Real Talk

How Utang ng Loob Made Filipino Families Toxic

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Utang ng Loob’s meaning has been twisted over the years, becoming more of a toxic trait in families.

Utang ng Loob or crudely translated as gratitude is a virtue that appears often in Filipino culture. Psychologist Virgilio Enriquez, the father of Philippine Psychology, often noted that this served as one of the cores of Philippine culture besides Companionship (Pakikisama), Shame (Hiya), and Sensitivity (Pakikiramdam). While on paper they sound good, there are times it becomes so toxic. In fact, it’s a ball and shackle to generations of family members.

Understanding “Utang ng Loob” as Gratitude

We often teach our kids to return the favor when someone gives them something, be it a gift or an act of kindness. Oftentimes, we teach our kids to say “thank you” or they sometimes take it to the next level: reciprocate something of equal value. In most cases, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with this virtue. However, the word “utang” holds a bigger weight as it also translates into “debt”.

How does this become toxic?

Unfortunately, Philippine culture has made the virtue toxic. Some parents tend to guilt-trip their kids while using utang ng loob as a basis. We can often see this in the following:

  • When a child asks for something, the parent often says, “I clean/cook/wash after you! What else do you want?!” This kind of response makes the kid more fearful to express their needs because they think they have nothing to top that kind of exchange.
  • Dragging them into the family business is a common norm in bigger families. The premise is that because the family paid for their schooling, the child has no right to choose what their college course should be. Their fate ends with them entering the family business.
  • “You know I love you, right?” or “Alam mo naman mahal kita, diba?” is one of the most common forms of gaslighting with the premise of utang ng loob. By using love as an excuse for one’s actions, it makes the child feel guilty for feeling bad. It also plants the idea that there’s no way they can pay back the debt.
  • “I gave birth to you!” is a statement of power play. Although it depends on how the situation goes, most Filipino moms, in a state of rage, pull out this card. Especially if the child understands how pregnancy works, they’d probably shrink in fear knowing that they have no choice but to take all sorts of commands—even if they’re not comfortable with it.

How We See It In Society

Unfortunately, the toxic form of utang ng loob happens in all sorts of places—from the workplace and even in politics. Bigger families, especially among the old ones, establish all sorts of alliances to maintain their position. Sometimes, they do it through marriage. Others do it via money. While it does sound like something straight out of a telenovela, there is some truth to it. Chinese families have arranged marriages and they hold a Kai Shao over it. Filipinos just call it an arranged marriage.

Usually, the victims of this are the younger generation due to the existing and unspoken rule of hierarchy in Filipino families.

How do we make it not toxic?

As parents, we can start by not listing down everything we’ve done for our children or hanging their every mistake over their heads. It makes our love appear conditional and transactional—rather than unconditional and accepting. Consistently doing so will make the child anxious and will always try to keep score—making them more uncertain whether or not to tell you what they feel, ask us for something, or just let us into our lives.

It’s hard to unlearn the toxic form of Utang ng Loob

For many generations, Utang ng Loob has become more toxic and it takes a different kind of strength to break that kind of behavior. There will be times we will slip—especially in a state of rage or escalated situation. But what matters more is that if ever we do invoke it, we take responsibility for doing so and listen to our children’s feelings without hanging anything over their heads.

More things about Filipino Family culture? Here’s more!

Pwera Usog: A Filipino Folk Belief Involving Babies
Understanding Political Dynasties As a Family
Gaslighting: What It is and How Parents Can Avoid It