Sahaj Kaur Kohli
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Cloe Shasha Brooks: Hello, Sahaj, welcome, thanks for joining us.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli: Thank you for having me, I'm so excited to be here.

CSB: I'm so excited to be speaking with you. So you are a mental health therapist in training and the founder of Brown Girl Therapy, a community you started to allow the children of immigrants to speak openly about mental health issues. And one theme I've noticed in the content you share is the guilt frequently experienced by people with immigrant parents. Can you talk more about that guilt?

SKK: There's definitely a relationship between being a child of immigrant parents living in the West and experiencing guilt. Children of immigrants are often straddling two cultures known as bicultural straddling. And there's often this expectation to make our immigrant parents' sacrifices and choices for coming to this country worth it. Many children of immigrants feel chronic sense of guilt for letting their parents down, for not being enough, for being too American, for seeming ungrateful. There’s also this sense of a thriver’s guilt or this guilt of growing, healing, accessing resources and opportunities that maybe our parents didn't have or our family and other parts of the world don't have access to. So many children of immigrants may have grown up being responsible for their parents as well. If we think about an immigrant's journey to the West, they may not speak English well, so a lot of children of immigrants may act as a translator, may help pay the bills, may help take care of younger siblings, so caretaking, and we know that immigrating and immigration can lead to a lot of family and generational conflict, as everyone in the family is navigating their own acculturation journey, creating a sense of belonging in the host country. So a lot of children of immigrants are often mediators for cultural conflict within their family. This responsibility for the well-being of our parents,

whether it's explicitly or implicitly stated, can be reinforced over the years as a sense of obligation. And it's exhausting. You know, children of immigrants are often internalizing these beliefs that they have to be a certain way, that they have to act a certain way, and then they're out in the world feeling like they're also not enough in the Western sense of the word. And so it's really important, you know, I think in a lot of immigrant communities and for a lot of children of immigrants, we don't talk enough about questioning that guilt, questioning where it comes from and questioning why it's there.

CSB: Yeah, so interesting. It looks like we have a question from the audience, "Is long term guilt ever justified or beneficial?"

SKK: So, the thing we know about guilt is that there is healthy guilt, right? Healthy guilt alerts us to our morality, to the pain and hurt that we might be causing to other people, to the social and cultural standards that we may have crossed. And it can help direct our behavior. If we're really sitting with it, we can understand, "OK, you know what? I didn't want to hurt that person" or "I didn't want to do that thing." So that can help you then decide to make amends, to change your behavior, to apologize. But then we have unhealthy guilt where maybe the guilt that we're feeling is adopted through values that we don't necessarily hold or boundaries that we don't necessarily want to hold. So long-term guilt — guilt is not necessarily a negative emotion. It's really important to understand that differentiation, that guilt is something that can really guide us. And like any emotion, it's telling us something and we must listen to it before we decide how to handle it.

CSB: Yeah. And in the unhealthy situation, what are some helpful strategies for dealing with it? I suspect it will be relevant to many demographics of people.

SKK: So, you know, the thing about chronic guilt is that it can force us to be small. It can tell us we must stay within the box. We shouldn't take up a lot of space. It kind of encourages us to distrust our own needs and wants, especially if they differ from the people around us and our immigrant parents. So some strategies for adopting and dealing with guilt: It's really important to question the guilt. It's important to identify your parents's beliefs and values and then explore your own and see how they overlap. Ask yourself, "How can I lovingly detach from the assumption or belief my parent has." Ask yourself if you are internalizing something that doesn't actually speak true to you. Remind yourself also that your parents are often doing the best they can with what they know and what they were taught. And with that, you have to have a lot of self-compassion to know that you're figuring out how to deal with something that maybe no one in your family has dealt with. You were never taught how to deal with. So it's really important to show up with a lot of self compassion. And then the last thing that really comes to mind here is to accept that guilt may always be an emotion that you have to navigate. It's a warning light. I think a lot of children of immigrants look to guilt and feel guilt and then say, "Oh, my gosh, this is a sign that I need to turn around and not do the thing I want to do or continue on the path I’m about to take.” And instead, I say, sit with the guilt, see it as a warning sign and try to understand where it's really coming from.

CSB: Yeah, that's incredibly helpful. We have a question from the audience. "What coping mechanisms would you recommend for someone dealing with guilt?"

SKK: So all of the things, some of the coping mechanisms I already named, you know, it's really important to reauthor the narrative that you've been taught that things are binary. Something that I often see when people are dealing with guilt is that guilt is bad. Again, guilt is not necessarily bad. It's just an emotion that is trying to tell you something. So a lot of children of immigrants and a lot of people in this country think of feelings as good or bad, think of themselves as right or wrong, this or that, all or nothing. And I really want to encourage you to question that narrative. You know, two things can be true at the same time. You can pursue something that makes you really happy, something that is inherently good for you, healthy for you, and you can still feel guilt. And so to that, I just really want to drive home the point that guilt is not necessarily a bad emotion. And it's OK if you are always trying to navigate it.

CSB: You know, one thing that I've also seen you talk about is how values, getting clear on our values, helps us manage our guilt. Can you share more about that?

SKK: Absolutely. Getting clear on your values can definitely help with managing guilt. It's important to get clear on your values instead of assuming that your values are exactly the same as the people around you. And when you're not clear on what's important to you, it's really easy to follow into a pattern of what's expected of you, what other people want from you. And this can lead to a lot of people-pleasing behaviors, it can lead to seeking approval, maybe keeping the peace because that's what you've been taught, but it doesn't necessarily lead to personal fulfillment. So to get clear on your values, really spend some time reflecting on questions like what's important to you, when have you been the happiest? And think about the times that you've been the happiest, and then think about values that were being honored during that time. When were you the most unhappy? And think about values that might have been suppressed or crossed. We have to think about living our lives with value-driven choices. But that's really hard to understand if your values don't overlap with the people you love. And so what I hear from children of immigrants a lot is "My values aren't the same. So then what do I do?" And so to that, I say try to find ways to communicate to your parents, a lot of the assumptions and beliefs and values our parents have, some of them may be rooted in fear. If they're not necessarily happy with a career choice that you're making, but that aligns with your values, try to address the fear that's coming up. The fear that they have that you won't be secure when they're not here, that you won't be able to make enough money, that you won't be satisfied for years to come, and try to address those fears to communicate your values to your parents.

CSB: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, especially with different cultures and figuring all that out. So we have another question from the audience. Let's bring that one up. "How do you recommend that people address feelings of guilt tied to someone who is deceased?" From John Henderson.

SKK: That's such a great question. You know what I see in the immigrant community and with children of immigrants that may be really relevant here is that guilt is often tied to grief. You know, the guilt of feeling misunderstood, the guilt of feeling like you can't do the things that you want, the guilt of feeling like you're not enough are tied to a grief of something that you didn't have. Maybe it wasn't the support from your parents. Maybe it wasn't the relationship that you really wanted. So to that, you know, for navigating that, I would say try to get really clear on what it is you feel guilty about and what it is that you're grieving and how you can separate those two. And I would really recommend seeking community and support for this and also therapy.

CSB: Yeah, absolutely. But we've come almost to the end, if you could just say one thing that you think would be really important for people to remember when they're experiencing guilt, what would it be?

SKK: You know, I'm going to drive home the same point, it is that guilt is a warning sign. Sit with it, identify your values and standards that are being crossed when you feel guilt, identify if they are your values and standards or someone else's that you have internalized and then try to sit with what's important to you in that moment before you decide what your next step should be.

CSB: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Sahaj, for sharing all this, and for your wisdom. Take care, thanks for joining us.

SKK: Thank you so much for having me.