Emotional Health and the Power of Vulnerability

Posted by: Hailing Huang on January 15, 2015 10:24 am

Reflections on the Suicides of Chinese International Students

Recently stories about two Chinese international students committing suicide circulated on Chinese We-Chat. Both students were regarded as excellent students in the eyes of their parents and the others:  they were outgoing, active in the community and academically driven.  So what led to this tragedy?    Who should take the responsibility? What are the causes?  And what can we learn from those tragic?

Such questions linger in the minds of parents, friends, teachers and many others- we want answers. Some people may blame the family’s lack of parenting education, some may blame society’s ideology around success and some may blame the victim for not being tough enough.


Case one: YuanYuan from Nangjing China, committed suicide in Feb 2009. She was a second year economics student at Amsterdam University. The three notes she left behind disclosed:  “I am so, so tired. For the last eight years I have been trying to calm down the upheaval of inner turmoil; when it hits me I felt so helpless. Sometimes I have to endure and wait for the turmoil to fade and recover slowly.  Life is so busy; I simply do not have time to deal with it anymore. I cannot sense any joy in life, and life itself has become unbearable.  I am really tired of this.”   She also disclosed that she had battled with OCD for the last eight years.

This case was brought to the limelight by Yuan Yuan’s mother. In her mother’s eyes, her daughter was very considerate, independent, warm hearted, decisive and academically driven- a person who had always presented herself as positive and cheerful. The death of her daughter devastated the mother, what had gone wrong?  As a teacher herself she asked what can be done to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

Case two: Guo Yanjun, 28,   immigrated to America in 2001, graduated with an Honors BSc in 2006, worked in investment banking in New York, then registered at MIT (麻省理工学院),majoring in management – a journey much admired by many Chinese students.

During her school years at MIT, Yanjun was active in various school clubs:  ‘The Future International Leadership Club’, ‘Principle Asian Advisory Council Committee’ and the school’s band’. From other’s perspective, YanJun was a student who was outgoing, hard working, took the initiative, positive, and excellence driven.  After she passed away, it was learned that on her facebook page, she had expressed that she is a coward, a deserter, and she cannot hold on to it anymore …

Reading their stories reminded me of Brene Brown’s theory:  Shame and the Power of Vulnerability.  The feeling of shame is one of the main causes of low self esteem, and often leads to depression.


Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ challenged many people’s perceptions of vulnerability.  For decades, people, regardless of their background or their culture, the West or the East, tend to avoid disclosing any feelings associated vulnerability.  Normally, these feelings are packed up, put aside or stuffed up and people pretend that these feelings are under control.

However, Brene’s revolutionary discovery was that the birthplace of shame, fear, loneliness and that of joy, creativity, authenticity, courage are one in the same. When we shut down the feeling of vulnerability, we lose the capacity to be creative, courageous, congruent and content.

Brene Brown’s ten years of research has shown that:  being vulnerable is absolutely essential to wholehearted living.  Brene’s definition of vulnerability is:  It is an accurate measurement of courage, it is to be seen, to be exposed, and to be honest with whom we were at the moment.

Embracing the feeling of shame does not mean staying there; instead, to embrace it is like putting on galoshes and finding a way out of the swamp of negative emotions. We learn to move forward courageously without carrying the baggage.  Therefore, to be courageous requires being creative in cultivating our ability to embrace negative feelings, instead of stuffing them up and leaving them behind.


The idiom ‘Lick your wound’ means to withdraw temporarily while recovering from a defeat. Wound licking is an instinctive response in many animals. Saliva contains factors which promote the blood clotting mechanism, aiding in defense against infection. Embracing our vulnerability has the same function as licking our wounds.

Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor the UCLA, advises that a negative emotion needs to be identified and transformed. Unfortunately, in the mainstream medical system, emotions are only partially understood and do not receive the total respect that they warrant.

Judith Orloff’s book:  Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life illustrates a revolutionary discovery in emotional health. To have a balanced mood is to transform a negative emotion, not to cast it out.  She proposed seven types of transformations: facing fear, building courage;  facing frustration and disappointment, building patience; facing loneliness, building connection; facing anxiety and worry , build inner calm; facing depression, building hope; facing jealousy and envy , building self – esteem; and the last,  facing anger, building compassion.  And each transformation is approached holistically: mood, biology, subtle energy, psychology and spirituality.


Judith Orloff’s transforming negative emotional states to positive ones resonates with Brene Brown’s theory of the function of vulnerability: fear, shame, and loneliness and creativity, courage, and connection share the same birthplace. When we cast out the negative emotions, we lose our capacity for being authentic and being courageous. These negative emotions can be transformed, and become the sources of love, courage, creativity, calm and love.

International students, who are referred to as sojourners, are people who move to another country to achieve certain objectives. They exhibit a similar acculturation process just as immigrant’s do- from honeymoon, to dark depression, to recovery, and to adaptation to the new environment. Some students may go through this process with ease, while others may encounter larger challenges because of various barriers, such as language, differences in weather, food, friend circles, school work or social etiquette. Some types of emotional distress such as loneliness, fear, and anxiety are typical of the transition to the second stage of the acculturation process.  In the past year I have also encountered some cases of international students who exhibited similar symptoms, these students are determined, self disciplined, academically driven, and take the initiative.  Yet, when their expectations are not fulfilled, they feel trapped and stressed out. The students become the victims of their inner voice: I am not good enough, feeling vulnerable, and incompetent.

Understanding our emotions and knowing how to manage them is relatively new to international students from China or other countries.  The term EI became widely known with the publication of Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995). In the past 20 years, more and more researchers and counselors have studied the function of emotional elements. Therefore, more information and knowledge has become available for learning how to deal with our emotional needs instead of shying away from this topic.   Brene Brown and Judith Orloff’s studies on emotional health are two examples.

There is an unspoken rule in traditional Chinese culture to not disclose negative events to an outsider; events such as critical illness, death, job loss, accidents, and so on. The reason behind this is that negative events are regarded as bad Karma. A considerate person would not spread bad Karma to others.  The same concept also includes negative emotions; people generally do not share their negative feelings, such as fear, loneliness, and stress with members of their family.   When asked: “why don’t you talk about it?”  The most common answer is   “What is the use of talking? It is only becomes a burden to others.”

The answer could provide a glimpse into the fact that Chinese international students or international students from the developing countries do not have sufficient knowledge of psychotherapy, not to mention knowing how transform negative emotions.  There are many obstacles for international student to access the counseling services; language barriers probably being the largest obstacle, followed by traditional culture norms, and being unfamiliar with the counseling service system. More psycho- educational workshops are needed in order to help international students acknowledge the concepts of well being, counseling, and psychotherapy.

Only when the students have sufficient knowledge of how to maintain a sense of well being, and are familiar with the counseling services,   will they be to access social and psychological resources that are available to them on campus. Students will then have a better chance of surviving their academic years and enjoying successful integration and adaptation to their new environment and culture.


Hailing Huang, MTS, MA


*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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