Emotional Suppression in South Asian Cultures and How it Contributes to Disordered Eating

In many South Asian cultures, children are taught that controlling or hiding their emotions is a sign of strength. If you share how you’re feeling, people may see you as being too emotional, weak, and unsuccessful at managing yourself. Emotional expression, particular regarding emotions such as anger or hurt, can also be perceived as disrespecting your elders.

This can translate into feeling as though silence is a sign of strength. Being able to handle things on your own is often viewed as a sign of maturity. This is particularly pertinent for men, who historically are socialized to be the emotional and financial pillars for both their childhood families and the families they create as adults. Emotional suppression can also perpetuate the collectivistic idea of putting others’ needs above your own, as you may avoid expressing or acknowledging your own feelings so that you do not disturb the peace in your social environments.

How is this relevant to disordered eating? 

When people feel as though they need to control or hide their emotions, they may use eating disorders behaviors (amongst other things, such as substance use or self-harm) as a way to cope. For example, they may restrict their food intake as a way to exert control in their life. They may eat in secrecy as a way of hiding what might be perceived as a sinful. They may eat as a way to distract from their feelings or to cope with isolation or guilt that arises from not being able to suppress their emotions. Or, they may purge through the form of exercise, vomiting, or other means, as a way to get their emotions out without verbalizing them and appearing weak to others. 

Dismissing emotional notifications may help momentarily, but it does not address the root problem nor offer healthy, long-term solutions for coping. In fact, repeatedly engaging in these behaviors can lead to mental health problems such as eating disorders, depression, and anxiety; as well as physical health consequences, such as electrolyte imbalances, gastroparesis, esophageal tearing, and insulin resistance (visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences for more information on the physical health consequences of disordered eating patterns).

It is not easy to break down the stigma associated with feeling your emotions and seeking help. However, together, we change this cultural narrative. Just as the narrative that emotional suppression is a sign of strength was created, we too can create a new narrative in which emotional expression is a sign of strength. 

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