When I was 11, my parents decided to send me to a private school. They couldn’t afford to: my dad was from a working-class background and it was an “investment”. He had high hopes that private school would lead to the life he never had: a good degree and a stable, well-paying job.

Throughout my childhood, I was acutely aware that they struggled to keep up with the fees and was very conscious that my dad was working in horrendous conditions in dangerous parts of the world for my sake. My mum didn’t work full-time due to previous mental health issues; things always felt on a knife-edge. I was bullied at my new school, nothing extreme, but I was unpopular and became very shy – a stark contrast to my early childhood. I also turned out to be utterly non-academic and was encouraged by the school to pursue a career in the arts (rather than the traditional medicine, law or Stem subjects). This disappointed my dad and made my mum very anxious.

A little over a decade since leaving school, working in the arts has shattered me. I’m hyper-aware of the privileged position private school put me in, and the worlds it opened up culturally, but now I am trying to find a way out to something more financially and mentally sustainable. My dad is not fit enough to work, unemployed with no pension, and I am terrified I can’t support my parents as they age because of the path I chose at 17. My dad still regularly jokes that I was “expensive”, but I now feel like a failed investment. I’m often suicidal and have extremely low self-esteem. I loved my job, but even my parents aside, I couldn’t afford to stay in it. The combination of accumulated private school fees and my student loans has left a cloud of debt looming over my head.

How do I reconcile with this guilt?

If ever there was a letter about the futility and selfishness of parental projection and expectations, this is it. As I’ve said before, we often feel guilt when we are doing the work – the heavy lifting – for other people. Your parents chose to send you to a school they could ill afford, to live out a life they didn’t. Children aren’t like vending machines, you don’t pump money in, press a button and get what you selected back.

I need to address the suicidal thoughts first. I am very sorry you feel like this. Have you made any plans to harm yourself? If so, please tell someone you trust and have a plan of action for when you feel like this (friends you can ring or text who can be there for you). I’ve also included some links below.

I went to psychotherapist Graham Music. His first reaction to your letter “was to feel quite cross for the amount of pressure you seem to have received and have taken on yourself. I thought, ‘Who is making the sacrifices here?’”

He added, “Sometimes suicidal feelings can be anger turned inwards, in order to protect other people who perhaps these feelings are more aimed at.”

You see your parents as having made sacrifices, but you have sacrificed an awful lot, and risk sacrificing more, and that was a choice foisted upon you.

I’m sure your parents were trying to do their best but constantly reminding you of that is corrosive and self-defeating. It wasn’t about seeing who you really are either, or understanding that academic achievement doesn’t always lead to happiness. In fact it rarely seems to if it’s the sole aim. What does lead to internal happiness is seeing ourselves reflected back by the people we love, and being accepted for who we are, whatever that is.

“What you really need,” advised Music, “is self acceptance. It’s OK to feel resentful, or even cross that you feel this pressure to live a life that’s expected of you, rather than the one you want to live.”

You need to find a place where you can learn who you are and work out what you want to do for yourself. “It’s time to let go, and you may need help – therapy – to do that,” said Music. “Your parents are now an internal voice that you need to separate from.”

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It’s a valuable lesson, as an adult child, to learn you can be angry with your parents, resent them, appreciate them, and love them all at the same time. You are not a failed investment because you were never invested in. Your parents’ expectations were.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org. In the UK you can also consult Silence of Suicide or Mind.

Every week, Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

Annalisa’s podcast discussing suicide is available here.

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