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

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Dear Easy: My immigrant parents are my best friends. They sacrificed so much for me – leaving their friends and family behind to start in a new country and then working 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 away to start medical school for the first time in my life. Since my brother and I both lived at home through our undergraduate degrees and beyond, we always had our parents around and they were always with 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 feel guilty about leaving. I’ve always been a support system for them – especially for my mom, since my dad often travels for work – and now I feel like I’m robbing them of some of their happiness and stability.

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My grandmother tells me that she is sad that I am leaving because my father will be lost without me. How can 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 to go to school?

A guilt-ridden daughter

Dear guilt-ridden 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 uncomfortable being alone or leaving your home, but remember 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, frustration or guilt among family members.

Feelings are not necessarily true. You may feel that you are doing something wrong because no one is happy with what you are doing. But that doesn’t make it inherently wrong what you’re doing. This feeling may be overwhelming, 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. What is expected of you internally?
  • Knowing that if you don’t nourish yourself, you can’t show up for your loved ones. The last thing you want is to create resentment towards your family members or parents.
  • Remember that multiple feelings can be felt and acknowledged simultaneously. Your family may feel sad that you are gone And It may be the right thing for you. You may feel guilty for leaving And You may love your parents and your family fiercely.

You seem to be observing emotions, anticipating and hyper-aware of how others are feeling. It’s not bad to have empathy, but it seems like it’s crossed over into territory where you’re absorbing feelings Your family members instead of recognizing them as separate entities. This may indicate a more enmeshed family system, where your behavior and feelings may be tied to those of your family members, causing you to feel immense guilt.

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It is not uncommon for immigrant daughters to be emotional caregivers in their families. It might be helpful for you to reflect on whether gender roles have influenced the ways you and your brother are encouraged to show up in your family. It may help you 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 struggling with unrealistic or high standards for themselves. I hear things like: saying no is selfish or disrespectful; Other people’s happiness is my responsibility; I cannot be happy if my parents are not happy. This can lead to unhelpful guilt that is not rooted in realistic expectations of ourselves or others about ourselves.

I worry that the guilt you feel is unhelpful. I encourage you to monitor that guilt so it doesn’t become a source of shame—or the feeling that you are is A bad daughter/granddaughter to leave 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 the social and cultural standards we transgress. It ultimately helps to redirect our moral or behavioral compass.

You have a lot of compassion for your parents and their coming to this country. Ultimately, I bet they probably want what’s best for you. So remember to have compassion for yourself, you’re doing the best you can too. You are navigating new terrain and new family dynamics just as your parents did through emigration. Your courage to carry that momentum forward is a beautiful thing.


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