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Loving Hard (Your Family and Yourself) with Dr. Pooja Lakshmin

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Where there are boundaries, there’s also healing, love, grief, and acceptance, explains Dr. Pooja Lakshmin — but getting there is often a painful, awkward journey. The board-certified psychiatrist and bestselling author joins Amy and Rebecca to talk about boundary-setting as self-liberation, fake vs. real self-care, and the endless mash-up guilt that comes with saying no.

One of the things with real self care is that once you dive into it and start to look at, whether it’s boundaries, or compassion, or values — what you really want in your life — there’s so many layers, because it shows up in certainly big choices. For me, it was like, am I going to be a doctor? Am I going to get married? What school am I going to go to? All those big choices in your life, but it shows up in the day to day little stuff, too. Like, am I gonna give myself permission to actually eat lunch today? Aat a table away from my desk? And how there’s embodiment in that, there’s rebellion in that small decision.

Pooja Lakshmin

Make sure to check out Dr. Pooja Lakshmin’s Guide to Setting Boundaries.

An Edited Transcript of Our Convo:

Amy S. Choi: You are listening to The Mash-Up Americans.

Rebecca Lehrer: Hi, I am Rebecca Lehrer.

Amy S. Choi: And I’m Amy Choi, and we are The Mash-Up Americans. And Rebecca, the rest of this year, this is our late incoming goal of 2023, is we are going to set boundaries. And I know we say that all the time, but this time it’s really happening and we are going to rest.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, cool.

Amy S. Choi: Cool, cool, cool. But we’re going to do it, right?

Rebecca Lehrer: Totally in. At first though, I have this huge to-do list. Well, multiple on different platforms. There’s written ones, there’s the ones in a Apple Notes that are shared. There’s a Trello board.

Amy S. Choi: A Trello board.

Rebecca Lehrer: So we’ll just get through those and then boundaries. Is that how that works?

Amy S. Choi: Well, first you have to plan your parents’ vacations and then also, I need to make somehow grocery lists for the next seven months of my life.

Rebecca Lehrer: That’s right. But also, in some ways this feels just like champagne problems, caviar dreams, to quote Robin Whatever from The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I won’t do my Australian accent right now, but mash-ups don’t get stressed. Right? If you’re an immigrant to this country, you’re not being like, “I’m so stressed,” you just are stressed. You’re just doing it.

Amy S. Choi: State of being.

Rebecca Lehrer: And you’ve probably been through many layers of root shock and change and all of that and you’re just doing it, so there’s no acknowledgement of the impact that’s happening because you can’t do that. This is what we talked about in Grief Collected. So then it’s like, “I need a massage. I’m tired.”

Amy S. Choi: I know, I know. But if nothing else, what is the great American dream, is so that we can continue to evolve.

Rebecca Lehrer: That’s right.

Amy S. Choi: And also, there’s maybe no word for being stressed out because it’s a state of being, but there’s also not that many words for being relaxed and happy, and I would like that in my life.

Rebecca Lehrer: I wonder if it’s the kind of thing, it’s not German. You know how they’re always like, “Of course there’s a German word for I hate that person because they were rude to my mom or something,” there’s just one long word.

Amy S. Choi: Because they have one long tooth. Yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Who do we think has a word for just all the words for just being happy?

Amy S. Choi: I want, I want.

Rebecca Lehrer: Bhutan.

Amy S. Choi: Bhutan? Finnish people.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: Well, so what we are learning about taking care of ourselves, about actually resting, which gives ourselves back to ourselves, is that it’s not just massages and manicures, though we love massages and manicures. It’s actually setting boundaries, getting help, asking for help, and changing the shitty capitalist, misogynistic system that is trying to extract every last ounce of our souls out of us.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes. And we are both moms of elementary-aged kids and we are in the sandwich generation as well, and we are mash-ups, and we need help.

Amy S. Choi: We need help, yo, so bad. So we went to an expert. Our guest today is Dr. Pooja Lakshmin. She’s a board certified psychiatrist focused on women’s mental health and dismantling toxic wellness culture. Her bestselling book, it’s so great, it is called Real Self-Care, Crystals, Cleanses and Bubble Baths Not Included. It’s out now. Pooja is the clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine, and she has a private practice where she treats women struggling with burnout, perfectionism, and disillusionment. And this is I’m feeling read like a book, a filthy read of me. We’re so excited to have Pooja here with us today.

Rebecca Lehrer: So, Pooja, we’re going to start. How do you mash-up?

Pooja Lakshmin: I think when you guys say mash-up, thinking about all of the things that make us who we are and me being the eldest daughter of immigrant parents, both of my parents were born in India. My grandfather on my paternal side immigrated to the United States as an academic. Because of our caste, he wasn’t getting the opportunities that he deserved in India and so he came here and my dad came with. And then my dad went back to India for medical school, had an arranged marriage with my mom, and then she came. When she was in her twenties, she left her whole family, so that absolutely kind of informs my life and my decisions now. And what else about me as a mash-up? I’m partnered with a white guy and I have a little son who is racially ambiguous.

Rebecca Lehrer: Wait, what is it? If you’re not East Asian, what’s a hapa version of-

Amy S. Choi: Indian?

Rebecca Lehrer: … of Indian? What if I was like, “Mestizo?”

Amy S. Choi: If you were a white male author, you’d be like, “Caramel latte.”

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. Oh God, get out of here. Get out of here.

Pooja Lakshmin: The word that always comes to mind for me that’s the Bollywood word is wheatish.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, wow. That’s like what’s that, Fair & Lovely, that skin lightening nonsense. So crap. Well, speaking of white supremacy, we’re going to get into it.

Pooja Lakshmin: We’ll just dive right in.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. But I think one thing I just want to start with, which is we can also make this into a psychiatric therapy session for me, but I’ll try not to, it’s just hard, is that I am a person who likes to make things happen and I think that’s why I love to read acknowledgements in books. I’m the first person that Amy has ever known that reads acknowledgements. I think most people don’t.

Amy S. Choi: She has also discovered acknowledgements of me in books because the first thing she does is flip to them, and I was like, “What? I was there?”

Rebecca Lehrer: I feel like it’s very telling of how people think about the work and so how they think-

Pooja Lakshmin: It’s the behind the scenes.

Rebecca Lehrer: … who makes things happen. And I’m curious about who it is, the actual people, sometimes if I would know them, but more the whole thing. And so then the flip to my own therapy session here is that I was acknowledged in this book.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yes, she was.

Rebecca Lehrer: And I was like, “Is that all I want maybe, to be acknowledged?”

Amy S. Choi: Ever in life, yes.

Pooja Lakshmin: Is that why we’re all here?

Rebecca Lehrer: I just wanted to be acknowledged, so thank you for acknowledging me. And with acknowledgement of that, we have so much to talk about with your book, what boundaries look like, what taking care of ourselves looks like as mash-ups, but Amy wants to start with something.

Amy S. Choi: I need to start with something because your book, Real Self-Care, is so clear and so great and there’s so many deep things to dive into and tools for us, but most importantly, I need to learn about orgasmic meditation. And I know we’re not trying to join a cult here today and that you may have already done that, but I have serious questions about what this is and can you please teach us about it?

Rebecca Lehrer: Wait, question. Do you want to know the good stuff, which is how do we orgasmically meditate, or about the cult?

Amy S. Choi: I just want to know about the whole concept of orgasmic meditation and then we can go from there. And I bet just hearing the words, I’m like, “Well, I can see why one would join a cult that is centered on orgasmic meditation.”

Pooja Lakshmin: Yeah. Well, we’re diving right in. So there’s tons of places, you can do the Google, you can see what it’s all about. For me, what was really interesting was we were talking about mash-up. I came from a South Asian family that’s super patriarchal. Being the eldest daughter and having all the rules of what girls are allowed to do and not allowed to do and what boys are allowed to do and not allowed to do, that was sort of always informing my upbringing and how I thought of myself. And then I went to Penn for undergrad and was a women’s studies major and took all these classes and learned all this stuff, and I guess all that to say, I was always kind of a little I had that spark of rage. And then I went into medical school, thought I was going to be an OB GYN, but ultimately realized that I didn’t being in the OR, I didn’t want to be a surgeon. I wanted to talk to people.

But then I found that psychiatry wasn’t what I thought it would be. There was obviously so many inconsistencies and injustices and contradictions in psychiatry. All that to say, once I left mainstream medicine and found this group that was talking about orgasmic meditation and pleasure and spirituality and sensuality, and kind of putting it on this pedestal, saying that we’re allowed to have that, it was so compelling to me. It felt like what I had been looking for my whole life, and that’s why I put the whole story of that part of my life. This was about almost more than a decade ago at this point. I put that upfront in the book. I decided to really share that in the introduction because I wanted everybody who read Real Self-Care to understand that I was coming to this not as only a psychiatrist, but also somebody who’s very much gone down the deepest rabbit hole of woo woo wellness, who just went really, really far and came out the other side.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, you know what? There’s something too with this, and we’ll get into more through this, but what I also hear and I think we can all relate to this, how much we are in our heads, and then you literally are like, “I’m studying the science of your head, how to help your head and your brain and all.” But that we do live in bodies and trying to connect all of that together, I think as first gen, there’s lots of layers of unpacking there, but we are still trying to do that all the time well into our forties. Trying to be like, “No, pleasure,” or loving your body or accepting your body-

Pooja Lakshmin: Or even being in your body.

Rebecca Lehrer: … just being embodied.

Pooja Lakshmin: Right, right. And that was the whole premise with everything that this group was doing, that it was accessing and being connected to your body, which was really compelling and powerful. And what I learned on the other side of it is that there is no magic panacea it. It’s not like you just learn one practice or find one guru or do some diet and then everything’s fixed. It still actually comes back down to making hard choices in your life. There’s no shortcut. It’s a very depressing message, to be honest. There’s no shortcut.

Amy S. Choi: There is no shortcut, but it does at least I think clarify this idea. Everything that both of you had just been saying about being in your body and being the eldest daughter, being a woman, being an immigrant kid, the definitions of almost all of those things, they’re defined by women sublimating all of their pleasure. It’s just like you cannot really be a good daughter if you’re putting your body and your pleasure or just earthly delights first because that’s diametrically opposed to being a good Indian daughter.

Pooja Lakshmin: Correct.

Rebecca Lehrer: Right, right.

Amy S. Choi: Other people are always supposed to come first and I just think that can be more explicit as a mash-up, but it’s actually like all of women.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yes, yes, yes. And that’s one of the things with Real Self-Care, that once you kind of dive into it and start to look at whether it’s boundaries or compassion or values, what you really want in your life, there’s so many layers because it shows up in certainly big choices. For me, it was like, “Oh, am I going to be a doctor? Am I going to get married? What school am I going to go to?” All those big choices in your life, but it shows up in the day-to-day little stuff too. Am I going to give myself permission to actually eat lunch today at a table away from my desk, and how actually, there’s embodiment in that. There’s rebellion in that small decision.

Amy S. Choi: It’s not just scarfing down our sad desk salad?

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, sad desk salad.

Amy S. Choi: Oh my God, the way that I spent my entire twenties with a sad desk salad.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yes, yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, the worst. Well, listen. Again, first gen, we’re going to really get into boundaries today. One thing is how did you tell your immigrant parents that you were in a cult or that you were joining this group? And again, you talk about this all very explicitly in your book and how as you just said, it was already 10 years ago. And so we’re not trying to deficit frame here, and I think that’s part of how you talk about it. It’s like the extreme, but it’s actually at its core what we’re all seeking, is we’re trying to find that answer for this, whether it’s rebellion or find ourselves in some way. But how did you tell your parents? That feels so hard for us to do, us as mash-ups.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yeah. This is an interesting question because I haven’t thought about this for a long time. I don’t even know if I explicitly told them in the beginning, I think I just did it.

Amy S. Choi: Did you tell them that you were leaving med school?

Rebecca Lehrer: That’s the question I have.

Pooja Lakshmin: I did. I did. And honestly, it was residency, I don’t remember exactly how. I’ve probably blocked it out. So one of the reasons that I made the decision to talk about it upfront in the book was because it was not the right way. I didn’t do it skillfully. There was a lot of damage. I didn’t talk to my parents for quite a while, and it was me leaving my marriage, leaving residency and joining the cult was all kind of one big storm, one big rupture and extreme boundary setting for me. Again, like you said, Rebecca, this is not the healthy way to do it. Don’t follow in my footsteps, folks.

But it was the only way that I knew how because at that point, I was 27, 28, and I had spent my whole life until that point doing all the things I was supposed to. Go to the Ivy League school, become a doctor, get married, do all the things. And I don’t want to say that… look, those were all my choices. I was an adult and my parents, as Indian immigrant parents, they were pushing me in that direction because it offered stability, it offered prestige, it offered a certain amount of safety. So it wasn’t wrong or misguided on their behalf, and there was a huge amount of privilege too that enabled me to do all those things that I didn’t have student loans because of how much my grandparents had saved.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes, of course.

Pooja Lakshmin: So there’s a lot of privilege, but I had never so openly said no to them. So it was just kind of all pent up, and then there was this big sort of rupture.

Amy S. Choi: We’re talking now about what it feels like to be in our body, and sometimes Rebecca will hear me. I was like, “Oh, today’s one of those days. I’m going to peel all my skin off.” It feels like you just cannot be contained anymore, and I wonder what did that feel like for you?

Pooja Lakshmin: Certainly there was a lot of anger at all of the establishment, institutions, whether that was family, whether that was medicine and psychiatry, so it felt like a breaking free. And again, in a way that was very dramatic and hurt a lot of people too, so it was a breaking free at the expense of others. But for me, it felt like there was a liberation of finally being able to exert myself or my voice too, and processing that. Everything that came after that, the trauma of it, but then also the freedom of it too, and the liberation that I felt is sort of what led to writing Real Self-Care in this realization that there’s a distillation of this. Yes, that was very much an extreme, but there’s ways that if you learn how to do it in much smaller steps, if you implement those tiny little pieces, that’s the healthy way.

Rebecca Lehrer: You talked about this idea, which we both loved so much, about getting curious about your anger and microdosing your capacity to receive. It was so powerful to hear that idea about getting curious and then thinking about it as microdosing or separating it into it doesn’t have to be the extreme, but we all feel often that we need that extreme. There’s something where you’re like, “That’s the only answer is I’m just going to pull it all.”

Amy S. Choi: But I think that’s the whole one where the woman runs away in New York City.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh yeah. Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Amy S. Choi: Fleishman, but don’t we all kind of have this fantasy of just running away?

Rebecca Lehrer: But then they find her in her own apartment.

Pooja Lakshmin: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned that because I remember actually before, now that we’re talking about it, there was a moment, I don’t know how long before it was where I did, I said, “I want to go just live on a farm. I just want to be somewhere where things are simple.” And it’s this fantasy, this longing for a life that isn’t complicated, almost like a life that is not a mash-up.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, right.

Pooja Lakshmin: Right? I get that feeling sometimes when I think about people that I went to high school with that stayed in my hometown, which was a predominantly white, central-ish Pennsylvania upper middle class town. And people whose parents grew up in that town and got married to each other, it’s like their place. It’s like a home, and you stay there and you get married and you have kids and you’re part of the community. And I understand that there’s struggles and things too, but it just feels so much less complicated. Whereas somebody like me, we’re talking about mash-up, where I have to go do all these things to prove myself to the world, to prove myself to myself. Right?

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, also the ancestral stuff, like your grandfather coming-

Amy S. Choi: And he had to come here because of his caste, because he had to find another way forward.

Rebecca Lehrer: Right. And whether your family, I assume told that story to you, but also it’s like the other things that are untold about why that then you have a job, a certain kind of role in this family, in a, “Casteless society.” I’m putting big quotes around that about America. Now you have to cement our class, basically.

Pooja Lakshmin: Right, right. Have fun with that, Pooja. Good luck.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. Good luck, Pooja.

Amy S. Choi: Have fun at Penn.

Rebecca Lehrer: I know you want to live on a farm. I do sometimes feel this way about men, where I’m like… well, what was Amy saying the other day? You were saying about some people don’t have inner monologues and you’re like, “What is happening in your brain? Is it just quiet?”

Amy S. Choi: Oh, they don’t have an inter monologue, so is it just quiet all the time? Yeah. What are you talking about?

Pooja Lakshmin: I feel that with Justin sometimes where he will just because he’s a white man, where it’s like he will just think something and want to do something and just do it. Just do it.

Amy S. Choi: Wait, what? What are you talking about? I don’t understand that at all.

Rebecca Lehrer: Or I ask them about their bodies, at least I have a slim, white man husband-

Amy S. Choi: Who’s adorable. We love him.

Rebecca Lehrer: The best, the best.

Amy S. Choi: He’s the best.

Rebecca Lehrer: Best ever. But I’ll be like, “Do you ever think about how your, how it feels when it touches your waist or hips or body?” And he’s like, “No.” And I was like, “I need you to know that a good 40% of any woman’s energy that they don’t even realize they’re using is about how their clothes are touching their body, moving it around, and just the amount of energy used for shit like that could be harnessed in different ways, basically.

Amy S. Choi: Could be, but I think that the thing about curiosity that is so striking is that it really pairs with this idea that I think you nail in the early parts of your book about how so often women are trying to run away from themselves, and that that’s what they use you call faux self-care to do. And first of all, it makes me so sad that that could be true. And also, if I let myself get agitated by that, I’m like, “Oh, she’s fucking right.” And you talk also a lot about shame in your book, which I think is really powerful. But the idea that we can allow ourselves to ask questions about why we want to run away so bad and we don’t have to feel ashamed of that, or we don’t have to feel bad for that or somehow externalize that into getting a pretty manicure-

Rebecca Lehrer: I do have a good manicure though right now.

Amy S. Choi: You do have a really good one right now, and I love one, but does it change anything? No.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, it doesn’t change this idea of the systems didn’t change.

Amy S. Choi: Right.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: What are some of the challenges, as you outlined, about doing these? What you say, crystals and cleanses and bubble baths, that and manicures, are they band-aids even? Or how would you describe that versus what it really means to take care of yourself?

Pooja Lakshmin: I kind of think of it, I have these two buckets. I named sort of the faux self-care, which is the consumer-based products and services, whether it’s the essential oils or the massage or the mani-pedi or the retreat, or even the productivity solutions like the Evernote or the bullet journals.

Amy S. Choi: That one was so rude. So rude.

Rebecca Lehrer: We were so upset about that.

Pooja Lakshmin: People got very upset about that.

Amy S. Choi: People were like, “How dare you?”

Pooja Lakshmin: People are very upset about that.

Amy S. Choi: I was like, “Did she just say illusion of control here? Oh my God.”

Pooja Lakshmin: I’m not trying to demonize those things, but I’m trying to say that we use them as tools, whereas Real Self-Care is internal principle work that actually changes you on the inside. And when you’re changed on the inside, that naturally impacts your relationships, whether that’s with your partner, with your kids, and then it even has the potential to impact your communities and the larger social structures. So it’s not that faux self-care is bad, it’s that it’s less about the thing and it’s more about the process that you take to get to the thing. So if we just take an example, so getting a massage, you can imagine two very different ways to get a massage. You can have one person who is on the massage table and hasn’t set any boundaries, hasn’t had any hard conversations, hasn’t thought more deeply about why this massage is important to her, and she’s on the massage table and she’s gritting her teeth the whole time and worried that maybe she’s not asking for the right pressure, maybe she’s not making the best use of her time.

20 minutes in, she’s like, “Oh my God, the massage is already over. I can’t believe I wasted all this time in my head.” After the massage, she comes back to her desk and has 50 emails and feels like she needs to respond to everything quickly to make up for the lost productivity. That’s faux self-care because you haven’t internalized any of the actual deeper process of what do I really need in my relationships in my life, in my work, and how do I make that happen? Versus somebody who has thought deeply about let’s say embodiment, as we’re talking about. And notice that when they make time for body work in their life, they are able to feel more in touch and grounded, and they’re able to make more clear choices about what they want and how they spend their time.

So then they went and they actually maybe had a hard conversation with their partner about the division of labor, or maybe they decided to have a hard talk with their boss about signing off from email at 4:00 PM on Wednesdays so that they had at least some discretionary time where there was also childcare so they could do something for themselves. And then they went to the massage and they were able to actually be there and be present, and come back and not feel like they needed to make up for the lost productivity. And because they had those conversations with other people in their lives, it has the power then. I’m not saying every time it’s going to be some sort of revolution. No, but it at least has a chance because when we stay in just the bubble bath, it’s a commercial solution. It doesn’t do anything to change anybody else. But when it’s a personal solution and it changes how you think about what you deserve and how you spend your time, then we at least have the chance of getting to collective action.

Rebecca Lehrer: What do you think one of the bridges there is? What’s the chance there? So let’s say we all get… I don’t want to use the word really good at doing good, real self-care. As a model minority, I do feel sad halfway through every massage when they ask you to flip over and I’m like, “Oh no, it’s halfway done,” so I felt that was also rude of you. But when you say that, thinking about what some of the opportunities are for collective action, is it knowing that this isn’t just us and something that we created the problem, that it’s a system-wide thing that then allows us to feel less pressure and be connected with other folks who are experiencing this? What’s the opportunity there?

Pooja Lakshmin: Yeah. Well, I have some examples in the book. I work with women in my clinical practice, so most of my patients are pregnant and postpartum. So a lot of the examples in the book have to do with that stage of life, but it can apply in lots of different places. So a patient who learns how to set boundaries and understands that she needs more support in the home and urges her partner to ask for parental leave. And in that case, the company said yes. It’s not the case all the time, but if my patient hadn’t taken those steps to set boundaries and to ask for what she needed, we would’ve never gotten to that place.

Rebecca Lehrer: Totally.

Pooja Lakshmin: Or another patient who actually takes a leave of absence from work, a mental health leave of absence for her OCD and also some other issues that are going on in her family. And then when she comes back, she’s actually open about the fact that it was a mental health leave and finds out that there’s other folks in her company who have family members with OCD, and they start an ERG in the group to support other folks who are dealing with mental health issues. And at her next annual review, she’s actually praised and gets more of a budget to support this, so it led to cultural change. Again, this isn’t every time, but this is what’s possible. And I think this is a tension in my work because I am a psychiatrist. I work with people one-on-one, it’s sort of like a boots on the ground at the individual level.

I don’t think that the solution can only be top-down because in order to get to top-down, we need people to understand that it’s not their fault. And so many of the people, folks that come to my practice when they first come in, you feel like it’s your fault. You don’t have the vocabulary or the words to talk about things like white supremacy or capitalism or microaggressions or any of these things. And so when we actually make that known, then you come to see, “Well, I do have some agency here.” Not all the power, no, by no means, but in the book I talk about the dialectic and dialectical behavior therapy, both and, that both can be true. And so I don’t mean for this to be the answer because so much of my book and because of my own experience is basically saying there is no The Answer, but more that it’s a start of a different type of conversation.

Amy S. Choi: I think that that’s actually something that struck both of us, is if we could talk a little bit more about dialectical thinking and that concept as it applies just to being a mash-up. And even what you were saying earlier, maybe I would have less to run away from, or less pressures or less of this thing inside of me that felt so much tension if it were just easier, if you just were a fifth generation white kid that grew up where your parents and grandparents grew up in central Pennsylvania.

And that even that being a mash-up for us, we’ve always conceived of as a dialectical way of being, it is both hard to be rooted in traditions that you love and also many of which you just hope to expel from your life, but you can’t. So then how do we do the work to transform to get to the other place? And I think that’s very hard to hold that in your mind, even though for Rebecca and I, it’s really all we want for our lives when especially right now, the world is very black and white. And I wonder how you think about that, the dialectical thinking in regard to yourself.

Pooja Lakshmin: So one, I think that when we’re feeling good in times of stability in our lives, it’s a lot easier to access dialectical thinking. In this conversation, I’m thinking about what I was talking about with my parents and the pressures that I faced, and being able to acknowledge they did the best that they could. They did more than the best that they could, and I also felt like I had to break free. Both are true. And once I was able to get to a place in my life where I felt better from a mental health standpoint, I’m able to so much more easily hold that and grieve, because you do have to grieve and also accept, and have love and generosity and compassion. But when I am feeling less than or stressed or depressed or anxious, my mind wants to separate things into black and white and put things into categories, and to really know the answer and to hold on to one answer.

So I think maybe reframing it. As opposed to a black and white thing of I can practice dialectical thinking or I can’t, to understand that there might be times in your life when you can, and there might be other times in your life where it’s harder and when it becomes more difficult, that’s when you know that you’re struggling a little bit. I think conversations like this are so important because I think that like you said, we live in a world right now where everything lacks nuance and everyone wants to just focus on the black and white and the rush to come to what’s the answer. But the reality is that there’s so many layers in our lives, and for the mash-up experience in particular, so much of what we’re doing is healing. And healing is a process of grief and acceptance and reconciling paradoxes and truths that are seemingly in. It’s an ongoing journey.

Rebecca Lehrer: There’s so many of them.

Pooja Lakshmin: I know, I know. There’s so much. And it’s what gives us our superpowers too, so both. And you don’t end up wanting to do things in the world unless you’ve had some sort of trauma. The reason for change and bigger things and different things comes from people who have sore spots and hard spots.

Amy S. Choi: I think something that Rebecca and I have thought about a lot, especially I think maybe in the past year or two, we’ve both been talking a lot about our scar tissue just being like, “Oh, oh, that was my scar tissue,” or, “Ooh, that was a bruise that I poked by accident.”

Rebecca Lehrer: My therapist calls it an old wound.

Amy S. Choi: Old wounds. And part of it I think has been, I’m just going to psychoanalyze myself and Rebecca right now, but that we finally, we’re now at a point where we have done so much personal work where it’s not that the wounds have necessarily healed or gone away, it’s just like we are very aware of where they are now, so we can treat them tenderly.

Pooja Lakshmin: And you can be curious about them. We’re talking about curiosity, right? Right. There’s like a meta-ness to it. It’s not as raw.

Rebecca Lehrer: And the cycle of it is shorter, right?

Pooja Lakshmin: Yep.

Rebecca Lehrer: You see it, you’re aware of it. And what we we talking about, the awareness of anger or curiosity about a feeling, and you can mine it quickly versus there are other feelings which are maybe in this stage of our lives, as with young children. There’s different versions which we’ll I think probably only understand in 20 more years from now, which was like, “Wow, that really inflamed me in this way,” and I have no idea why because I’m just so in it or the constancy of that, that’s a different one than my relationship totally to myself versus as a parent. And I do think some of this, what you’re talking about, finding the reason or the way or that you approach some of the tools, especially I found myself saying out loud to my kids, I was like, “Okay, I’m feeling very short right now because I did not exercise and for me, exercise is a way of getting out energy that is very specific that I really need.” And I just said it out loud-

Pooja Lakshmin: I love that you said that to your kids.

Rebecca Lehrer: … and it didn’t stop me from being short, but I did say it-

Pooja Lakshmin: But they understood why, which is huge.

Rebecca Lehrer: … I don’t know if they understood, but they heard the words.

Pooja Lakshmin: They were exposed to-

Rebecca Lehrer: … that idea.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: And so it was almost like I hadn’t been so acutely aware of that, even for myself. I was like, “Oh, I feel like because I didn’t move enough and I didn’t sweat,” in a way that not because of calories and not because of weight, but just because I need my blood flow that way. It feels good to me.

Pooja Lakshmin: A lot of what we’re talking about here is psychological flexibility, and that’s a concept in Real Self-Care I keep coming back to. It’s like the skill of being able to work with your mind, the curiosity. The being able to feel something hard, and then ask yourself questions and give yourself space between, not just rushing to action or rushing to some sort of conclusion. But where you can feel or think a hard thought, let’s say guilt, but then say, “Oh, okay. I felt that, it’s not the end of the world. I can engage with it, be curious about it, learn more about myself,” as opposed to thinking it’s just sort of like a damning report card score.

Rebecca Lehrer: And there’s two specific pieces of language that you used, whatever, words. That’s another way to say it. There are phrases that you use in this. One is, in the book, eudaimonic.

Pooja Lakshmin: Eudaimonic.

Rebecca Lehrer: Eudaimonic wellbeing. Can you define that for us here?

Pooja Lakshmin: Yeah. Eudaimonic wellbeing is a theory of wellbeing that says that understanding your values and your purpose and the meaning of your life is what gives you the most wellbeing, so aligning your actions and your relationships and how you spend your energy with what means the most to you leads to a good life. This is in contrast to hedonic wellbeing, which prioritizes happiness or the absence of suffering. So hedonic wellbeing is sort of equivalent to getting that 600 calories Starbucks drink that tastes really good in the moment, kind of negates all your stresses and pressures and feels good. Whereas eudaimonic wellbeing says that no, actually, it’s about understanding what you really care about and naming that, and then doing those things. And I also just want to say one thing too is that we’re all human, so of course, we also all engage in hedonic wellbeing too. So please don’t shame yourself if you’re like, “Well, but I really like my Starbucks drinks.” I’m not trying to take those away from you.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, I am extremely interested in my hedonic side. That is a big priority for me, but I see the appeal.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: I think another thing you were talking about was cognitive diffusion strategies. And this seems to me like what you were saying, the incremental curiosity and questioning. Is that right? =

Pooja Lakshmin: Yeah. So cognitive diffusion basically refers to being able to, quote, unquote, diffuse from hard feelings and hard thoughts. So one of the examples that I use in the book is like with guilt, especially for women, anytime you set a boundary, anytime you say no or push back, you automatically make yourself the bad guy and feel guilty. So cognitive diffusion says instead of fusing with that guilt, instead of believing that that guilt is all powerful, there are other strategies that you can use to help your mind create distance from the guilt. You’re not turning off the guilt because we live in a world that is deeply inequitable and unfair, so you will always feel guilty because society has made women and women of color feel like everything is their job.

So yes, you will feel guilty when you set a boundary, that’s not your fault. So to get to the cognitive fusion, one of the tools to access that is to think of metaphors, and that’s a way to work with your brain to just create a different context for it. So one of the metaphors I use in the book is to think of guilt as a faulty check engine light on your car. So imagine that you’ve taken your car to get service, everything’s fine, the oil’s changed, but there’s just one of those lights on the dash that keeps going off no matter what you do, but it doesn’t actually give you any meaningful information. It’s broken, but it’s still going off. It’s just background light.

Rebecca Lehrer: God, this check engine light is always on.

Pooja Lakshmin: It’s always on.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s a lemon. This car’s a lemon.

Pooja Lakshmin: Right? It’s a background noise. And so that’s one example where again, you’re working with your thoughts, you’re working with your brain in a different way, and we call that diffusion. This comes from acceptance and commitment therapy. This isn’t my idea, this is coming from therapy that is evidence-based. And again, it’s a way to loosen things up so you’re not just beating yourself up all the time.

Rebecca Lehrer: Can we talk just briefly about guilt for mash-ups? You give a few examples about for you as a South Asian woman, but can we just dive into that a little? Because guilt is a major theme in our work, always has been. It’s like a section of our website, literally, it’s built-

Amy S. Choi: We’re like, 87% guilt. The rest is lattes.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. Lattes and guilt. Something so specific. Whenever I meet people and they’re a fan, they don’t have guilt, I’m like, “What?”

Amy S. Choi: What are you talking about?

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s truly like an alien species. Can you give a couple of examples from your own life, as you do in the book, about how you’ve navigated using some of these strategies and the types of guilt? I think our listeners will really resonate with things that have bubbled up that you’ve had to kind of silence the killjoys, as you said.

Pooja Lakshmin: Well, the example that I used in the book was my first marriage and that time in my life when I was in my early to mid-twenties and it was like all my best friends were getting married, and my parents expected me to get married. And especially in South Asian culture, that milestone, that feeling of like, “Oh, now our daughter is someone else’s responsibility.” And I think I talk about this in the context of boundaries, actually, because I didn’t know how to set that boundary. I didn’t even know that I wasn’t… none of this was at the conscious level at that time. We were talking about how now we’re able to be a little bit more curious about our wounds. At that time, this was all a wound. I didn’t know. There was no strategy-

Rebecca Lehrer: You were just one big wound.

Pooja Lakshmin: I was one big wound. Yes, I was one big wound. Yes, I think that’s fair. So the reason that I didn’t set the boundary was because of the guilt. The guilt, the fear of the guilt.

Amy S. Choi: This is so relatable.

Pooja Lakshmin: … is what prevented me. But the problem there is that the longer you let that run, the worse the damage is on the other side.

Rebecca Lehrer: But then here’s another addendum, is that when you’ve done the work and you do set those boundaries or you say them very clearly-

Pooja Lakshmin: People are still mad at you?

Rebecca Lehrer: … they’re mad, or they don’t even know what you’re saying. They’re not-

Pooja Lakshmin: Psychologically minded.

Rebecca Lehrer: … correct… that you say-

Amy S. Choi: I’m not going to be a doctor?

Rebecca Lehrer: No. You say, “I can’t come to that trip.” You had an example and you’re like, “I’m unable to join that family function,” it just doesn’t work for our family. And then you hear their story to someone else about you, where she’s just, “I don’t know why,” and I’m like, “No, I told you exactly why. There was no confusing language.” They can’t hear it because they’ve projected a whole other story on it, but you said exactly the words that you meant. And so that’s been for me a very interesting challenge of boundary setting, which is I set a boundary, but nobody heard it.

Pooja Lakshmin: Yes, I love this. I think this is very mash-up specific, especially in dealing with families and different degrees of cultural awareness and psychological awareness and ways of being in the world. So I think one thing I would say is that anytime you’re setting a boundary, there’s always two processes that are going on. There is just the actual technical communication of the boundary, like what you’re describing Rebecca, of saying, “This is our reason.” And short and sweet, and here’s the thing. And then there’s this whole other side of dealing with your emotional response and any emotional response that’s coming from them. And the thing is that you can’t expect to get your emotional needs met from the family member who you’re setting the boundary with. So what you’re saying right now is sort of like, “But they’re not voicing understanding to me.”

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes.

Pooja Lakshmin: I explained, but they’re not coming back and saying, “Yes, that makes sense.” They’ve actually totally misconstrued it and made up something else, which they will do. They will do, but that’s not your business. That’s not up to you. That’s just what it is, and you let that go. That’s the cost, right?

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.

Pooja Lakshmin: So in the book, I talk about how a boundary isn’t always a no. I say that the boundary is the pause, and the pause, you decide yes, no, or negotiate, and you’re doing that mental calculus. Is the no worth it? Because there’s going to be drama, right? Sometimes the no isn’t worth it, and if the no’s not worth it right at this particular instance in your life, then you mark it for yourself and you say, “Six months later, I want to be at a place where the no is more accessible and maybe there’s less drama with the no.” Every family is different though, so I think cultural understanding is really important here because there’s some families in which you actually can’t even communicate that boundary because communicating verbally or over email or text, the boundary is too inflammatory.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, look, here’s my hand. It’s being raised in the air.

Pooja Lakshmin: You just have to act. You just have to act as if you’ve communicated it because the cost and the way that it inflames is actually counterproductive.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah. And I think what you’re saying, Pooja, I feel so deeply about how specific this kind of guilt is to mash-ups and particularly to mash-up daughters, because I think it’s everything from Rebecca having to say no and wanting to be understood to me being like, “Okay. Well, it turns out maybe the life that I have chosen to live and devote myself to is just not worth it to my parents.” That everything they did, the way that you describe your grandfather and the building a life here and then doing this and that, you’re like, “Okay. Well, thank you for that, and what you want for me is not what I want,” but it’s like a whole life, and it feels like an abnegation of their whole lives because they’ve been telling you your whole life that they did everything for you. I’m saying they, I don’t know why, as if this is not involving all of us directly right here.

Pooja Lakshmin: It’s so funny, as you’re talking, I’m having an association to when I was in college, my mom would bring me these Tupperwares of Indian food.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, my roommate Gita and I didn’t get from New York City, where I was in college, from Dallas, Texas, we would get overnighted. Anyways, it was a great thing for me personally, but go on.

Pooja Lakshmin: And it was always, because we were an immigrant family, it was in those Cool Whip containers.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, 100%, that were dyed a little orange on the inside,

Rebecca Lehrer: Turmeric-dyed Cool Whips?

Pooja Lakshmin: And I would have to keep all of those whip containers and return them, and I would feel so guilty if I didn’t keep the containers and then when I didn’t eat the food, but the containers, I felt guilty about the containers.

Amy S. Choi: My god.

Rebecca Lehrer: We were just talking about we should have a guide on our site for what are the ways that you recycle? It’s sort of in the spirit of environmental stuff-

Amy S. Choi: How many times do you wash the Ziploc bag or reuse tinfoil?

Rebecca Lehrer: Where you keep the bags that are leftover from whatever shop? And mine is just like there’s a bag under the sink with all the bags in it, just like bags, bags, bags, bags, bag. Neil’s always like, “How many bags in a bag can you have?”

Amy S. Choi: White man, you don’t understand.

Pooja Lakshmin: But that’s your level when you’re in your early twenties, and that’s the level of guilt that you feel. Then just, again, to imagine being able to say to a parent, “This life that you have dreamed of for me is not the life that I want for myself,” it’s soul-crushing.

Amy S. Choi: And I think part of it’s soul-crushing for yourself and that sublimating,. The same thing about pleasure, it’s just like you hold it back because you feel responsible for their souls.

Pooja Lakshmin: It’s a duty. It’s duty and it’s enmeshment, and it’s also culture of more communal cultures. You represent your family in this way, so gosh, it’s tough.

Amy S. Choi: There’s so many different ways to feel guilty.

Rebecca Lehrer: But I will say as a person filled with guilt, there’s a branches of this mash-up boundary guilt tree that we’re drawing here and mine is a family that actually, I think I’m living the life that they did dream for me. And there’s still so many versions of it, like marrying a non-Jewish person, which there’s many settings of bound… with that, that was very fraught for me and a lot of pain, but that has come out so beautifully. But like you were saying, the work, it pays off eventually. It does pay off. And what’s interesting is Amy actually has an Asian female therapist specifically for this point-

Amy S. Choi: I do.

Rebecca Lehrer: … of it being because of some of the cultural stuff where if someone could say, “Well, you just tell them,” and you’re like, “Okay, cool story.”

Amy S. Choi: Are you kidding me?

Rebecca Lehrer: Tell who? Tell what person what?

Amy S. Choi: Oh, I think that was something so significant, and I’m sure some of your patients seek you out the same way. I want to hunt for a therapist, and I was like, “They don’t maybe have to be Korean American, but they have to be East Asian. They have to be first generation America.” My therapist is Japanese American. She has been in two mash-up marriages, has mash-up kids. That was essential for me, to have a shortcut to not have to explain everything.

Pooja Lakshmin: To speak the same language.

Amy S. Choi: And I just think one thing, my last question is about boundaries, which are I would say early in life, the first 30-some years were probably the scary. That was not even a word that I could say in my mouth. What would be your tip? What’s your advice for somebody, a woman who is like, “I’m ready. I’m maybe going to go do my first one,” or, “I’m going to say the scary thing,” or, “I’m going to try and do some body work and not be stressed out on the massage table”? What would you say as somebody’s hype woman to setting a boundary?

Pooja Lakshmin: The first, it’s the pause. It doesn’t have to always be no, it could be first setting that pause and thinking in that time, “What do I want? What does my body want? What do I really care about?” Start small. Don’t take on a big thing. Start with something that’s low stakes, like saying no to a friend who you know is not going to lash out on you. Don’t pick your toxic friend where there’s lots of frenemy girl drama, pick somebody who’s actually a real friend.

Rebecca Lehrer: That’s not your friend, also. Stop being friends with that person.

Pooja Lakshmin: Thank you. Thank you. That’s actually the answer. Stop being friends with that person. But don’t pick that as your first boundary because if you’ve never done it before, that’s going to be fraught. Sometimes it’s even the smallest thing like you’re going out to dinner with people and somebody asks you, “Where do you want to eat? What are you feeling like?” And someone else says, “Sushi,” and actually saying, “I don’t want sushi. Can we pick something else?” Just small challenges. Actually, don’t start with your family. Setting boundaries with your family is the hardest thing, so practice a lot in spaces that are safer first, where you can just build the muscle, use the scripts. See what happens. Just get into that bodily practice and then take it to your family. And even when you start with your family, start with a sibling, if there is a nice sibling. Don’t start with the most complicated relationship.

Amy S. Choi: Oops. Glad we can be together in this. That feels important. That’s significant.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, Pooja, this is such a joy.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, I love it so much.

Rebecca Lehrer: Thank you so much-

Amy S. Choi: Thank you, Pooja.

Rebecca Lehrer: … and we’ll talk to you so soon.

Pooja Lakshmin: Thank you. It was such a joy. Thank you so much.

Rebecca Lehrer: Thank you so much, Pooja, for guiding us through this wooly world of boundaries and saying no.

Amy S. Choi: No.

Rebecca Lehrer: No.

Amy S. Choi: That felt crazy. Okay, go on.

Rebecca Lehrer: No, I won’t.

Amy S. Choi: So you guys, what is a boundary that you are setting? Our goal for this month as we launch into holiday season is to set a boundary with our family and keep it. We can do it, I have faith.

Rebecca Lehrer: And next week, we’re so excited for Jeff Chang, our brother from another mother, the brilliant journalist and historian and expert in all things hip hop and Bruce Lee. He’ll be on to talk about why hip hop matters to mash-ups and how we can get deep on the culture while being true to ourselves.

Amy S. Choi: Catch the rest of the Ultimate Guide To A Mash-Up Life. We’ll have episodes every week, all fall like. Like and follow The Mash-Up Americans wherever you get your pods, and tell your friends. Love you.

Rebecca Lehrer: Bye.


This podcast is a production of The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Senior editor and producer is Sara Pellegrini. Production manager is Shelby Sandlin. Thanks to DJ Rob Swift for our theme song, Salsa Scratch. Additional engineering support by Pedro Rafael Rosado. Please make sure to follow and share this show with your friends. Bye.

Posted by Team Mash-Up
Team Mash-Up is the brain trust of smart minds and savvy creators, that builds all the cool stuff you see here.

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