A Picture of Affirmation

by Georgeann Halburian Ikuma

To most people, the “selfie” simply involves taking a photograph of oneself using a cell phone. To others, the term defines a pop culture trend dominating social media. But for Sam Louie, M.A. ’09, a psychotherapist and life coach specializing in multicultural issues and addictions, an innocuous snapshot can peel back years of repressed emotions and uncover the hidden truths behind words unspoken.

More than 50 percent of clients at Louie’s Seattle-based practice are Asian Americans struggling with cultural shame surrounding behavioral dependencies like gambling and sexual addictions exacerbated, in part, by a crippling silence. Louie uses PhotoTherapy, a therapeutic technique where photography is usually self-initiated as a means toward personal growth, to help his clients break through this cultural barrier and begin to heal.

“PhotoTherapy works well with a lot of people, but especially my Asian American and ethnic clients, where words sometimes fall short,” said Louie, who earned a degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy. “Photos can disarm the defenses of a client who may otherwise be very guarded about revealing anything deemed negative in therapy. They may be more comfortable choosing a picture that represents their emotional or relational struggles than trying to explain their thoughts or feelings with words.”

Louie offers an example of an Asian American male client who did not like questions that implied that his parents were physically and emotionally negligent, but when asked to choose several pictures to depict his childhood, he identified those with themes of isolation and loneliness. When Louie presented pictures and asked how they made him feel, the client shared about playing alone and disclosed the lack of parental supervision growing up. “More direct questions elicited a more guarded response such as, ‘My parents are typical Asian parents’ or ‘They did the best they could,’” said Louie. “The PhotoTherapy sessions allowed for a more complete picture of his reality.”

A reality Louie understands well. The oldest of three boys, he grew up in Seattle, where his parents immigrated from Hong Kong when he was a child. “They were typical first-generation, blue-collar workers who spoke very little English and tried to acculturate the family into mainstream America despite the growing linguistic and cultural gulf between us,” said Louie of their complicated parent/child dynamic. “My younger siblings and I believed in autonomy and individualism, whereas our parents believed in collectivism and honoring the family name, which included following their wishes about our relationships and career choices.” For Louie, those limited options included doctor, engineer, or executive. When they disapproved of his desire to pursue journalism, he at­­­tempted to appease his parents by switching to teaching, only to waver again and finally follow his dream. During his tenure at KCET-TV in Los Angeles, Louie won two Emmy Awards in broadcast journalism—one for best newscast for a long-format documentary show and another for a poignant story on Los Angeles’ homeless.

"Through this prism of pain and self-awareness, God gave me a new calling to help others, especially those from similar cultural contexts."—Sam Louie, M.A. '09

Despite earning the highest accolades in his field, Louie’s happiness and success were overshadowed by what he calls the notion of “Asian shame.” “I felt I wasn’t good enough and that I had dishonored my immediate family, my Chinese ancestry, and the whole Asian culture for my failures, misdeeds, and shortcomings,” said Louie, author of the self-published works Asian Shame and Addiction: Suffering in Silence (2013) and Spoken Word Poetry: Reflections from Within (2014). “My cultural shame coupled with t­­he Gospel in the context of Asian-American Christianity, where I could not understand grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love, led me to withdraw and disconnect emotionally.”

When his first marriage ended in divorce more than a decade ago, Louie spent a few soul-searching years in therapy, where he uncovered some of the cultural struggles he faced growing up and in the context of his relationships. Through individual and group therapy, he realized he lacked emotional intimacy with his family and those around him and had a distorted view of life steeped in a shame-based Asian cultural worldview. “Through this prism of pain and self-awareness, God gave me a new calling to help others, especially those from similar cultural contexts,” said Louie, who found his niche at APU. “My program was culturally diverse, and I felt blessed by my cohort, which contributed to my therapeutic knowledge and treatment in terms of seeing the client beyond the individual and taking his or her environment and social support system into consideration.”

For Louie, the most satisfying aspect of his career transition has been validating the life experiences of his Asian American clients by reminding them that they are worthy of love. “So many of my clients have been emotionally deprived and had their experiences dismissed that they are shocked to have their lives and feelings affirmed,” said Louie, who writes a column, “Minority Report,” for Psychology Today, dedicated to race, culture, and psychology.

Although content and happy, Louie envisions a bold plan for the future. “I want to create a nonprofit multicultural therapy center that focuses on cultural counseling and addictions,” he said. “On an artistic front, I would love to travel to the Asian countries where my clients have ties—Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, China, Japan, and Korea—and create a photography book that helps therapists better understand each unique Asian ethnicity.” If a picture is, in fact, worth a thousand words, then perhaps this ambitious endeavor would help those who have felt stifled to finally find their voice.

For more information about Sam Louie, visit samlouiemft.com or contact him at sam@samlouiemft.com.

Georgeann Halburian I­­kuma is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. ghikuma@yahoo.com

Originally published in the Spring '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.