Health Secretary recently criticised society’s shameful failure to take responsibility for older relatives (Wright, 2013).

Asia 2Sometimes there is a failure in East-Asia to differentiate self-actualisation from selfishness. Impulsivity and the unrestrained expression of any whim for non-social and purely private pleasures is not self-actualisation (Daniels, 2005). The ideal situation is perhaps an actualised self who is still intrinsically connected to Maslow’s lower tier of social belonging.

Confucianism still has a profound cultural and social impact on modern East-Asians and their relational behaviour. Confucianism is authoritarian with an emphasis on interdependence and relational harmony. Emotional self-control, obligations and shame are the traditional mechanisms to reinforce these social structures. These deeply ingrained Confucian values propagate an individual’s low sense of self-worth, with their awareness ‘other’-centred rather than ‘self’-centred. This is illustrated by a powerful personal and societal superego within East-Asians. Consequently the interdependent nature of Confucianism limits the subjective reality of the lived experience.

Unlike the interdependent East-Asian culture, Rogers and Winnicott prize independence – they view autonomy and self-acceptance as key to becoming emotionally healthy and mature. I have shown through Maslow’s theory that I make a moral judgement by valuing Rogers’ and Winnicott’s views over Confucianism. It is though important to avoid idealising psychotherapy perspectives as they yield their own concerns and Confucianism also offers many advantages. Compared to the West, the East-Asian sense of self induces different issues for individuals, impacting on what they take to therapy and client-therapist intersubjectivity. However some concerns are universally relevant as a low sense of self-worth is an all too common occurrence throughout the West too. Paradoxically, despite Rogers and Winnicott maintaining an opposing position to Confucianism, their therapeutic approaches provide the perfect conditions to support an East-Asian client’s exploration of inner and outer self, assuming they overcome their conflicts  seek therapy in the first place.

There are enormous challenges particularly for East-Asians leaving their familiar social structures to relocate to the West. The East-Asian immigrant faces numerous intrapsychic conflicts as the West reveals alluring alternatives such as personal freedom and more flexible models of conduct. Situated within multiculturalism, the modern therapist has new issues to consider. Distinct and sometimes conflicting cultural values will impinge the therapeutic dyad and on transference and counter-transference. The mindful therapist will consider his or her own cultural perspectives and possible prejudices.

For an extended understanding of East-Asian cultures, it would be worthwhile considering the macro-issues beyond Confucianism which may affect an East-Asian client’s sense of self, including politics, wars and poverty. With a goal of increasing the cultural awareness of therapists and furthering the development and integration of psychotherapy beyond the West, it would be worthwhile studying the specific challenges of East-Asians who remain in their native culture. Beyond East-Asia, these themes have much wider relevance as the interdependent view is also characteristic of Africian, Latin-Americian and many southern European cultures (Markus & Kitayama, 1991:225). An understanding of the causes behind their cultural values would also provide an interesting comparison and serve to develop the multicultural awareness of therapists globally.

Hyunho Khang is working towards an MA in Integrative Psychotherapy & Counselling at the Minster Centre in London. He was born in Seoul, South Korea but emigrated to London in 1979. Hyunho has a background in arts participation including the role of Education Manager at Complicite theatre company and the Roundhouse. He currently volunteers as a Trainee Counsellor at a Mind centre and previously volunteered at Sane mental health charity.

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