TLDR: Be mindful of the underlying metaphors that shape your view of relationships. Relationships are not transactions to be balanced out, but collaborative artworks that are infinitely deep. Give selflessly with no expectation of return. Ironically, this is also how you are rewarded with beautiful and deep connections.
My Journey Into Seeking ‘Balance’
I am not sure which came first – my fascination with order or obsession with building card towers. Either way, this childhood hobby created an attraction to balance. I recall many Chinese New Year holidays where I would eye decks of poker cards and make mental notes to squirrel them away as building blocks for my castles and city blocks.
And though I certainly delighted in the splendour of a make-believe cityscape, my deepest absorption was reserved for the delicate balancing act of 2 plain poker cards, repeated ad infinitum.
Years later, this hobby faded away, leaving a faint but indelible psychological imprint. This shaped the way I arranged my academic life, family time and relationships.
My secondary school life was the first proving ground for this worldview. Friendships were cordial, positive and respectful. I excelled in group discussions, where everyone gets proportionate air time. I was a reliable team member in group projects, where I always put in my fair share of work.
Being a natural listener, I made sure to listen and speak in equal measures, I was an easy conversationalist who struck up many acquaintances. Favours were always reciprocated. All these made me an uncontroversial choice for the class monitor, and eventually the consortium council chairperson.
Everything stood in beautiful order, and I played my discrete role in this tower of cards to the tee.
When Balancing Everything Frays
And yet, these neat, clean lines showed signs of fraying. Somehow, I was deeply unsettled in more personal settings like stay-overs and class barbecues, where our roles and lines blurred into a confusing mix of funny personal stories, boyish mocking and crude jokes. This discomfort didn’t entirely stem from a growing sense of moral superiority.
Even as a council chairman, there was an invisible wall that separated me from the rest of my executive committee. This wall thinned during official meetings, thickened in informal work sessions and get-togethers. Was I drawing my boundary lines too thickly and sharply? Could they be drawn any other way?
Someone once told me that life will keep teaching you the same lesson until you learn it. In my case with relationships, the lesson first came in pricks and then bludgeons.
Who Should Pay for The Food?
We were at a Bishan hawker centre filled with the usual lunch crowd. I parked our bags down on a recently vacated table and signalled my girlfriend to buy our lunch. She hesitated a moment and then merged into the crowd. I sensed something was off but brushed it off.
Later, on our walk home, with eyes downcast, she remarked with a touch of resentment that she had paid for our meal.
“I footed the last few bills, isn’t it only fair that we split?”, I protested almost immediately. In my mind, our 2 poker cards had started tipping over, and her paying for our last meal tipped them back into poise. At that moment though, something else hung in the balance.
“Yes, that makes sense dear, but in our relationship, I had expected you to pay for the meals.”, she said softly.
That comment hit a deep, raw nerve, setting off an emotional quarrel about values and equality, a quarrel that did not resolve when we reached her house.
I turned away, fuming, without so much as a goodbye. She later called, apologized for the comment, and we agreed to an uneasy truce that we would split our couple expenses down the middle.
Like a hastily plastered band-aid, this agreement tided us through easy and safe couple activities over the next few weeks but tore apart in the face of the truly difficult issues.
When Seeking ‘Balance’ Spirals into Pain
We were talking about settling down, and the question of who was paying for the house naturally came into the picture. I wanted us to split the expenses proportional to our income; she wanted me to shoulder the entire cost. This was the meal payment quarrel all over again, on a larger magnitude.
Almost immediately, the same disagreements erupted with greater fury. We argued for weeks, with frustration and mounting anger.
I was adamant about following the principle of fairness, of staying true to the idea of gender equality in treatment and contributions.
I was taken aback by her outdated concept that males should be the leader of the household. She wanted to be assured that I could provide for the family and felt insecure about her economic future because of her hip condition which might render her wheelchair-bound in a few decades. Above all, she sincerely believed that relationships shouldn’t be about transactions. The house of cards was coming apart.
In a moment of darkness, after what felt like our umpteenth call that ended in logical logjams and emotional breakdowns, I seriously wondered if I had made a wrong choice of partner.
Uncovering The Author of My Pain
What hurt me the most was how this recent row contrasted with the deep sense of connection and resonance we shared in every other aspect of our relationship. How could such an otherwise beautiful and stable relationship crumble so quickly just because of a crude matter of dollars and cents?
Our shared vision of a future family, the beautiful child we dreamed about, the cosy home we talked about all felt like naive lies we told ourselves.
Tall, black walls of emotional anguish enveloped me. Our house of cards was being demolished.
She called again, I answered.
“I had been thinking. If we can’t agree on such a fundamental belief, then perhaps, we might not be meant for each other,” I said quietly. She paused. In that heavy pause, the whole world ground to a standstill.
“Why would you…why would you say that?”, she managed a feeble reply, in between muffled sobs.
Right there and then, it struck me how much pain I was causing myself and her. It struck me that the way out of this impasse was not more incisive logic. It struck me that perhaps, just perhaps, I had dead-ended in a maze of my creation.
“Actually, you know what,”, I sighed a breath of relief, “I’ll pay for the house.”
The Givers, The Takers, and The Matchers
When I came across Adam Grant’s work about giving, it gave voice to my growing realization of how my metaphors for relationships had stretched beyond its limits.
According to Grant, there are 3 broad types of people, namely givers, takers and matchers. Givers derive immense joy from giving to others, takers burn bridges by asking for favours and not giving back, and matchers always seek to balance every favour and thing. If it is not already obvious, I was a true blue matcher.
Though matchers may seem the most pragmatic in this dog-eat-dog world, it is the givers who experience the most unbridled joy in their relationships.
Rethinking Balance and Seeing Artwork in Relationships
If anything, my most intimate relationships have taught me that this metaphor of balance between 2 people hinders deeper connection. This idea of balance creates a misconstrued duality between the self and others.
Perhaps a more enriching metaphor is that of a collaborative artwork, where every single brushstroke, regardless of who it came from, adds to the beauty of the infinite, ever-deepening whole. Give selflessly without any expectation of reward, and ironically, you will be rewarded with the most breathtaking and meaningful masterpiece.
If you are wondering, these days I generally pay for meals and she foots the other bills. This is not so much a calculated arrangement as an organic evolution in how we express our contributions to this piece of art we call our relationship.
We also don’t keep score anymore, but it does seem that somehow, we end up shelling out equal amounts at the end of the day. Maybe, just maybe, the 2 cards don’t need the straining attention of this recovering matcher to balance after all.
Review how you view and treat your relationships. Are you a giver, taker or matcher?
Evaluate if your relationships are where you want them to be. Are they a source of joy and beauty? If not, what are the underlying reasons?
In your most important relationships, think of 3 ways in which you can give selflessly, solely for the joy of the other party. Act on them as soon as you can.
Xin Yee (not their real name) shares with HOL on their journey of coming out as LGBTQIA+.
Content warning: This piece describes acts of homophobia, suicidal ideation and mental illness that might be disturbing to some readers.
LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexuals. These terms are used to describe a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some LGBTQIA+ members prefer the use of certain pronouns to reflect their gender identity. In this case, Xin Yee wishes to use “their”.
“I guess we all had inklings…you know, the dance of hormones, feelings you have as a teenager. I knew then I was gay.”
When I read coming out stories like this, I never related.
As a 13-year-old girl, I just recalled the pull of just wanting to get closer, and closer, and closer to some girls. There were no labels of relationships, normality, or even queerness. Just a simple innocence of “I just really like being around you, and I want you to like me too,” that’s it.
I was oblivious that I was different, and I was not aware of how sinister that simple feeling meant to others, and little did I know that could be the beginning of a crime punishable by death in 7 countries.
And then I start to learn about “the lesbians.” They are the red lines not to be crossed. Those who crossed them were treated with the same category as delinquent juveniles – who engaged in drug-taking, vandalism and gangsterism. At home, derogatory terms were thrown casually on people within the LGBTQIA+.
Conversations around them were about their differences, abnormality, and unnaturalness and almost always met with disgust and wagging tongues. Perhaps I was “fortunate” enough to not understand my feelings at that time, and hence I was not the brunt of the discrimination.
But I internalised the aversion towards them.
When They Become I
The complex feelings of attraction persisted and intensified. I liked boys, and I really like girls. I didn’t feel the inclinations towards expressing my femininity in stereotypical ways, nor did I feel the urge to become another gender.
I was beyond confused as there were no examples around me that I could relate to. Figuring out one’s identity and creating a meaningful sense of self in the world – one that is consistent and harmonious with what one feels-is immensely challenging.
Yet it is a crucial part of our lives. Thus, I set sail on my solo ship of exploration.
I remember navigating my exploration with much caution, as I have already internalised homophobia. I knew enough to live a double life. Away from my family, I opted for masculine clothes that I felt comfortable and free in. I gave myself bold side shaves and wax my hair up confidently like David Beckham. But when I was home, I always swept my hair over my forehead to justify that it was still “long hair” and that I was “normal”.
But of course, I was treading on thin ice – the desire to express myself freely did not sit well with my family’s heteronormative expectations.
One day, when I was minding my own business, I was beckoned into a room by my mother and, *surprise surprise* her gang of ladies, (comprising of well-intentioned relatives with the lethal combination of being too nosy and having too much time to spare ) to have “The Intervention to Straighten Me Out.”
Each relative had the unique role of holding 3 pictures:
A. Facebook photos of me in short hair,
B. Picture of male model with the same hair that I had,
C. Celebrities in the 2000s with cringy blonde long hair and feminine outfits.
They each interrogated me on why I was acting like a boy (picture B) and accused me of “Becoming A Lesbian.”
The bottom line was clear: My identity was not to be tolerated anymore and I had to “become” what was acceptable to them (picture C), and that the repercussions were severe. I was threatened to be “cut off completely” from the family if I were found to be “gay.”
I barely managed to keep an emotionless face and denied my way through their harsh (disrespectful, even) scrutiny but internally, my world shut down. I remembered feeling absolutely terrified, helpless and repulsed. These were relatives, family whom I spent weekly Sundays with, grew up celebrating birthdays, new years and achievements together.
They were supposed to be the people who had my back, not committing an “et tu, Brutus,” in the betrayal of “Julius Caesar.”
At the same time, I felt deeply hurt, ashamed and deeply alone in an overwhelming stew of conflicting emotions being rejected by my very own family. It was beyond what I even knew how to process. Eventually, I stopped expressing myself to the world, but my body continued to absorb all the stress as I tried very desperately to hide the emotions that I felt, while trying to force myself into normality, while fearing the terrifying consequences, while managing final year academics, projects and competitions, heartbreak etc……
And that’s when my body hit the breaking point.
I was diagnosed with a psychogenic movement disorder – which essentially was my body’s way of expressing the overwhelming psychological distress I felt through uncontrollable jerks, tics and even full-body spasms.
Emergency wards, ambulances, wheelchairs, a concoction of pills and painful injections were my best friend for the next couple of weeks and months. At my weakest, I was bedridden and completely lost the ability to perform normal functions like sitting straight up without toppling over.
I was scraping the bottom of the barrel.
The Coming Out
As the desperation to rescue me from the lifeless form I occupied grew frantic, I saw my parents in a different light. They were by my side all day and all night. Without hesitation, they fed me, wiped me, and even helped me take showers.
But yet, the disconnect was there as I was still weighed down by the burden of shame, guilt and fear. I still didn’t see a way out to reconcile how I felt with how the world would react. Hope was slipping away and I was losing the desire to hold on.
One day, I whispered meekly to my mother that I wanted her to “please let me go”.
Amidst volumes of tears that could sustain an Amazonian rainforest, I vividly remembered her asking: “Please tell me what I can do to bring you back, anything at all”.
And the dam broke. I stammered and stuttered my way through four simple words: “Ma, I like girls.”
I closed my eyes in anticipation of the world to come crashing down, for her to disown me, for her to pack her bags and leave.
After 5 long seconds that felt like an absolute eternity, she embraced me tightly, and said: “No matter what, you are still my daughter and I will accept and love you unconditionally.” For the first time in a long while, my tears were of relief and not of pain; And for the first time in a long while, I slept soundly like a baby.
The Healing Begins
Coming out does not mean rainbows and sunshine immediately. Acceptance is an up and down process. Most days we struggled, and some days we were backtracking to homophobic/transphobic slurs and disrespect, but more importantly, we were making baby steps of progress.
I had to learn also that acceptance was two ways – it was not just about her accepting my reality, but also in me accepting her as a human trying her best to unlearn her perceptions shaped by past experiences and alienating cultural narratives.
We both had to learn and practice compassion to chip away at the hatred, aversion and ill-will accumulated within ourselves.
Coming out does not mean that all problems cease to exist. The hostility and discrimination imposed by society still remains,but the most beautiful part is knowing that my family will be there with me, supporting me as I go through these challenges, and that we are together in charting an uncertain future. Family becomes part of the solution in alleviating suffering.
Coming to terms with an identity and establishing a strong sense of self as LGBTQIA+ was crucial to me in my younger days, and it defined a huge portion of “me, myself and I” as I struggled to gain validation and feel accepted.
But as I grow with the Dhamma, I realised just how fluid the sense of identity/self-view can be. Who I was, who I am, and who I will be… changes.
Internally, you may evolve as a person, and perhaps other aspects of your identities might become more important as you grow as a person – such as your spirituality, hobbies, passion, your contribution to humanity and your definition of yourself may change accordingly.
Externally, you may be defined and categorised by others based on their perceptions. You may be everything, and everyone at once, and yet find no one static self at all. More importantly, as Buddhist practitioners, how can we aim to eventually let go of the attachment to the sense of self? As Venerable Soma in the Sister Soma Sutta(S N 5.2) wisely reflects that the moment we have strong identities of who we are, defilements arise if our ‘self’ is provoked.
Many LGBTQIA+ people continually face generations of hate ranging from disrespectful slurs, homo/transphobic hate crimes, religious persecutions to even death sentences in some countries.
In Singapore, while the LGBTQIA+ community is gaining visibility and recognition, they still face unfavourable odds in public housing policies, military, healthcare and education. This leaves room for more progress ahead.
My intention in writing this article is not to persuade you to agree on LGBTQIA+ issues or have debates. My sincere hope is that through sharing my story, I invite you to see the humanity that both you, and I,a complete stranger share. I hope you draw parallels between our life stories and journeys, and recognise that just like you, all I want fundamentally is to be loved, accepted and respected.
Dr. Maya Angelou captures this fundamental union of humankind very beautifully below:
“As Roman Slave turned Playwright Terence mused:
‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’
Even in someone very different from you or someone you perceive as heinous…‘I have in me all the components that are in her, or in him; Likewise… if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which he or she was born, it means so can you.”
Let’s look beyond our differences and celebrate our shared humanity. Let’s stretch to use our energies constructively, to generate compassion, empathy and kindness, and destruct energies of aversion, ignorance and prejudice within us so that we can eventually be liberated from the suffering eating away at our hearts.
TLDR: Set your boundaries, learn how to self regulate, and listen with openness
Does family = sacrifice?
Being born in a typical Asian family, I have always been expected to excel in everything that I do. Honestly, as long as what my parents expect of me is reasonable, I do not really mind that. I know that they have done so much for me and doing well in life is just one way I can repay them. Besides, having them push me forward will help me grow as a person.
The problem is what happens if what they expect of me is way too demanding and I fail to achieve those goals that they have set for me. They will be so upset and disappointed in me. Being a generally filial daughter, I do not want that to happen. I love them and I want them to be happy.
However, the continuous chasing after those ambitions can sometimes be suffocating, that it jeopardises my wellbeing. The questions then, does familial love really have to be sacrificial? Can we not find a middle ground where we both can be happy?
The answer is of course we can. I have been to two extremes from rebelling against their words to following everything that they want. As you might have guessed, both methods did not work. I did not feel happy doing them. The Buddha taught the Middle Way and we can use the concept to balance parental expectations and what we want in life.
Tips for juggling with parental expectations:
(disclaimer: these are what work for me. If you find that any of the tips below do not apply to you, you may choose to ignore it.)
1. Build a relationship with your parents that is based on open communication
Communication is key in any relationship. If you want to build a harmonious relationship with them, make sure you spend time with them. Having time together allows you to understand one another on a deeper level which makes communication easier. In that way, you know what kind of attitude and tone to adopt when discussing your concerns with them.
For example, if your parents expect you to take an engineering course in the university, but you know that your passion is not that and you will dread your decision if you simply follow what they want you to do, then, talk to them in a way that you both can reach a conclusion.
While you acknowledge their concerns (e.g. stable career), you explain to them why engineering is not suitable for you and why choosing another course of your choice will be better in a long run (e.g fulfilling career). I am sure that if you talk to them logically with realistic reasoning, they will eventually understand you.
Also, when explaining our concerns, we can practise the five factors of right speech taught by the Buddha (AN 5.198). The five factors are that a statement must be spoken at the right time, spoken in truth, spoken gently, spoken beneficially, and out of goodwill.
It is also important to understand that communication is a two-way process. Just like you, your parents also want their opinions to be heard. A lot of conflicts arise not because we think that we are right and the other person is wrong, or vice versa, but because we feel that we do not get the respect that we deserve. Hence, it is important to practise effective listening if we want communication to occur smoothly.
2. Set your boundaries
It is important to understand that you are not an extension of your parents’ ambition.
As much as you want to pay back your parents’ kindness, you need to understand that you are not perfect.
There are times when you fail and that is alright. In fact, it is great that you experience failure. In that way, you know where you are lacking and where you can improve on. You do not need to feel guilty for not achieving something. Be kind to yourself and thank yourself for doing the best you can.
Also, instead of always asking what your parents want you to do, start asking what you really want to do. Because you are the pilot of your own life, not your parents. There is a difference between repaying your parents and living all your life for your parents. Understanding that, you will not be stuck with the oppressive feeling of guilt for not living up to your parents’ expectations.
3. RELAX (breathe in, breathe out, repeat)
I know that it is not easy and extremely unnatural to be relaxed when you are expected to be the best all the time, outdoing everyone else. However, being tense will only result in you underperforming because instead of focusing on what you need to do, you pay attention to your negative emotions. Then, you feel guilty for being negative which makes you even more negative and this vicious cycle continues.
The thing is, my dear friends, when you are relaxed, you can face problems with a clearer state of mind. With a clear state of mind, you can better understand your parents and why they expect certain things from you. When you are calmer, you can also perform to your fullest potential, thereby achieving your goals and meeting your parents’ expectations.
A few ways to relax are:
a. Practising mindfulness through meditation.
There are many benefits of meditation including feeling less stressed as your stress hormone, cortisol, decreases. When you are not as stressed and anxious, the condition becomes more conducive for you to relax. One mobile app that I use to keep my meditation practice in check is insight timer. There are many guided meditations if you are new to meditation 🙂 You may consider using it too!
b. Changing your perspective.
Rather than expecting tasks to be accomplished to see tasks as adventures to experience. Inducing some form of fun can also help you to calm down.
Jotting down your emotions in a form of journal, music, or poetry. Externalisation of your emotion can uplift your mood and alleviate your emotional burden.
In conclusion, I believe that when parents expect something from us, it is usually out of goodwill. It is just that when they fail to see things from our perspectives, their expectations become overwhelmingly unrealistic and difficult to achieve.
Know that you are not alone in this and a lot of us experience the same thing. I hope that this short sharing can be of some help to you and I hope that you can better juggle with your parents’ and your own expectations. Jia you!
Find a routine that increases your mindfulness and centres you
Practise holding multiple perspectives, you do not have all the right answers