Dear Sahaj: My immigrant parents are my best friends. They’ve sacrificed so much for me — leaving their friends and family behind to start over in a new land and then working to the bone for years to build a comfortable and financially secure life for me and my brother. They’ve given me everything I could ever ask for and more.
I’m now in my mid-twenties and moving away for the first time in my life to start medical school. Since both my brother and I lived at home during our undergraduate degrees and beyond, we’ve always had our parents around and they’ve always had us. I don’t think we know life without each other.
I know they’re so proud and excited for me on this new journey, but I can’t help but feel guilty for leaving. I’ve always been a support system for them — especially for my mother, since my father frequently travels for work — and now I feel like I’m taking away some of their happiness and stability.
My grandmother tells me she’s sad that I’m leaving 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 leave? How do I stop feeling guilty for leaving my parents and moving away for school?
— Guilt-Ridden Daughter
Dear Guilt-Ridden Daughter: It’s really sweet that you feel so close with your parents. However, feeling close with someone and feeling responsible for someone are two different things. You may experience discomfort over being on your own, or for leaving your home, but remember this is a normal stage of life. All families function a certain way — each person playing a role — and when this is disrupted, it’s not uncommon for these changes to cause discomfort, disappointment or guilt among family members.
Feelings are not necessarily fact. You can feel like you’re doing something wrong because someone isn’t happy with what you’re doing. But it doesn’t inherently make what you’re doing wrong. This feeling can be overpowering, but having it doesn’t make it true.
There are several strategies for learning to manage guilt. Some of these include:
- Identifying your parents’ beliefs and values and then exploring your own, so you can redefine the merits of your guilt. Are you internalizing what’s expected of you?
- Knowing that if you don’t nourish yourself, then you can’t show up as presently for your loved ones. The last thing you want is to start building resentment toward your family members or parents.
- Remembering that multiple feelings can be felt and acknowledged simultaneously. Your family can feel sad you’re leaving and it can be the right thing for you. You can feel guilty for leaving and you can love your parents and your family fiercely.
You seem to be emotion monitoring, which is anticipating and being hyper-aware of how others are feeling. Having empathy isn’t bad, but it seems like this has swung into territory where you are absorbing the feelings of your family members rather than acknowledging them as separate entities. This can indicate a more enmeshed family system, where your behaviors and feelings may be tied to your family members’, causing your feelings of immense guilt.
It’s not uncommon for immigrant daughters to be emotional caregivers in their families. It may be useful for you to reflect on whether gender roles impacted the ways you and your brother were encouraged to show up in your family. It may help you to discuss with your brother how you can work together to show up for your family without sacrificing yourself.
In my work with children of immigrants, I see 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 aren’t happy, I can’t be happy. This can lead to unhelpful guilt that isn’t rooted in realistic expectations we, or others, have of ourselves.
I worry the guilt you’re feeling is unhelpful. I encourage you to monitor that guilt so it doesn’t lead to shame — or feelings that you are a bad daughter/granddaughter for leaving home. Guilt is a warning sign, a reminder to pause and reflect. Healthy guilt alerts us to our morality — to the pain and hurt we may cause others, or to social and cultural standards that we cross. It ultimately helps us redirect our moral or behavioral compass.
You show a lot of compassion for your parents and their journey coming to this country. Ultimately, I wager they probably want what is best for you. So remember to have compassion for yourself, that you are doing the best you can, too. You are navigating new terrain and new family dynamics just like your parents did by emigrating. Your courage to carry that momentum forward is a beautiful thing.