I am now in my mid-twenties and moving away for the first time in my life to start medical school. Ever since my brother and I lived at home through our undergrads and beyond, we’ve always had our parents and they’ve always had us. I don’t think we know life without each other.
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 a support system for them — especially my mom, as my dad travels frequently for work — and now I feel like I’m taking away some of their happiness and stability.
My grandmother tells me she is sad that I am leaving because my father will be lost without me. How do I balance this exciting time in my life without feeling responsible for my parents’ loneliness after I’m gone? How can I stop feeling guilty for leaving my parents and going away to school?
— Guilt girl
Dear Guilty Girl: It’s really adorable 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 that this is a normal part of life. All families operate in a certain way – with each person playing a part – and when this is disrupted it is not uncommon for these changes to cause discomfort, disappointment or guilt in family members. .
Feelings are not necessarily facts. You may feel like you’re doing something wrong because someone isn’t happy with what you’re doing. But that doesn’t inherently make what you’re doing wrong. This feeling can be overwhelming, but having it doesn’t make it true.
There are several strategies for learning to deal with guilt. Some of them include:
- Identify your parents’ beliefs and values, then explore your own, so you can redefine the merits of your guilt. Do you internalize what is expected of you?
- Knowing that if you are not nourishing yourself, you cannot present yourself as presently for your loved ones. The last thing you want is to start creating resentment towards your family members or parents.
- Remember that many feelings can be experienced and recognized simultaneously. Your family may be sad that you are leaving and this may be the right thing for you. You may feel guilty for leaving and you can love your parents and family fiercely.
You seem to monitor emotions, meaning to anticipate and be hyper-aware of what other people are feeling. Having empathy isn’t bad, but it seems like it’s shifted into territory where you absorb the feelings of Your family members rather than recognizing them as separate entities. It may indicate a more intertwined family system, where your behaviors and feelings may be intertwined with those of your family members, causing your feelings of immense guilt.
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It is not uncommon for daughters of immigrants to be emotional caregivers in their families. It may be helpful for you to think about whether gender roles impacted how you and your sibling were encouraged to present to your family. It can help to talk to your sibling about how you can work together to show up for your family without sacrificing yourself.
In my work with immigrant children, I see many struggling with unrealistic or high standards for themselves. I hear things like: saying no is selfish or disrespectful; the happiness of others is my responsibility; if my parents aren’t happy, I can’t be happy. This can lead to unnecessary guilt that is not rooted in realistic expectations we, or others, have of ourselves.
I’m afraid the guilt you feel is unnecessary. I encourage you to watch this guilt so that it doesn’t lead to shame – or feelings that you are a bad girl/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 harm we may cause to others, or to the social and cultural norms we cross. This ultimately helps us redirect our moral or behavioral compass.
You show great compassion for your parents and their journey to this country. In the end, I bet they probably want what’s best for you. So remember to have compassion for yourself, that you also do your best. You are navigating new terrain and new family dynamics, just as your parents did when they emigrated. Your courage to continue this momentum is a beautiful thing.
Need advice on mental health, work or relationships? Ask Sahaj Kaur Kohli.
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