Transition + Reconnecting Kelly Mi Li on Self-Discovery Through Cultural and Familial Expectations The Reflection Issue
Kelly Mi
the digital issue

Kelly Mi Li on Self-Discovery Through Cultural and Familial Expectations

Change comes when you least expect it.

Movies and books always feed us that coming-of-age trope where a protagonist finally "finds" themselves. It's become what is expected in our world: to find yourself by the time you reach a certain age. The truth is the search for identity shouldn’t be tied to a specific age group. Self-discovery is a continuous journey through your entire life.

When I entered my 30s, this realization became apparent. From the outside looking in, my life was perfect. Bling Empire, a Netflix reality series I executive produced and starred in, premiered and quickly became a global hit. I had an amazing support system, from friends and family to colleagues, and I was genuinely passionate about my career as an entrepreneur and film and television producer. Everything seemed to be coming together. But the truth is, my mental health was suffering.

The Start of Self-Discovery

Change comes at moments when you least expect it. From my 20s to early 30s, I was experiencing a lot of pressure and stress, often working long hours into the night. I was in relationships I would later learn enabled my anxiety and issues of codependency. Through all of this, my mental health was an afterthought. The need to succeed overshadowed everything else. As a result, I developed sciatica, which caused an unbearable and constant shooting pain down my leg. I didn’t realize the physical pain was connected to my mental wellbeing, and the thought of therapy as a solution was something I didn’t even consider.

Kelly Mi Li

Kelly Mi Li / Design by Cristina Cianci

My life took another turn when I had my first therapy session on Bling Empire with my then boyfriend. This moment pushed me to give therapy a chance. Though the season only showed brief snippets, there was so much more discussed in these sessions. We covered everything from communication issues to codependency and more.

After filming wrapped, I started individual therapy. Everything started falling into place. Through it, I was introduced to a mental health resources from books and podcasts to support groups. This was all so new to me, as mental health was rarely discussed in my family or culture. I learned I had a a propensity for caretaking. This specific form of codependency meant I put others' needs above mine, causing anxiety and unwillingness to focus on my own happiness. I began doing more research and actively taking control of my mental health, opening many doors in my life that were locked shut for so long.

A Deep Dive Into Everything 

All of a sudden, my journey for self-discovery became interwoven with my mental health journey. I knew I had to confront cultural expectations and memories I had tucked away—with the most prominent being my family’s immigration experience and struggle to succeed in America.

The need for success and perfection is an expectation often sought out in Asian culture. These expectations were evident for my family when we immigrated to America when I was 10 years-old. Both my parents faced struggle and obstacles during this time and responded to pressure differently. My dad’s inability to make enough money paired with his pride and ego led him to leave me and my mom. He moved back to China to his comfortable lifestyle and my mom was forced to raise me all by herself.


Kelly Mi Li / Design by Cristina Cianci

After my dad left us, my mom and I silently moved forward in life as expected with no mention or acknowledgement to how this would affect us long term. The unfortunate fact is this: The lack of mental health awareness in Asian communities is a normalized cycle. Being able to silently tread through every life problem was treated like any other simple life responsibility. Thus, the events of my dad leaving us became a memory I quietly locked away in my mind—only to have it resurface in my 30s when I began my self-discovery journey.

Life moved on from there, and I watched my mom work hard day after day. The pressure to ensure all my mom’s sacrifices were worthwhile seemed to quickly build up overnight. I spent my adolescent years constantly studying with expectations to become a piano prodigy, doctor, or lawyer. It was all heavily ingrained into my life. The need to be perfect became a crushing weight that only grew as I got older. It would eventually cause me to rebel and drop out of college to pursue my own path.

Kelly Mi Li

Kelly Mi Li / Design by Cristina Cianci

The more time I spent thinking about my childhood and culture, the more my own issues unraveled. Breaking down each of these parts helped me understand the issues I was dealing with as an adult. While my relationship with my dad reinforced a fear I had of losing loved ones, the relationship I had with my mom caused me to feel less than. All these attributes became common in my later relationships, as I often ended up putting other people’s needs above mine and developing an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. Reflecting on these experiences helped me take control of my wellbeing and lead me closer to finding myself.

What I’ve Learned and How I’m Moving Forward

Since starting my journey for self-discovery, life has been nothing but rewarding. I’ve been able to connect the dots and pieces in my life, making sense of everything from my family to Asian culture and relating it to every relationship in my life. I’ve since embraced obstacles as a life lesson, learning to set boundaries and putting myself first. Through taking the time to self-reflect, the question who am I? has become much less daunting to answer.

At every stage of my life, I’ll be discovering a new piece of myself and uncovering all the good, bad, and everything in between. Even though I’m still a work in progress, I hope to share my experience to help others find their voice and begin their own journey of self-discovery.

Here’s to finding ourselves and embracing the beauty in being the authentic you.

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