Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.
For many First Generation Latinx, guilt is all too familiar. It may stem from choosing to study instead of attending a family member’s birthday party, having access to resources through school or work that loved ones may not, prioritizing one’s needs, or even breaking generational cycles of trauma. The weight of guilt can consume individuals, making it difficult to find peace or experience joy in their accomplishments. Some may even develop symptoms of depression or anxiety as a result of chronic and persistent feelings of guilt.
As a therapist, I frequently encounter guilt as one of the most common emotions expressed by my clients. During my sessions, I aim to create a safe and understanding space where I can normalize and validate their experiences while equipping them with effective tools to break free from the cycle of guilt. This cycle, often fueled by cultural values, societal expectations, the pressure to succeed, and unhealthy communication styles, can significantly impact their mental health.
Cultural Values — Familismo
First-gen Latinx individuals often face the expectation of putting family above everything, emphasizing the value of familismo. Seeking support and care through therapy can initially trigger feelings of selfishness, hindering their healing journey. This can create a pervasive cycle where guilt persists even in their attempts to heal and overcome it. Additionally, they must navigate the challenge of balancing cultural expectations with their work or academic responsibilities, intensifying the burden of guilt.
The Pressure to Succeed
The narrative of working hard to attain a better life is deeply ingrained in the upbringing of first-gen individuals. However, this narrative often comes with the expectation of being successful enough to justify the sacrifices made by their families. As a result, any setbacks may trigger heightened emotional responses. For example, you may feel like a failure for making a mistake at work or forgetting to turn in an assignment in one of your classes. The constant burden of “shoulds” and “musts” perpetuates feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Furthermore, this narrative can lead to feelings of inadequacy because nothing may ever be considered “enough.”
Unhealthy Communication Styles
Guilt is frequently utilized as a means of expression in the upbringing of many first-gen individuals. Rather than directly voicing their needs, parents may resort to guilt trips. For instance, instead of saying, “I would like to spend more time with you, I miss you,” they might say, “You are always with your friends and never spend any time with your family.” This communication style is part of generational trauma, perpetuated behavior passed down from generation to generation. Although guilt may have served a purpose for our ancestors, it is time to break free from this cycle.
Consejo for Overcoming the Guilt
While guilt may feel pervasive, it is possible to overcome it. Cultivating self-compassion is crucial—allowing oneself grace while honoring the family’s sacrifices and individual needs. Grant yourself the patience and compassion you would extend to others. Reframing negative self-talk involves challenging constant “should” statements and viewing disappointments as learning experiences. Remember, you are navigating new territory for the first time, and it takes practice and effort — but it is not impossible. Setting boundaries is equally important to clarify your capacity and effectively communicate them to your loved ones. Attending a family gathering, like a carne asada, is acceptable for an hour or two if that is all you can manage. Finally, consider a new perspective; instead of feeling guilty for all of your opportunities, lean into gratitude for the sacrifices made for you to have the opportunity.
Navigating first-gen guilt is a shared experience among many individuals. It is essential to recognize that you are not alone in your guilt. Practice self-compassion, establish boundaries, challenge negative self-talk and consider a new perspective. Embrace the understanding that you deserve happiness, allowing yourself to find joy in your accomplishments. When confronted with guilt-inducing comments from loved ones, remind yourself that their words may indirectly express missing you, and respond with empathy and a genuine desire to spend quality time together. By normalizing this guilt and implementing strategies to overcome it, we can cultivate a healthier and more balanced approach to navigating life as First-Gen Latinx individuals.
Let’s keep breaking these generational cycles of trauma!