Is. 77 | how do I speak up with self-compassion?

a collaboration with community member Michelle Nguyen :)


Welcome to the week before Thanksgiving, which feels like wading around in sticky pumpkin pie batter!

I’m tired. You’re tired. This week’s Care Package is short and sweet and only possible because of community member Michelle Nguyen, who wrote me a few weeks ago about the nuances of speaking up as an Asian American woman.

Speaking up, whether for yourself or someone in need, feels like the right thing to do, but that presumes we live in a world that values the Asian woman’s voice. More times than I’d like to admit, speaking up illuminated how little I could make people listen or care and how much my own safety came into question.

I’m afraid of these thoughts, but Michelle’s story made me feel like I could approach my doubts with nuance and compassion. Collaborating with Michelle on this story healed a small part of my gaslit twenty-five year-old self. Thank you, Michelle, for your honesty and kindness.

Please take care of yourself and rest this week!

P.S. Trying something new: you can listen to this story, narrated by Michelle :)

Dear Cosmos Community,

When it comes to the Asian American woman stereotype, I check a few boxes: I excelled academically; I’m a naturally shy person and find it hard to speak up in group settings; and I hate confrontation. Because I fit the stereotype so closely at first glance, I wonder sometimes when people look at me and hear the softness of my voice, if they think, “Oh, another Asian girl” and then un-see me.

When I began working in tech, I was hyper-conscious that I was entering a white, male-dominated world but reasoned that a higher-paying job and exciting career prospects would be worth it. I mean, how bad could it be when we pretended we were post-racism and that we lived in a meritocracy?

Pretty bad.

Earlier this year, 10 months after leaving my first job in tech, I wrote  “What It’s Like Being Gaslighted in the Workplace — From the Experience of a Millennial Asian American Woman.” I had healed from the workplace trauma of the first tech company I worked at, but I was angry and fed-up with toxic workplace experiences. I published and posted the article on Linkedin, feeling anxious and excited at the same time. I honestly didn’t think anyone would read it.

Then came the responses: some appreciating my bravery, others commiserating and sharing their similar experiences, and others gaslighting me about my experience -- making blanket statements that “this happens to everyone”, that it had nothing to do with my identity, and that I should just forgive and move on.

I cried for days. I questioned my story and labeled myself as “over-dramatic.” I relived those experiences I wrote about in my head, analyzing every detail to validate if my emotional response and if speaking up was appropriate.

We often talk about how important it is to find your voice, yourself, and your identity, and conflate it with speaking up. But we don’t talk about the real risk of speaking up to our safety and mental health. Since that article, others have encouraged me to keep writing and speaking up. But how?

How could I write after being publicly gaslit for sharing my honest experience?  How could I live with being called the “scorned woman,” “the ungrateful millennial,” “the over-dramatic Asian American”?

I was scared of the emotional pain and the damage to my reputation. I felt angry at others thoughtlessly thrusting that expectation onto me and throwing me into the “Diversity & Inclusion thought-leader” box. And I felt extremely guilty and ashamed that I wasn’t speaking up for myself and other women of color anymore. 

I realized that listening to what others wanted from me and my inner self-critic wasn’t sustainable. I began showing myself more compassion, and the more I did that, the more I could objectively see that I am human, that the workplace can be traumatic, and that there are systems of injustice cloaked in the myth of a meritocracy. I remembered why I spoke up in the first place. 

And that’s why I’m here and writing to all of you.

Speaking up is scary and challenging, and honestly, not always worth it. But it doesn’t mean your voice isn’t important to hear and that you aren’t meant to be seen.

Start with people you trust, start with safe spaces, start over whenever you need to, and show yourself compassion. As Asian American women, we are full, nuanced, and beautifully complex and are meant to be seen and heard. Join me?

Michelle Nguyen