Do you feel bad for seeking therapy? It’s called ‘thriver’s guilt’


Guilt can be especially magnified in children of immigrants – like myself and my therapy patients – whose hopes, dreams and goals may differ from familial values.

As the first in my family to be born in the West, go to therapy, and marry outside my race, religion and culture, I have always had to navigate my feelings of guilt and have painful and difficult conversations with my immigrant parents about the choices I am making that are different from their expectations.

This guilt can be because of constant adaptation between two cultural influences, a phenomenon known as bicultural straddling. The collectivist cultural influence encourages second-generation immigrants to prioritize family and community, sometimes at their expense. The individualistic cultural influence suggests they prioritize themselves, sometimes at the expense of others.

When they do follow their own path, second-generation immigrants can feel guilt for, among other things, being what their families may consider to be too individualistic or seeming ungrateful. I call this “thriver’s guilt” – what children of immigrants feel for having access to more resources, opportunities and choices than their parents.

Many of my patients are first-time therapy goers who feel bad for even seeking mental health care. They feel as though their problems don’t matter because their parents or family abroad have had it worse. I often have to remind them that pain and suffering are not a competition.

This kind of guilt may be imposed on them or internalized. Some immigrant parents may use their sacrifices in moving to the United States to guilt their children into obedience, leading to increased emotional distress.

Internalizing such high expectations and standards – and constantly feeling like they are falling short – is exhausting.

Guilt motivates behavior that strengthens social bonds and can be tied to empathy; it’s a useful emotion. However, chronic, intensified guilt is associated with mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression.

Many children of immigrants are not taught to question, examine or parse this guilt. But chronic or unhelpful guilt needs to be understood and navigated for better mental health.

To address this guilt and other issues faced by adult children of immigrants, I’ve spent the past five years building a wellness community for them called Brown Girl Therapy. I also have collected their stories, and shared my own, along with research and prescriptive tools in my upcoming book, “But What Will People Say? Navigating Mental Health, Identity, Love and Family Between Cultures.”

Here are some ways I suggest to manage guilt.

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Guilt does not always equal a wrong

Almost all of my second-generation immigrant patients have conflated feeling guilty with doing something wrong.

Like others from collectivist cultures, they will then engage in reparative behaviors to maintain group harmony. To some of them, guilt feels like a neon sign screaming, “TURN AROUND!” They will revert to a previous path, back to the comfort of social and parental expectations. Unfortunately, this reinforces internalized beliefs, which perpetuates the cycle.

Many of my patients have struggled to share their desires with their immigrant parents for fear that they won’t support them. One told her mother that she didn’t want to come home for several weeks over the holidays and instead only wanted to do one week. While this may sound like a reasonable decision for many, she was guilt-tripped by her mother and made to feel like she doesn’t want to spend time with the family. Since my patient wasn’t sure how to manage the guilt, she changed her plans to make her mother happy.

She believed the guilt was telling her that she’s a bad daughter and must make amends to stop feeling that way.

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Parse helpful guilt from unhelpful guilt

In her book, “Codependent No More,” author Melody Beattie talks about how to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful guilt.

Helpful guilt propels change. For instance, if guilt arises from causing harm, take steps to repair it.

Unhelpful guilt causes pain and anxiety, and can turn into shame and self-punishment. When you embody guilt as part of your self-concept, much like my patient did, you go from feeling bad to believing that you are bad.

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Learn to manage your feelings

Catch this cycle as it’s happening and disrupt it.

Reflect on what you are feeling, especially if you are overwhelmed with guilt. Sit in the feelings, identify and name them, and invite them in as visitors. Often, the feelings associated with guilt – anger, frustration, sadness, shame – are rooted in something deeper, such as people pleasing, codependency or a resentment at a lack of boundaries.

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Be clear about your values

Pause, reflect and ask, “What is wrong with what I am doing? Why does it feel wrong? What expectations, values or morals are being crossed?”

Many children of immigrants grow up in households with standards, values and norms different from those they encounter outside the home or develop internally. But they seldom interrogate if they themselves subscribe to familial norms.

One of my patients identifies as a gay man and has had to reconcile with how his sexual identity is at odds with his Korean parents’ expectations that he marry a woman and have children. To his parents, being gay is not morally accepted, and they are convinced this is a result of living in America and wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t move here.

As the only child, he feels immense guilt for not being able to fulfill his parents’ desires, and culturally conflicted, as though he is less Korean for being gay. I often have to remind him that he is not doing anything morally wrong by being true to his identity.

Questioning whether our guilt is in line with our values helps us to step into our own values-driven truth.

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Practice self-compassion

You can do something that disappoints your family or someone else, and it can be the best thing for you. Black-and-white thinking perpetuates the false idea that only one person can be right. Even more, it can reinforce negative self-talk and self-criticism. Challenge this.

Instead of using words such as, “I should,” which can fortify feelings of guilt, reframe to “I can,” which can open up the possibility of something different to be true.

Emotional reasoning, as it’s called, refers to feeling something so strongly that we equate that feeling with objective truth. Just because we feel guilty does not mean we did something bad.

Our feelings, including guilt, are impermanent, and taking time to sit with them, reflect on them and process them can allow us to get clarity on what is actually happening in our realities.

Over the years, it became obvious that my parents’ desire for control was rooted in fear – that I won’t attain security or stability in my entrepreneurial career choice, and that of cultural erasure for being with a non-Indian, non-Sikh partner. These choices have been right for me, and slowly, I have been able to bridge the gap between what I want with my parents wanting me to be happy.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, LGPC, is a practicing therapist, author of “But What Will People Say? Navigating Mental Health, Identity, Love, and Family Between Cultures,” and founder of Brown Girl Therapy.



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