I am now in my mid-twenties and will be moving for the first time in my life to study medicine. Because both my brother and I lived at home during our undergraduate studies and beyond, we always had our parents around and they 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 to them – especially to my mom, as my dad often travels 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 do I avoid feeling guilty for leaving my parents and moving to school?
— Guilt-ridden daughter
Dear Guilt-Wracked 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 that this is a normal phase of life. All families function in a way – each person plays a role – 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 it doesn’t inherently make what you’re doing wrong. This feeling can be overwhelming, but if you have it, it’s not true yet.
There are several strategies for learning how to deal with guilt. Some of these are:
- Identify your parents’ beliefs and values and examine 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, you can’t appear before your loved ones like you do now. The last thing you want is to hold a grudge against your family members or parents.
- Remember that multiple feelings can be felt and acknowledged at the same time. Your family may be sad that you are leaving and it may be the right thing for you. You may feel guilty leaving and you can love your parents and your family very much.
You seem to be emotion monitoring, anticipating and hyper aware of how others are feeling. Having empathy isn’t a bad thing, but it seems like this has entered a territory where you absorb the feelings of your family members rather than recognizing them as separate entities. This may indicate a more intertwined family system, where your behavior and feelings may be related to those of your family members, causing you to feel immense guilt.
It is not uncommon for immigrant daughters to be emotional caregivers in their families. It may be helpful for you to think about whether gender roles influenced the way you and your brother were encouraged to appear in your family. It may help you to discuss with your brother how you can work together to stand up for your family without sacrificing yourself.
In my work with immigrant children, 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 useless guilt that is not rooted in realistic expectations that we, or others, have of ourselves.
I’m afraid the guilt you’re feeling isn’t helping. I encourage you to keep an eye on that guilt so it doesn’t lead to shame — or any feelings you have to be a bad daughter/granddaughter for leaving home. Guilt is a warning sign, a reminder to stop and think. Healthy feelings of guilt warn us about our morality – about the pain and hurt we can inflict on others, or about social and cultural norms we exceed. It ultimately helps us to 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 don’t forget to have compassion for yourself that you are doing your best too. You are navigating new terrain and new family dynamics just as your parents did by emigrating. Your courage to continue that momentum is a thing of beauty.