Harry Shum Jr. Wants to Remind You That It’s Not That SeriousThe actor and dancer talks about the key moments in his mental health journey.
Whether you recognize him as the human half of the chef-Raccacoonie duo in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once or one of Glee’s core New Directions members, Harry Shum Jr. has enjoyed a longstanding onscreen career. Lately, he stars on the equally longstanding medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. (Don’t worry, if you just want to watch Shum Jr.’s scenes, you only have to commit to watching one season so far.) And when Grey’s returns on Feb. 23, viewers will dive deeper into Benson “Blue” Kwan’s backstory and see what challenges are in store for him, Shum Jr. tells Wondermind.
On top of celebrating his most recent credits, Shum Jr. is honestly just really excited about the simple things in life and is focused on listening to and connecting with himself and others. “A lot of times, listening is one of the greatest tools that we don't utilize enough in our society because everyone wants to be heard, but no one wants to listen,” he tells Wondermind. “We need to do more listening and sit in the silence of the comfort that other people are struggling as much as we are.”
From his therapy sessions as a kid to how he learned to tap into his emotional health sans therapy, here’s a glimpse into Shum Jr.’s mental health journey and how he makes awful situations suck a little less.
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WM: How are you doing lately?
Harry Shum Jr.: I got hit with the 'rona, so that's how I'm doing right now. But it is very minor. My wife got hit with it, and then my daughter doesn't have it, which is very interesting because you're like, OK, I got to keep it away from you. At the same time, I have to be near you.
WM: Covid can be draining, but is there anything that’s invigorating you these days?
HSJ: The fact that I'm alive right now is invigorating. One of the positives that comes out of it is that you have some alone time, and I think alone time is invigorating in a lot of ways—just as much as it is to be around my friends, peers, and family—especially after the holidays. Having that [time] to do everything you need or want to do was a nice recharge. I guess the invigoration turns into recharge, [and now I can be] reinvigorated by my environment and the people around me.
WM: The early stages of your mental health journey involved going to therapy as a kid to help you with shyness. Do you mind sharing what it was like going to therapy when you were young?
HSJ: I think I went a few times 'cause my parents just didn't know what to do to get me to talk or open up. I just remember playing these little games—one was a game where you have to get through the maze with this liquid metal water. I remember all I was hyperfocused on was doing that while this therapist was trying to ask me these questions about myself [laughs]. They were met with, “Uh huh. Yeah. No.” So I still didn't open up at the time, but I think what came back was the therapist just said, “This kid needs an outlet. We just need to find an outlet for him.”
At that point, my mom was trying to figure out what that outlet would be. I didn't take any music [lessons]; that wasn't something that I was gravitating toward. It wasn't until I moved to the San Luis Obispo Pismo Beach area where I had more open space. It was just them providing a different environment for me that allowed me to have a space to open up.
WM: Have you tried therapy since then?
HSJ: I have not gone to a therapist myself. A lot of [my] therapy has been done through figuring out different philosophies and different perspectives of life. Essentially, I wanted to look at how other people would look at my life. If we’re looking at trying to be as close to [our true selves] as possible, I would listen to different philosophers and look at stoicism and figure out why people even gravitate toward [a particular idea].
Buddhism and listening to someone like Sadhguru’s teachings [helped me] beyond trying to figure out the rewiring of things and to see what is the complete naturalness and original state of human beings and how we relate to nature and the things around us. That was really important, and that allowed me to strip away the noise and the constructs that we as a society have put into place to sometimes make us feel better but not really solve anything.
WM: What's something you do for your mental health on a regular basis?
HSJ: I love to meditate. I've been getting really into acupressure 'cause I think there's so much blockage in our blood flow, and circulation is something that we don't talk about. [But] in order for your organs to work properly, enough blood and oxygen needs to circulate there. To me, it just made sense. It would hurt when you touch certain points, but it would really help my mood.
Also, my digestive system, I realized that was a big problem—and not just the stuff that I was eating, but that it wasn't working properly. I would feel it in my mood, and when that digestive system was working properly, my mood would change and there's a lot more clarity.
On top of that, instead of finding calmness for one hour or even half an hour, [I try to] find calmness throughout the day in every situation because everything is high-octane, whether we're at work or just in life in general. Everything is just moving so fast; people want things so fast. Finding the stillness and calmness in whatever situation you're in, even within action, is something that has really helped me get through the day.
WM: What's a stigma misconception about mental health that bothers you the most?
HSJ: Everyone is dealing with something, and it's not a competition. I think we always want to use that as a bargaining tool of: My problem is worse than yours. That's just a detriment and hurtful to our state of trying to become a union and [come together].
If you want to look at it in somewhat selfish reasons, whatever that person's going through, if you learn more about it, you won't have to go through it yourself. … If we keep passing these little nuggets along to each other and share more with each other and not judge each other in that aspect, I think it would help a lot.
WM: If you were to talk to yourself like a friend, what would you say?
HSJ: Make fun of yourself more. I just think it’s so beautiful when you see someone and they don’t take themselves too seriously. … Have that duality of being able to believe in yourself and not be self-deprecating but also [have] the sense of: This is not that serious in the end. Most things that we are dealing with aren't that serious. Even people dealing with the most serious things are able to joke about it, so what happens there? When I take things a little too seriously, it's a stark reminder for me to be able to see what that other side looks like.
In general, no matter what you're going through, if you’re able to look on the other side of it, if you can maybe find a way in the middle to get through it and come out in less pain than you would’ve, I think that's good advice to heed.
WM: What are you most proud of in your mental health journey?
HSJ: Being able to connect the dots looking backward to figure out why I'm having a certain issue with something. It’s hard because you want to start blaming outside forces and other things that have happened to you. Everyone is on their own journey and trying to figure out what works for them, but for me, it was really about, Oh, what could I have done to not make it worse? not, What could I have done to not have it happen? ’Cause things are going to happen, and it’s out of your control. What could I have done to not make it worse than it was? I found comfort in that because it allows me to chip away at the little things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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