Lopsided People: Somatizing and Spiritualizing

On the website of “Can,” a documentary about a Vietnamese war refugee who struggled with bipolar disorder, I came across an intriguing statement, “Asian Americans frequently somatize their problems,preferring to go to their primary care physician rather than seek help from a mental health clinician.”[1]  This statement rings true for my own family experience.

Growing up, I was never encouraged to give voice to my emotions. My parents and I kept our inner lives to ourselves and I learned to keep any internal distress under wraps, so much so that my friends always joke about my “poker face” and that I am “hard to read.” I never before linked my family’s emotion-suppressing patterns to other things, but as I read about mental health issues among Asian Americans and the tendency to “somatize” mental and emotional problems, other family patterns began to make sense.

My family, like a lot of Chinese families, is hyper-sensitive about our bodily health. My mom always likes to tell me, “Your health is the most important thing you possess. Without it, you cannot do anything else in life.” This is true to some extent, but sometimes this mantra can be carried to the extreme. If we think physical health is our most important possession, we can put so much energy into cultivating this one aspect of our being that we neglect other crucial parts of ourselves – like our emotions and our spirits.

Eventually, like the sadly true statement I read on the website, we can forget that other non-physical parts of our being even exist. We begin to think that only the material exists, thus going to a physician for an issue that also requires the care of a psychologist or pastor.

But this issue of emphasizing one part of our being to the neglect of others can also happen in another way, through spiritualizing physical issues. I experienced an instance of this last year when we visited a church and I went up to receive prayer after the service. I told the woman praying with me about the pain in my ankle and my desire for full healing. After a few minutes of prayer, she paused and asked me, “Do you have any unforgiveness in your life?”

I am totally in agreement with the idea that sin and spiritual clutter can result in physical symptoms. I am still in the process of letting God use my physical discomfort to alert me to larger issues in my life. However, the subtle message I received from this woman’s question, in the context of the rest of the church service, was that people who are spiritually pure should have victory over physical problems. If you have some ongoing ailment, most likely you just haven’t let God into your life enough, or you haven’t let go of something that you should.

This type of reasoning may be true in some cases. But I don’t believe we can say there is a direct proportional relationship between spiritual health and physical health. Carried to the extreme, this logic mutates into the “health and wealth” gospels that mislead so many.

Both somatizing and spiritualizing are pitfalls of over-emphasizing one aspect of our beings to the neglect of other aspects. Though God created us as whole beings, with integration of body, mind, and spirit, we often see ourselves as if through the lens of a carnival mirror, with one part way too large and other parts way too small.