Why I Struggle With Chronic Guilt As The Daughter Of Immigrant Parents

I am many things: a psychologist, a sister, a spouse… but one of the things that keeps coming up for me is that I am also a child of immigrant parents. For most of my life, growing up with immigrant parents has shaped the way I internalize guilt.

If I were to condense what this experience could look like in a formula, it would be: parents’ sacrifice = guilt and pressure.

Where do I put joy or personal happiness in this formula? Discussing this with friends and colleagues who share a similar identity, I know I am not alone in this experience.

What is a first generation immigrant?

My parents are first-generation immigrants, which means even though they are now residents of the U.S.A. they were not born here.

What is a second generation immigrant?

By contrast, I’m a second-generation immigrant, meaning I was born in this country but have foreign-born parents.

What struggles do children of immigrants face?

Our journeys as individuals coming from immigrant families are often accompanied by a profound sense of chronic immigrant guilt, stretching beyond cultural boundaries and impacting immigrant mental health in significant ways.  The pressure to balance multiple identities – that of an American as well as a child of immigrant parents – can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy.

The expectation to excel academically, professionally, and socially while honoring cultural traditions and familial obligations can feel overwhelming. The impact of these struggles can be reflected in many different ways of life by harsh self-criticism, denying ourselves the ability to express any form of negative emotions, such as “I don’t like doing X…. I am struggling with Y” (and NEVER directly to our parents) when relentlessly pursuing meeting both personal and familial expectations.

If you grew up in an immigrant household, it’s not uncommon to “feel bad” (aka guilty) about yourself when experiencing sadness, frustration or anger when thinking about the sacrifices your family made for a better life. However, this can become an issue when the guilt becomes never-ending, deeply ingrained as part of our psyche, and prevents you from living a life that is authentic to yourself. 

So to work through unhelpful immigrant guilt, we can start by identifying how guilt shows up in life and getting in touch with what matters to us. I invite you to start by asking yourself these questions: 

  • My parents may have sacrificed a lot to get here, and do I have to be burdened by it? 
  • Is it possible that what’s important to me can be different than what is expected of me? 
  • Am I internalizing something that is not true to me?
  • What parts of me, my identity, and experiences are most important, and how can I honor them without falling into harsh guilt or inadequacy?

Recognizing how your chronic guilt is the first step toward reclaiming agency over personal growth and immigrant mental health. By engaging in this process of reflection and self-compassion, we can cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and challenge the narratives of our unworthiness.

It’s also okay to seek help if you are struggling with these feelings or any other challenges; give yourself permission to seek therapy where a professional can provide guidance and support tailored to your unique experiences and needs.”

Remember that guilt can be a healthy emotion, and we do not need to beat ourselves up for feeling it. If you are struggling with this, know that you are not alone in this experience, and there is a way to build a life that honors your parents, where you came from, and what fulfills you individually.