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.
If you are a first-generation Latinx — the first in your family to have access to a formal education, hold a corporate job, or become an entrepreneur among other firsts in the U.S. — I would like to take a moment to applaud your achievements. Despite obstacles, you have made it and deserve to enjoy the life you worked so hard for. Let that sink in for a moment though I know this is much easier said than done. As a first-gen Latina therapist who specializes in working with first-gen professionals, I have found that, despite their accomplishments, my first-gen clients continue to feel out-of-place, silenced, and riddled with self-doubt. They describe a persistent feeling of, “ni de aquí, ni de allá.” This feeling is something that most of, if not all, my first-gen clients endorse. They often describe feeling isolated in their experience which is why having these conversations is so important. In my efforts to destigmatize mental health, I am sharing common stressors faced by first-generation individuals, along with consejos on how to navigate them:
Impostor Phenomenon aka Impostor Syndrome
This term has become widely associated with being first-gen. It refers to feelings of self-doubt and fears of being a “fraud”. These feelings may be reinforced by both environmental cues (i.e. being the only Latinx in the office) as well as self-imposed expectations (i.e. “if I have to ask for help, then I am a failure”). As a reminder, using the term syndrome is pathologizing, and it implies that something is wrong with you, when in fact you are just reacting to your environment. For example, you may experience self-doubt when you arrive at your new workplace and attribute those feelings to being an impostor. However, most people experience self-doubt when starting a new role, it does not mean something is wrong with you.
A consejo: To counteract the impostor phenomenon, seek out a supportive community and start tracking your wins. Seek out evidence that challenges the negative beliefs that you have about yourself. Remember that these feelings of self-doubt are normal and represent a reaction to being in a new environment more so than any actual inadequacy.
The Pressure to Excel
First-gen individuals frequently experience pressure to excel in all aspects of their lives. Many of my clients have shared that this pressure stems from their desire to honor the sacrifices made by their loved ones. However, this intense drive to succeed can lead to feelings of burnout and overwhelm, which may ultimately hinder work performance and negatively impact self-esteem.
A consejo: To navigate this pressure, focus on finding ways to slow down and ask for help when needed. Furthermore, consider how much pressure you are placing on yourself and practice self-compassion. You are doing your best, and that is enough!
Intergenerational Cycles of Trauma
First-gen individuals frequently face the challenge of breaking generational trauma cycles, which may involve navigating guilt for prioritizing their needs, learning to rest, and/or identifying unhealthy behavioral patterns. One common generational cycle is parentification, wherein a child assumes adult responsibilities. Experiencing parentification during childhood can result in heightened sensitivity to others’ emotional distress and a sense of responsibility for their emotions that persists into adulthood. For instance, at work, you might disregard your own needs if you’re concerned that advocating for yourself could cause stress for your manager. This can create a stress loop where your needs remain unmet, yet the idea of advocating for yourself is just as stressful.
A consejo: Be kind to yourself as you gain awareness of different cycles and work to heal from them. To best address intergenerational cycles of trauma, consider seeking therapy to help you identify and work through these patterns.
As a first-gen individual, you might encounter challenges related to your identity, feeling as though you don’t quite belong to either side of your cultural heritage. This can lead to confusion and a diminished sense of belonging. Additionally, attempting to balance the values, beliefs, and expectations of both cultures can further contribute to feelings of stress and overwhelm.
A consejo: The reality is that we belong to both cultures (“de aquí, y de allá”) and this duality is something to be celebrated. We may spend a considerable amount of time trying to fit into a predefined category, only to realize that it is not necessary. Embracing our unique, bicultural identity allows us to thrive and appreciate the richness of both worlds.
These are just a few consejos to get you started but by no means are they a replacement for therapy. If you identify with several of these, I recommend working with a mental health professional (we recommend searching the Latinx Therapy directory). Join me in normalizing these experiences and sharing tools to manage these stressors.
Si se puede!