“But They’re My Parents”: How To Reconcile Parental Guilt
Do you feel a sense of guilt every time you decide to do something different than what your parents would want you to do?
Or perhaps you are contemplating discussing the impact of your upbringing with your parents, but feel guilty about potentially hurting their feelings.
This is a topic that comes up in therapy so often!
Reconciling the past with the present and making intentional choices for the future is a lifetime of work.
Many of us are on a journey to do three things simultaneously:
- Accept that our parents did the best they could with what they had available to them
- Understand that even though our parents did their best, the dysfunctional aspects of our upbringing still impacted us
- Try to make decisions that prioritize our needs as adults
Whatever stage of this journey you are on, it’s common to run into the ‘guilt wall’.
The guilt wall usually starts with this sentence: “But they’re my parents”
In this post, we will:
Discuss what the ‘guilt wall’ is
Explore the idea that we are not responsible for our parent’s feelings
Bring awareness to the core beliefs we carry about our relationship to our parents as their adult children
Let’s get right into it.
The Guilt Wall
We run into the guilt wall when putting our needs first or making choices that our parents would not agree with. Guilt is also a tool we use to make excuses for parental behaviour that is harmful.
“I know this isn’t right, but they’re my parents”
“I want to talk to them about this, but I don’t want to hurt them, they’re my parents”
“I can’t live like this anymore but my parents have done so much for me, I can’t just abandon them”
Reconciling our need to live autonomous lives with the guilt we feel towards our parents is hard work. It won’t feel natural overnight- and it shouldn’t! You are overcoming a lifetime of wiring and essentially re-training your brain to tolerate distress.
If you have ever wondered how this guilt wall emerges, the concept of emotional parentification may be helpful for you to know about.
Reminder: You Are Not Responsible For Your Parent’s Emotions
Many of us have grown up feeling responsible for out parents’ feelings. There is a concept that captures this: emotional parentification.
What Is Emotional Parentification?
If you grew up shielding your parents from difficult emotions or soothing them in high-conflict situations, you may intuitively understand what emotional parentification is.
Let’s define it:
Emotional parentification is a dynamic between children and their caregivers. It occurs when children feel responsible for taking care of their parents emotionally while growing up
This can look like:
– Children constantly trying to accommodate how their parents feel
– The child becomes a source of emotional support and caregiving to parents
– In high-conflict, stressful, or traumatic situations, children soothe and regulate the parent’s emotions
– Parents over-share their emotional pain and age-inappropriate problems with children and either lean on them for support or expect them to help with problem-solving
– Children are placed in situations where they feel more like the parent
Through emotional parentification, children end up fulfilling their caregiver’s emotional needs at an age where they are simply not equipped to do so. We gradually learn to put other people’s needs before our own, often at the expense of our wellbeing!
How Does Emotional Parentification Affect Us As Adults?
As an adult, you may live in fear that if you don’t take care of your parents, or if you disagree with them, they will fall apart.
Since you have been the ‘glue’ in their lives for so long, it can be very difficult to imagine your parents fending for themselves emotionally without you protecting them from challenging emotions and situations.
This belief in our parents’ fragility makes it difficult to overcome guilt. We also hold core beliefs about our parents that linger from childhood and fuel the guilt complex whenever we try and put our needs first.
Common Core Beliefs About Parents And Ideas To Counter them
When we undermine our valid needs and desires by thinking “but they’re my parents”, we are revealing core beliefs about our relationship with them. The interesting thing is that many of these beliefs no longer serve as as autonomous adults.
Let’s break down those beliefs and provide an alternative way of thinking about the situation.
1. My Parents Are The Truth
Our parents are human beings who make mistakes. Most of us know this! However, our actions do not always reflect this knowledge.
We may prioritize our parents’ truth over our own to prevent rocking the boat. Alignment and obedience may also be a value we grew up, causing us to feel overwhelmingly guilty when we have different opinions or wish to make different choices.
An alternative core belief to foster is: My parents can be wrong, just as I can be wrong. I am allowed to make my own mistakes and find my own truth
2. My Parents Act With My Best Interests In Mind
Few parents act with malicious intentions towards their children. Most parents do not set out to manipulate their children. However, it is important to separate the intention from the impact of the action. Our intentions should never be used to deny the impact our actions had on other people.
It’s true that our parents STRIVE to act with our best interests in mind. However, there are a few things to consider here:
- ‘Best interest’ does not always represent what is best for us
- Our parents ideas of what is good or not good for us are heavily influences by their own upbringing, values, and traumas
- Sometimes parents, like most people, may not understand when they are projecting (i.e. living through their kids)
An alternative core belief to foster is: My parents have good intentions, and I am well-equipped to decide what my best interests are as well
3. Disagreement Equals Disrespect
Many of us have been brought up to believe that disagreeing with our parents is synonomous with disrespecting them. This is simply not true!
Fostering critical thinking abilities means we will disagree with many people throughout life, including our parents. We can disagree and still honour, respect, and be kind to the people we are disagreeing with.
When disagreement feels morally wrong, it fosters guilt and people-pleasing behaviour.
An alternative core belief to foster: I can disagree with my parents and still respect and cherish them
Wrapping Up- Go At Your Own Pace
Reconciling parental guilt with your very valid need for autonomy is a lifelong process- especially if you grew up as a child of immigrant parents.
In many of our BIPOC, like Middle Eastern or South Asian communities for instance, the expectation is to take care of our parents- and there is nothing inherently wrong with this at all. However, when you factor in guilt culture, adult children are often made to feel intense guilt and shame for not fulfilling their parent’s expectations.
Keep in mind that putting your relationship with your parents on a healthier track will not be easy (for you, or them). Setting up hard boundaries right in the beginning can feel overwhelming- so go at your own pace.
Until next time!
Zainib Abdullah (MSW, RSW) is the founder and executive director at Wellnest, a Toronto-based mental health clinic. The Wellnest team – a collective of diverse psychotherapists – focuses on supporting the needs of the BIPOC community. As a trauma therapist, her approach is client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive and trauma-informed, incorporating various therapeutic modalities. She uses somatic based therapy to help clients heal and manage trauma experiences. She supports clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.