I’m a high achiever, so why do things go wrong for me?
Disclaimer: This post is not to blame nor absolve parents. It’s purely for promoting understanding. It comes from the perspective of Asian Australian families, but this might not apply to every Asian family and could apply to non-Asian families. We recognise that every culture has aspects that work and don’t work for individual personalities.
Growing up with a tiger parent and as an Asian Australian psychologist myself, I hear from many high achievers. From the outside, you see things like:
- Working in a respected profession
- Being successful
- Being a responsible adult
- Filial piety
- Basically, being a good Asian kid or the ‘golden child.’
What we don’t always see, are the worries that the golden child deals with: the pressure to be perfect and the fatigue that follows.
What’s it like to be the golden child?
The golden child has a relentless drive to achieve goals that are impossible to reach for most (think being at the top of your profession, being completely financially secure, owning a property, married with kids, all by the age of 25) OR they set difficult but achievable goals, only to downplay their achievement and set the bar higher and higher every time (“So what if I won this award, it’s not like I’m as successful as this other person”).
They chase perfection which could mean sacrificing their social life or being reliant on other family members. For some, it means procrastinating or feeling stuck. Either way, it leads to feeling bad about themselves, guilt, putting themselves down, or even projecting some of the hurt onto the people around them.
Worth is proved through external achievement, like recognition and awards, rather than inner confidence. A paradox is that the golden child needs praise but can’t take compliments. The spotlight feels like it’s always on them which makes it easier to feel judged.
Now think about how this can feed into the thought that “I’m never good enough,” “I’m not worthy of love,” or just “I’m not worthy.” This can contribute to a lack of assertiveness, being a people pleaser, imposter syndrome, and feeling mistreated by others.
Given the fact that Asian Australians and ethnically diverse people are more likely to avoid working on their mental health when compared with White Australians, the golden child heads closer to a mental breakdown or a life crisis.
How does tiger parenting contribute to this?
Although tiger parents might seem harsh, being cruel might not be the intention. In immigrant communities, a lot of our parents are part of the ‘survival generation.’ They may have missed opportunities in their studies and/or career when they immigrated. They could have difficulties with language, poverty, or integrating in general, which contributes to feelings of inadequacy.
The survival generation mainly thinks about survival (food, shelter, financial stability) rather than social development, hobbies, and mental health. The only aspirations in view are things like a better car, a better home, and their kids succeeding.
Children are given roles to play from a young age. Some become the scapegoat, and others are the golden child. From a very young age, the golden child might:
- Be the family translator when mail comes in
- Be their parents’ admin assistant
- Experience parentification if they have younger siblings
- Be expected to listen to a parent’s emotional struggles and anxieties
- Be expected to be the family hero and lift the family up.
By assuming adult roles, the golden child is forced to ‘grow up’ beyond their ability and maturity level.
High expectations are set for the golden child through verbal pressure or even through what looks like kindness, by showering the child with praise and parents bragging to others about the child e.g., when the golden child stays home and studies hard, practises piano, helps parents with errands. Being labelled as exceptional or with extreme positivity leads to the golden child focusing on the gap between where they think they are vs where their parents see them. The golden child feels like a fraud (an imposter) and becomes scared that they will be discovered as a fraud, which kind of looks like valuing ‘face.’ The golden child’s need for others to notice their greatness grows even more!
Add on parents comparing the golden child to siblings, cousins, and family friends. This might make the golden child achieve more, but it makes them feel worse about themselves. They carry the weight of their parents’ hopes and desires, rather than their own life path. They focus on external achievement, rather than self-reflection, learning how to manage their own emotions, and social skills that could benefit them in their friendships and career.
What’s a golden child to do?
If the golden child continues on their trajectory, they will be leaving feelings of worth and contentment to chance, like the weather. What’s definite, is that they’ll continue to move closer and closer toward a potential meltdown or a life crisis.
Instead, the golden child can change their trajectory, and move towards feeling worthwhile/valued for who they are and independence from others’ unrealistic expectations of them. Some things they can do include:
- Noticing unhelpful patterns in thoughts, feelings and behaviour and deciding when to jump out of the pattern
- To help, the golden child can spend time with different families to put their own family’s patterns in perspective
- For some, it will help to decide on balanced and healthy boundaries with parents
- Exploring what’s important to the golden child, rather than what’s important to their parents
- Practising actually counting progress, efforts, and achievements
- Considering seeking some guidance from counselling/therapy with a psychologist.
Kim, S.Y., Wang, Y., Orozco-Lapray, D., Shen, Y., & Murtuza, M. (2013). Does “tiger parenting” exist? Parenting profiles of Chinese Americans and adolescent developmental outcomes. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 7-18.