Ask Sahaj: I feel guilty moving away from my immigrant parents

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Dear Sahaj: My immigrant parents are my best friends. They sacrificed so much for me—leaving their friends and family behind to start over in a new country, then working themselves to the bone for years to build a comfortable and financially secure life for me and my brother. They gave me everything I could ever ask for and more.

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I am now in my mid-twenties and moving for the first time in my life to start medical school. Since both my brother and I lived at home during undergrad and beyond, we always had our parents around and they always had us. I don’t think we know life without each other.

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I know they are so proud and excited for me on this new journey, but I can’t help but feel guilty for leaving. I’ve always been their support system — especially my mother, since my father travels a lot for work — and now I feel like I’m robbing them of some of their happiness and stability.

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My grandma tells me she is sad to see me go because my dad will be lost without me. How do I balance this exciting time in my life without feeling like I’m responsible for my parents’ loneliness after I’m gone? How do I stop feeling guilty about leaving my parents and going to school?

Daughter with guilt

Dear Guilty Daughter: It’s really sweet that you feel so close to your parents. However, feeling close to someone and feeling responsible for someone are two different things. You may feel uneasy about being alone or leaving home, but remember that this is a normal phase of life. All families function in a certain way — each person plays a role — and when this is disrupted, it is not uncommon for these changes to cause discomfort, disappointment, or guilt among family members.

Feelings are not necessarily facts. You may feel like you are doing something wrong because someone is not happy with what you are doing. But that doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong. This feeling may be overwhelming, but its existence does not make it true.

There are several strategies for learning to manage guilt. Some of them include:

  • Identify your parents’ beliefs and values, then explore your own, so you can redefine the merits of your guilt. Are you internalizing what is expected of you?
  • Knowing that if you don’t feed yourself, then you can’t show up for your loved ones like that now. The last thing you want is to start building resentment towards family members or parents.
  • Remembering that multiple feelings can be felt and acknowledged at the same time. Your family may be sad to see you go and it may be the right thing for you. You may feel guilty for leaving and you can love your parents and your family fiercely.

You seem to monitor emotions, which is the anticipation and hyper-awareness of how others are feeling. Having empathy isn’t bad, but this seems to have crossed into emotion-absorbing territory your family members and not to recognize them as separate entities. This may indicate a more complex family system, where your behavior and feelings may be tied to your family members, causing you to feel overwhelming guilt.

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It is not uncommon for immigrant daughters to be emotional caregivers in their families. You may find it helpful to think about whether gender roles have affected the way you and your brother have been encouraged to come out in your family. It may help to talk to your brother about how you can show up for your family together without sacrificing yourself.

In my work with immigrant children, I see that many struggle with unrealistic or high standards for themselves. I hear things like: saying no is selfish or disrespectful; other people’s happiness is my responsibility; if my parents are not happy, i can’t be happy. This can lead to unhelpful guilt that is not rooted in realistic expectations that we or others have of ourselves.

I worry that the guilt you feel is unhelpful. I encourage you to monitor that guilt so it doesn’t lead to shame—or feelings that you are bad daughter/granddaughter for leaving home. Guilt is a warning sign, a reminder to stop and think. Healthy guilt alerts us to our morals—to the pain and hurt we may cause others, or to the social and cultural standards we are transgressing. It ultimately helps us reorient our moral or behavioral compass.

You show a lot of compassion for your parents and their journey coming to this country. In the end, I bet they probably want what’s best for you. So remember to have compassion for yourself, to do the best you can. You are navigating new terrain and new family dynamics just as your parents immigrated. Your courage to carry that momentum forward is a beautiful thing.

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