Listen to the episode here.
Aparna: We can’t expect ourselves to do everything, and if we keep meeting that expectation, that expectation will never go away. In fact, it only gets even more challenging ’cause you will keep saying, “well, I did it last time, I can continue to do it now”. This idea of powering through, like we need to, we need to get rid of that because it’s only a recipe for burnout.
Hi, I’m Agrita Dandriyal and welcome to Mind Full of Everything, a podcast that cultivates a space for socially and environmentally conscious minds, actively striving to achieve greater ecological and community healing, for a safer and healthier planet. Today’s episode is an International Women’s Day special episode, where I got to have a lovely conversation with Aparna Sagaram, a marriage and family therapist who specialises in supporting South Asian families, couples and individuals. Being a second generation American Indian, Aparna is very familiar with the emotional tolls of immigration, but also the negative impacts of toxic cultural customs on women that tend to be carried forward by immigrant families. Therefore, her work as a therapist helps South Asian families and individuals normalise healing, and most importantly, her work helps to shine light on the disproportionate effects of restrictive thought patterns on the livelihoods of South Asian women, and how they can work towards breaking out trauma cycles
Agrita: So, what really motivated you and kind of inspired you to become a marriage and family therapist? And was this something that you’ve always wanted to do? I know it’s a big question! There’s loads of things that kind of, you know, make you want to go down a certain path, but if you could tell us how your journey has been so far, it would be good.
Aparna: Yeah sure. So, I actually initially started school hoping to become a dentist (laughs).
Agrita: Wow, quite different! (laughs)
Aparna: Yeah, and I think a lot of like South Asian kids can relate to this right? Like you, your parents had this like path thought through and then I started it and I just like absolutely hated it. I didn’t even start dental school. I started like the biology classes and I was like oh this is not for me. And so interestingly, my mum is actually a social worker, and she does social work in India and so she’s always kind of like emphasised community service and like helping people. And so that’s something that I just sort of grew up with, right? And then, once I decided that I didn’t want to do, I don’t want to pursue dental school, I switched over to public health and like that opened up a lot of avenues for me ’cause I I started to see that I could still kind of be in the healthcare field but also help people. I wanted more one to one level. What actually sparked my interest in therapy was, I did this internship at my university, working with substance abuse in pregnant women, but we were focusing on sort of the trauma side to that and I just found it so fascinating, that like drug use is often just the symptom of like what’s actually happening.
Aparna: And addiction is, you know, such a complicated issue in itself, but I was really interested in how people get to where they are, and so that’s why I pursued this degree. Specialising in working with children of immigrants also is something that kind of fell into my lap; there’s very few South Asian therapists in Philadelphia, so that’s the kind of the clientele that I get. But, I really fell in love with it, along with doing my own work, you know, my own healing, and then also helping clients. It’s a really interesting parallel process. So that’s kind of where I’m from.
Agrita: In terms of the demographics of your clients, are they mostly South Asian?
Aparna: Yeah, so I would say that it’s actually, a majority are South Asian, but I have a pretty good mix of just all different cultures and also again like a mix of just couples, families and individuals. But yeah, I would say the majority, at least 50% are South Asian.
Agrita: I’m pretty sure we all know trauma is a very sensitive topic, especially in close knit communities like South Asian ones, and I also believe that it’s particularly difficult for those trauma survivors that aren’t able to kind of accept their trauma, realise that they have PTSD. And many of these survivors end up realising that they are suffering from PTSD later on in their lives. So, do you think that South Asian women, based on your own work, are perhaps better at identifying their traumas? And do you think they’re more willing to seek professional help compared to their male counterparts? This is kind of what we expect, but do you think this kind of plays out in reality as well?
Aparna: I mean, I do. Unfortunately, I do think it is more accepted for women to get help right?
Aparna: You think about social media and all that too, I feel like the people that are more likely to engage on social media, you know, there’s a lot of mental health accounts out there, the majority of people that follow that are women too.
Aparna: And I think just from an early age, men are generally taught to suppress their feelings or like figure it out on their own, or like be the man of the house, right? Like so when you when you grow up with all those concepts, It’s hard to, you know be in your 20s and 30s and then feel like you need to ask for help. So, I think oftentimes asking help feels like really shameful or feels like you couldn’t do it on your own, but I think for women it’s a little bit different. I think that women tend to be a lot more social. Women, you know, chat with their friends and they ask for help and they’re like, “oh, what do you think about this?”, it feels like a little bit more of a collective mindset. I think generally with men, which is unfortunate ’cause it’s how you’re raised, right, it’s not like this is in our blood, it’s just how you’re raised.
Aparna: And so, men tend to be more isolated about how they’re feeling and what they’re going through.
Agrita: I feel like within South Asian communities and cultures, that sort of difference between how men and women are raised up is quite evident. And then you start seeing that play out when things like trauma are talked about, discussed about, and you kind of see that, you know, women have always been really vocal about their experiences and men are told to kind of keep it in. So, keeping that in mind, based on your own work, do more South Asian women come to you?
Aparna: Yeah, yeah, I do see a lot of South Asian women. If I see a South Asian man, it’s generally through a couple or a family, right, ’cause I think it’s like, it’s easier to ask for help through like a system than it is to just, you know, ask, seek it for yourself. So yeah, it’s definitely a lot more South Asian women.
Agrita: So, I am a first-generation British Indian. I’ve immigrated to the UK with my parents and sister back in 2005 and the journey has of course been amazing, but it hasn’t been without struggles. You yourself are a second generation American Indian, so I’m pretty sure you know, and you’re familiar with, the sort of issues that arise with immigration and also settling into a completely different culture from back home. So, do you think that the process of immigration tends to amplify the traumas of immigrant women particularly, so those traumas that perhaps originate it back home or are started off during the immigration process? I know this sounds contradictory because lots of immigrants, kind of, you know, migrate because they want a fresh new start. But do you think that PTSD and trauma can be triggered or amplified when you migrate to a different country?
Aparna: Yeah, so, actually, immigration is considered a trauma. Anything that that causes like a change right, so like, being a refugee or being an immigrant, or like a Holocaust survivor, all these are considered traumas. So, when you think about immigrants, they’re moving to a different country, oftentimes, they don’t speak the same language, right? They have no support, and if you’re coming over with family, the pressure is on the parents to make sure that their kids are fed and clothed. Physical safety and stability are what they’re trying to attain, and so it is considered a very big trauma to not have that support system. I think it’s what amplifies that right? Because you’re coming here and you don’t know anyone, so you’re trying to like set route, but you’re also trying to allow your children to also bloom in the country that they moved to. It’s definitely something that we see a lot.
Agrita: Yeah, I think is especially difficult for those families that don’t, like you said, have that support mechanism, so they don’t have family here. For example, my parents, we didn’t have anyone, so to kind of get used to everything, plus, you know, educate your children, raise them up, it’s just really difficult. It’s kind of weird how we don’t see immigration as a sort of trauma. That’s not something that I really hear about, so it’s really good that you picked that up. Immigration is supposed to be like a good thing for the person/people migrating, but people don’t realise, you know, traumas are linked to that.
Aparna: Yeah isn’t really. And often times, when we talk about traumas right, like people tend to emotionally freeze at that age in which the trauma had happened. So, a lot of children of immigrants, they tend to say that their parents, it seems like their parents are very emotionally im,mature that they just don’t understand, right? But if you think about where it comes from, oftentimes parents immigrate in there like, you know, early 20s or mid 20s, right? And they’re trying to set up a whole life here, and so they emotionally freeze at that age. So, when you surpass the age at which your parents had come, you’ll start to see that emotional difference that like what you’re capable of and what they’re capable of.
Agrita: Yeah, that’s true.
Aparna: And so, I often encourage clients to like just like build empathy around that, kind of meet your parents where they are. Just because they’re not able to emotionally express in the way that you need them to, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to. It’s not like they don’t know how to write, they just don’t have the same tools that maybe we have today. And so, I think it’s just building empathy and understanding around that. It’s not to excuse poor behaviour or to excuse abusive behaviour course, it’s still kind of to help you understand where they’re coming from.
Agrita: So actually, linking to that, the term intergenerational trauma has been used quite a lot, especially in the field of trauma therapy. Many people use it to bring light to this concept of trauma being transgenerational, so being passed from older generations to younger ones. There’s also been a lot of focus on the impacts of intergenerational trauma for mothers and how their traumas might be passed on to their children, especially their daughters. So, do you think that this concept of intergenerational trauma is beneficial for the healing of older generations and do you think that it can kind of bridge the gap between generations? Or do you think it causes a further generational divide? Like you said, you need to be empathetic towards your parents and older generations, but do you think it kind of helps to look at this concept?
Aparna: Yeah. I think this concept of generational trauma actually makes it takes the pressure off of one generation to feel like they have to heal everything.
Aparna: Right? So, who we are today, is because of our parents, our grandparents, great grandparents. And so, if you take some time to kind of look through your family history, you’ll start to see like what are the patterns that get passed down. Oftentimes it’s learned behaviors, it’s positive and negative patterns, right? Like your work ethic, how you spend money, like how you take care of yourself. All this is passed down.
Agrita: Yeah it is!
Aparna: It is. But I think the key thing here, the whole concept of generational trauma is super important, but the flip side to that is the self-awareness piece, right? Like if you’re not self-aware, you’re not going to know what to do with all these things that you’re thinking about now. Like how do I break the cycle of, you know, maybe your family tends to hold a lot of secrets. That’s a toxic pattern that is very common in South Asian families because this idea of “what would people think” if they know our business.
Aparna: So, in order to break that, you have to 1st know that that’s somethings that are generational, and so it’s really combing through and starting to understand like what are some of these patterns that you hold and it’s really helpful to kind of see your parents in action, right? Like what are the things that they talk about? Who they hang out with? How do they fight? How to take care of themselves? All of these are, it’s information to help you see like where that comes from.
Agrita: So, do you think that generational trauma is especially important for mothers? Women are more obviously vocal about what they’re experiencing, and I’ve seen quite a lot of times where the mother would have experienced something, and then when the child grows up and they’re seeing their mother suffering, that does pass down. So, do you think it’s even more important that we focus on how mothers deal with their trauma and the impact of that on their children?
Aparna: I mean, I think that it depends on how your family is set up, right? Like if your mother is the main caregiver of the family, then yes. I think it is because everything that you see and do is through your mother.
Aparna: And a lot of like especially, there’s this book, it’s called “It didn’t start with you”. Have you heard of that?
Agrita: No, I haven’t.
Aparna: It’s by this man named Mark Wolynn I believe, and he talks a lot about how just pregnancy itself, like when a mother is carrying her child, any trauma that happens in the womb, you carry that.
Agrita: I have heard of that.
Aparna: And so yeah, a lot of like these generational traumas, both strengths and traumas, get passed through the mother, even when you’re not like physically on Earth. And so yeah, I think it is super important, but again, it’s if, say your father is a very strong role in the family, then it would also be very important to like notice all of these things for him as well.
Agrita: I think everybody, both South Asians and non-South Asians, understand the sort of restrictions that we [usually] have in South Asian households. There’s this general belief that if we step out of these hypothetical boundaries, then, you know, “what will people say?” It will cause shame to the family etc. And almost always, these boundaries are kind of put in place for South Asian women. It’s not just, of course, just in this community, it’s in many other communities as well, but just looking at South Asian communities, why do you think that so many families, especially older family members, don’t take this distancing as advantage to kind of break out of these toxic cultural norms, especially when it comes to women?
Aparna: Yeah, so something that I definitely just like from my clinical experience that I’ve seen and also even in just like personal experience, right? It’s like when your parents leave a country, they hold on to those values from that time period. For example, my parents came in the 80s, so they sort of froze at that, like the value system of India in the 80s.And so, they come to a new country, right? And so not only are they struggling to evolve with the new country’s values, they’re also not part of India’s evolving. So, they’re kind of stuck between both. So, I think when people oftentimes migrate, they’re trying to just cling on to anything that’s familiar, right? It’s easy to just cling on to what you know, and so they’re essentially raising their kids in like 1980s India value system, even though fast forward 20 years and India has evolved significantly. But your parents haven’t because they’re not part of that.
Aparna: Nor are they part of what’s happening in the US either, or whatever country they’re in, so their mindset is still very much 1980s India, and so I think it’s really hard to let go of that because it’s all that they know. And it’s also scary, right? Like it feels really scary, you’re entering the country that maybe has different values and maybe feels more threatening to women right? You know, because India is a very patriarchal country. So is the US, like don’t get me wrong here.
Agrita: Everywhere (laughs).
Aparna: (laughs) Yeah, everywhere. But if that’s what they know, it feels safer, right? So, they’re like “let’s just hold on to these values”. I think women in the process really suffer, like, especially, you know, daughters are, there’s so much that, you know, feels like that they can’t do based on being raised in these extremely strict households.
Agrita: I really like how you said that, you know, older generations, they usually tend to freeze in time. That’s something that I’ve never heard about. It’s really interesting, but it’s so true. For example, I’ll be having conversations with my mom and my dad about certain things and they’ll be like “oh no but people in India don’t do that”. But then I’ll be like, but I’ve seen people my age.
Aparna: (laughs) but they do, yeah.
Agrita: Yeah, they are literally like me, there’s no difference. There might be a few cultural differences, but apart from that they are literally like me. You know, like you said, they’ve [India] evolved so much and but they’re [parents] always in this mindset that, you know, they’re still from the 1980s and that whole culture is still going on, so yeah, I really like how you kind of pinpointed that down. It’s really important for us to realise that so many people are just frozen in time and to get out of that is difficult, but it’s possible.
Aparna: Yeah, and that goes back to the trauma, right? Like when you immigrate to a new country, it’s that trauma, like you freeze in that time, essentially.
Agrita: So, I saw from your website and, like you said, you don’t only offer individual and couples therapy, you also offer family therapy, which is something that I didn’t know exists until I kind of researched a bit more into it. So, could you explain how you go about doing that and how do you overcome any challenges of like unwilling family members who don’t really want to take part in the therapy? As I mentioned before, trauma is taboo in South Asian communities generally, so how do you convince whole families to take part?
AparnaL: The one thing I don’t do is like, I don’t convince, because if someone is not interested then we just move on.
Aparna: Maybe I would spend the entire session, I’d spend the entire session trying to convince them why they should be here in the 1st place, right? So generally, the families that I get, it’s usually prompted by the kids, right? They’re usually adult kids, they wanna, they say we want to have a better relationship with their parents, we want them to understand where we’re coming from, right? And it is interesting actually, I get a lot of adult children. So, like kids who are adult kids, who are in their like late 20s are like, you know, I’m at this age in my life when I’m a full-fledged adult and I want to have this adult relationship with my parents but my parents still see me as like a child or they’re not letting me grow. So, at that point, it’s really interesting that parents are generally willing to, surprisingly, but it’s the buy in right? Like I often have to like, really warm up to the parents. I have to like say like this is really beneficial for you and your relationship with your children, if your kids are important to you this is something that you want to do. And so like, we really work together to help. And it’s interesting, a lot of the work that I actually do is with the kids to help them see like why their parents are the way they are, because I think it’s hard, you know, you’ve been doing this for 60+ years [parents].
And so, to ask them to like completely change themselves is very difficult. I think it’s easier for kids, for people who are, you know, in this country for much longer, to come at it with empathy and compassion, and really understanding your parents’ story right? ’cause you know, we know like the “immigrant” story, but like, do you really know your parents’ immigrant story? How they felt, what they did? You know, what was it like? Were they scared?
Aparna: All these answers will help you feel that compassion towards your parents and that itself, I think, will start to bridge that gap.
Agrita: So true.
Aparna: Because it’s not about like changing your behaviour, you know, all that’s important. But like, if you’re not coming from a place of understanding, it’s [relationship] not going to last. And so, that’s what we focus on, is kind of me helping the parents see their kids perspective and kids helping see their parents perspective, and so that’s generally what starts to bridge that gap.
Agrita: I think it is a whole issue of misunderstanding as well, and like you said, so many South Asian families tend to have this “secret” type of toxic trait going about, you know, nobody really wants to be telling each other what they really feel, and so if you do have that, and you’re not really seeing where your parents are coming from, and the parents are not seeing where the child is coming from, then it is really difficult to kind of bridge the gap. Do you think it’s kind of helpful for parents to see successful examples of therapy? I feel like, especially my parents, they love to see real life examples. They want to see that this has worked, they don’t just want to jump into the deep end. So, do you provide those examples as well?
Aparna: Yeah, I definitely do. I agree, I think that a lot of South Asian folks, even like individuals, they’re like “does this work?”
Aparna: And so, like you have, you have to talk about the process. I really get into specific details of like how this works, like what what to expect. I think a lot of it is that fear of uncertainty, so I’ll walk them through like what to expect and that generally helps alleviate some of those anxieties and fears about like “what are we getting into?” Because it is this stigma, like getting help means you’re crazy or that like you can’t do this on your own. Or like, you know, that whole “what will people think” and so you really gotta like break down those myths and help them get really feel comfortable and oftentimes the first like 5 to several sessions are really just getting to know them as people.
Aparna: So then they feel comfortable with you to tell you things.
Agrita: How long do these sessions last? It probably is tailored to the client themselves but in general, how long do these last?
Aparna: Yeah, generally I would say a good like, to see any sort of change, probably a good six months.
Aparna: Six months to a year, but like if you’re consistent and you go every week or even every other week, like you will see change, it’s fascinating.
Agrita: Yeah, so I haven’t been to therapy myself, but I’ve always advocated for it. I don’t exactly know how the structure is, but yeah, that is really good. So, is it like a continuous kind of thing? So is it every week or does a client kind of choose when they can go?
Aparna: Yeah, so it’s generally like most clients come either every week or every other week, and so like if you tend to be, if you’re more in like crisis mode and you feel like you need more support, we’ll do weekly.
Aparna: But if you feel like you want more you can check in. Working on more like long term things, we do biweekly. You can be in therapy for three months or you can be in therapy for a year. I have clients that I’ve had for like you know 3-4 years. But people tend to come in and out of therapy. So, like when things are bad or they feel like they need a lot of support, they’ll stop by, you know, they’ll come in again.
Agrita: Ah okay.
Aparna: And then they will be like things are good, I’m okay, then we’ll take a break. So, it’s very sort of like up to the client of how they want to come in and out of therapy.
Agrita: In terms of COVID-19, I’m pretty sure in-person therapy sessions couldn’t work, so did you do everything online? And do you think that it’s easier for people to be in the comfort of their own home? Or do you think it’s easy for them to come in person and talk to you?
Aparna: Yeah, I mean I think this is kind of like an ongoing conversation, right? When COVID first hit, I was actually already set up for teletherapy services, I was doing it prior anyway, so I had just told everyone like we’re going to be meeting virtually. And nobody had seemed like there were any issues with that. There was one, or, you know, a few people who are like I have absolutely no privacy, I cannot do this, so I was like, okay, yeah, that’s, you know, fair. But you know, we’re a year in now, right? And so, people who had dropped off came back and they’re like, okay, I figured out a way, I’ll just take a walk when we’re talking or like I’ll sit in my car.
Agrita: Oh, that’s good.
Aparna: You know, I think people are really adapting to this new way of living.
Agrita: So, to end up the episode, it would be great if you could let us know some of the ways that you help South Asian women, particularly, to break out of their trauma, especially within immigrant households, and how we South Asian women can really prioritise our mental health and happiness over community expectations. If you could just tell us a few ways.
Aparna: Yeah, so I think the 1st and like most important step, is the self-awareness, right? Like I was saying earlier, like understanding what are your patterns and behaviours that are repeating, that feel negative.
Aparna: So are you the one, do you hold secrets? Do you tend to also like, so, another pattern in South Asian families is just like being very controlling or micromanaging? And so, like do you repeat that? So, if you’re, if you’re starting to see like, noticing your friendships or your relationships, are you like that?
So, if you’re trying to see like, what are the patterns that you’re repeating, then we can start to tackle each of those.
Aparna: I think something that I talk a lot with my South Asian women, especially, is just getting comfortable with letting people down, right?
Aparna: Like I think a lot of, you know, in our community is like, you know, women are like these superheroes. They’re like, literally do everything religiously. But then at the end of the day, like they’re exhausted, like absolutely exhausted. I see with my own mum like she’s buzzing around all day. She comes home and she’s like, so tired, right? So, it’s okay to not do everything right. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to not like, you know, the people pleasing is a very big dynamic in South Asian women right? And so, like getting comfortable with “it’s okay if you say no to someone” right?It’s okay if you need to ask someone to do something for.
Aparna: Like we can’t expect ourselves to do everything and if we keep meeting that expectation, that expectation will never go away. In fact, it only gets even more challenging ’cause you will keep saying, well, I did it last time I can continue to do it. This idea of powering through, we need to get rid of that because it’s it only a recipe for burnout.
Agrita: Definitely, I feel like that was the most toxic trait that I had to overcome, sticking to the expectations. Not having any breaks. Continuing on when you know that you’re suffering. That was a main thing that I had to kind of break out of, and it took some time, especially because I am the oldest daughter, so everybody kind of expects you to be the role model. And if you kind of start changing, then they feel like, you know, you’re going to be a bad influence on your sibling. I think that pressure is difficult, especially older daughters, to break out of that, but yeah, that is a toxic trait that I had to overcome and tell myself that you know this is not normal and if I continue on doing it, it’ll hurt me, but it also will hurt my parents when I do break out of it at a later stage. So why not start now so they get used to it.
Aparna: Something else that I wanted to mention was that just because you’re prioritising your own mental health, it does not mean that you’re rejecting anybody else, or it doesn’t mean that you’re being mean to someone else.
Aparna: Like you can prioritise your mental health and still be there for other people, right? But it’s finding that balance of what is comfortable for you and what is comfortable for them, right? But oftentimes, what happens is we do what’s comfortable for the other person at the expense of ourselves, right?
Aparna: So, we have to, I often work with clients to help them find that balance, right? Like you can still be a nice person and set boundaries. You can still be a nice person and prioritise your mental health. And so, it’s finding that, it’s getting comfortable with these concepts and then finding ways to make that happen.
Agrita: So basically, self-love is not selfish.
Aparna: Yeah, exactly.
Agrita: It’s something that people just fail to understand fail to grasp, especially because our communities are so giving, they are not really taking communities. You know, it’s about all giving, give them all my love, my time and effort, but they [South Asians] aren’t comfortable in taking some of that, and so yeah just to get that balance.
Aparna: Yeah. It’s interesting, right? ’cause it’s giving without asking no one. No one ever says, do you want this? You know it’s just, it’s pushed on you.
Aparna: And then you have to, you’re like forced to appreciate it.
Agrita: Same thing goes with food, like they’ll just keep on giving, it’s like there’s no stopping them (laughs)
Aparna: (laughs) So true!
Agrita: Okay thank you so much Aparna for coming on the show and having this really lovely conversation. This episode is something that I really wanted to make, but I really wanted to talk to a professional in the field, you know, about trauma therapy within South Asian communities. It’s something that many South Asian individuals and families, couples, just aren’t comfortable in kind of exploring further, so thank you so much for coming on the show, telling us a bit about your work. And also, your work, thank you so much for you know, working with these communities.
Aparna: Yeah, I’m so happy to share my knowledge here today. I hope that, you know, everyone who’s listening feels validated and feels seen and, you know, tries out therapy because therapy does wonders.
OUTRO: There are so many things that Aparna picked out when it comes to identifying key patterns in trauma cycles within South Asian communities that I wouldn’t have understood if I hadn’t talked to her, so I’m very glad that I could have this conversation with her. Since it’s International Women’s Day, I feel the need to address the stigma associated with trauma and therapy, especially for my fellow South Asian women who aren’t able to have transparent conversations with their families, or feel as if they can’t. Please do not feel alone, I’m still in the journey of breaking out of toxic cultural norms but do remember that change starts when you want to start when you’re comfortable enough for it to start, when you’re in the correct environment and mindset for change to start. Happy International Women’s Day again to everyone. If you do enjoy Mind Full of everything, subscribe to the podcast and give the show a 5* podcast review. You can also support the show by buying one of my eco-friendly pin badges. All episode resources including Aparna’s website and social media, show notes and transcripts can be found on my website mindfullofeverything.com. If you have any suggestions for the show or just want to say hi, you can email me and connect with me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I hope you’re all staying well and safe, and hope to see you here again in the next episode.