But I Owe Them: How Do Adult Children of Immigrants Cope with Guilt From Living Their Own Lives?
Updated: May 11
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
Guilt. Shame. Worry. Anxiety. Fear. Embarrassment. Stress. Loneliness. These are just a few common feelings experienced by adult children of immigrants when they dare to think about living their lives in a way that is aligned with their own needs, values, and goals that differ from what their parents, family, peers, local community, and society may expect of them.
Those who take the path less travelled may be challenged, guilt--tripped, blamed and shamed, and isolated or shunned by others.
The emotional pain may be so hard to bear that it may make adult children of immigrants give up their hopes, stop pursuing their dreams, and settle for living the kind of life that is traditional, safe, and “normal” - a life that they “should” live according to specific cultural, societal, and family expectations.
At this moment, consider the possibility that making different choices as an adult doesn’t mean you love your parents or family any less – nor does it mean that you deserve any less love or support because you are going against social norms or traditions.
You can still love and care for your parents, appreciate the many sacrifices they have made to give you a good life and continue along your own journey. These factors don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
It’s possible as well that you may not be in a place yet where you feel you can make major life changes - and that is ok. Your readiness will occur in its own time. It doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. This is not a race.
Take your time to get your mindset and beliefs in alignment so that you can eventually choose the life you want to live with clarity, peace of mind, and confidence.
So, you might ask, how does one move forward on their own unique path and timing despite all of the complex emotions and the internal conflict that arises internally?
This article shares some tips that will hopefully help you work through these difficult feelings so that you can begin to build the life you truly want for yourself.
1. Recognize how your childhood experiences may be influencing your adult life
During childhood, you may have learned that following expectations were met with attention and praise and that non-conforming behaviours led to criticism, silent treatment, being disciplined, or other types of discouraging responses.
As humans, it's natural to seek social connection and support so you may have found that you followed the rules closely to avoid feeling lonely or isolated.
People--pleasing and perfectionism may have been a part of your life story and you may notice that this pervades your adult life now, amongst other patterns of thinking and behaviour that may be hard to change.
Understanding how your early life experiences shaped how you think, feel, and act in the world is the first step before deciding what, if anything, you want to change about your life as an adult.
2. Figure out the priorities that are essential for your mental health and well--being
What is important to you? What makes you feel fulfilled? What would you like to see in your life over the next 5 to 10 years or further down the road?
For example, do you have dreams to:
travel the world?
go back to school to change your career path?
start a business with the hope that it could one day become your full-time job?
move out of your family home to buy your own property as a single, independent adult?
move in with your partner?
adopt a pet (or more pets!)?
relocate to another country?
attend a class that gets you in touch with your creative side (art, dance, writing, photography, film, etc.)?
volunteer for and/or donate funds to a social cause that is meaningful to you?
choose fashion items that reflect your personal style and personality?
change your diet based on your health goals, preferences, or values?
Consider the ideas that stand out most to you as this will help you narrow down what you want to focus your time and energy on.
Highlighting your main goals will also help you stay motivated if you face resistance from your parents and other loved ones while trying to build these priorities into your life.
3. Identify emotions that arise from following your preferred life path – and accept them
Defining your own life path and sticking to it can be stressful, especially if you receive pushback from your parents and family.
Your parents grew up in a different place and time period where they may not have been afforded the same freedoms, choices, and opportunities as you currently have.
Take time to identify the feelings that may come up for you as you reflect on these intergenerational differences. You can experience:
guilt that you have options that they never did
shame that you may be carving a path for yourself that they may disapprove of
fear that you will be outcasted for not following their expectations
worry that your extended family or community may turn away from you or judge you for going against social norms
what other emotions?
These feelings may be uncomfortable, however, discomfort is often a precursor for growth and we sometimes need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to achieve major changes in our lives.
4. Develop healthy boundaries and assertive communication skills
Once you start leaning into your life priorities, it will be vital to establish healthy boundaries and practice assertive communication to protect your mental health as you forge ahead.
Creating boundaries and practicing assertive communication can be hard, especially when it comes to the parent--child relationship and if you are part of a culture that is family-focused, collectivistic, and self-sacrificing in nature.
You may benefit from thinking of some key phrases you can use if you need to excuse yourself from an emotionally-charged conversation or you may need to set limits on how and when you engage with your parents and loved ones if you continue to feel judged, misunderstood, criticized, or dismissed.
5. Identify when you are slipping back into old thinking and behaviour patterns
When the pressure is too high, you may notice that you quickly revert to old ways of thinking and being due to anxiety, self-doubt, and stress regarding the uncertainty that comes with significant life changes.
You may shift into acting like the adult child that your parents want you to be – not the person who you feel you are inside or who you are trying to become.
Reverting backward may make it easier to maintain harmony and will reduce family conflict -- but this might also lead you to feel unhappy and unsatisfied with your life.
If you can withstand the pressure, try to re--focus on new narratives and actions that are aligned with the life you are creating for yourself and monitor how this mental and behavioural shift makes you feel in your everyday life.
Are you happier? Do you feel more in control of your life? Is there a sense of calm and peace? What else do you notice?
6. Understand that you may face barriers and that this is a natural part of living your life on your terms
Radical change can be met with all kinds of barriers – mental, emotional, relational, environmental, financial, religious/spiritual, and more.
Consider the potential setbacks that could get in your way of living authentically and try to problem-solve around them.
Preparing, organizing, and developing a plan can help you figure out what priority you would like to start with and what your first step will be in creating the life you want to live.
Recognize that challenges may come up along the way and that this is normal – try to not let it deter you from reaching your goals.
7. Surround yourself with people who support you
Change is difficult and you may need to lean on the people who you believe will be supportive of your life changes – this may be your partner, friends, co-workers, mentor, coach, therapist, or, in some cases, other family members who have made major life changes themselves.
Connect with those who are on a similar path as you or who are further along in their own journey - they may be able to offer guidance and suggestions.
Observe others who are doing what you want to do and are thriving – use this as motivation to help propel yourself forward.
8. Keep going when times are tough and remind yourself of your reason “why”
There will be tough times when you want to stop and give up or you may notice you lose momentum under the weight of the pressure to conform to traditional values, norms, or expectations.
In these difficult moments, remind yourself of your big “why” – why did you start this journey in the first place? Why are these changes important to you and what kind of life will they give you? What would it mean to you to live authentically?
Reflect on these questions and see if this gives you renewed energy to keep going.
The intent of this post is to raise awareness around the emotional struggle that many adult children of immigrants go through when they try to find a balance between maintaining a strong relationship with their parents while also living in a way that is meaningful and true to them.
This is a sensitive issue that can evoke many different types of feelings and reactions. There is no right or wrong way to go about change and there is no exact process to follow. Everyone has their own unique path.
The journey isn't easy and will likely have many ups and downs along the way but it will hopefully lead to a positive outcome as you keep taking small steps towards living your life authentically.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
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