Ask Sahaj: Every time I visit home, I turn into my parents’ therapist


Q: Whenever I go home to visit my South Asian family, despite having an older brother, I become the family therapist. I am always seeking to relieve my parents from stress and their own anxieties.

I have always felt like my dad’s “pet”; he loves having me around, and I have noticed that I feel the need to help him feel better when he is in a bad mood. Sometimes I just want some alone time in my room or to make plans with friends, but I feel pressured to be present and around my parents when I am home. I have reminded myself time and time again that others’ moods are not my responsibility.

Over time, both of my parents have become dependent on me being around to help them feel better – mentally and emotionally – but it takes a toll on me when I am constantly running around to try to make them feel better. What can I do to break my people-pleasing habits, as well as stop letting my parents’ moods affect my own?- Caring Daughter

A: Have you always played the role of therapist in your family? In every family, members will fall into specific roles, based on the invisible demands and expectations imposed on them. Often, adults act as therapists to their parents because it’s something that was expected of them in childhood.

Why are you the person in your family who plays this role? You have an older brother, yet, as the daughter, you are the one responsible for your parents’ emotional wellness. Gender and cultural expectations have taught you that being a daughter means being your parents’ emotional support. And in playing this role, you have developed chronic people-pleasing behaviors.

Reflect on why you learned to people-please and whether there are ways it benefited you growing up. I wonder whether being emotionally available to your parents helps you feel close with them? For instance, did your parents make you feel more loved and worthy when you were useful to them? Did you grow up in a chaotic environment, where being agreeable helped you claim calmness? Were you discouraged to take care of or express yourself? By understanding the root of this, you can start to interrogate what you’ve been taught about who you are supposed to be to be worthy. Wanting to genuinely care for your parents is different from feeling as if you have to do things for them to be valued.

Consider how being a people-pleaser has cost you. How has it caused you to not show up or be yourself fully? Think about times you said yes at the expense of something you wanted. People-pleasing is often an indication that you haven’t set boundaries. Do you struggle to say no? Avoid conflict at all costs? This role you play when you are home is probably replicated in other relationships.

Be honest with yourself about how you are continuing to enable this dynamic. On one hand, you say your parents’ dependence on you “takes a toll.” On the other, you say you “seek” to relieve your parents of their stress. Even though you don’t want to, you continue to anticipate and absolve your parents of their feelings or struggles.

Start to question why you are doing certain things for your parents as the “family therapist.” By slowing down, you can start to shift the dynamic – even in small ways, such as by validating and listening to your mom’s problem instead of trying to fix it. Supporting your parents with their struggles doesn’t mean handling them for them. Find activities and things to do with them beyond just being useful to them. Practice going to your room for the alone time you need to start differentiating your own sense of self while maintaining the relationship with your parents. This will allow you to define and explore new ways of being the daughter – not the therapist – in your family.

You are so in tune with your parents’ needs that you’ve left little room to explore your feelings. It’s time to start paying attention to yourself. At the end of every day when you are with your parents, reflect on your mood. What feelings did you have? Were they yours, or were you adopting your parents’ feelings about something? Would you feel differently about something if your parents felt differently about it? What about your needs? How were they nurtured or neglected? This will help you disentangle your feelings and needs from your parents’ while learning to regulate your emotions – rather than the ones of those around you.

Learning to put yourself first will be uncomfortable and may even feel bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. You deserve to have a relationship with your parents without sacrificing your relationship with yourself.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents.



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