Expats or expatriates are the people who have voluntarily left their home country in order to live and study/work in another country for a certain period of time. Sometimes people do it for economic or social reasons, but sometimes they do it because of limited opportunities in their own countries, or simply out of their need for adventure. The positive outcomes that follow this experience would be: professional development, better living conditions, new friendships, networking and, what’s most important, the possibility to explore and get to know the formerly unknown parts of ourselves.
The overall positive evaluation of their experience, sometimes leaves expats confused when they suddenly feel like something’s off. In fact, they often feel guilty for feeling bad about something they consciously choose and something that they still view positively overall. The ambivalence that follows the expat experience tends to lead to expats overlooking their feelings of distress or tension. All of this is further complicated if the expats family relocates as well. Often times, the desire for adventure or the need to pursue some new academic or career goals, as well as the excitement that follows, lead to us failing to consider all the things we are leaving behind. Those who move abroad, while getting many things they did want, also end up losing some of the things they didn’t count on losing – their background, the vicinity of their family, long walks and conversations with a close friend, everything that forms a significant part of their identities and that helps integrate new experiences.
Whatever the reason for emigrating may be, a strong need for support during this transition remains, as the experience of relocating to the desired country is often not the fairy-tale we had envisioned. Compared to the local population, expats run a higher risk of internalizing their adjustment problems (so they develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, suicidal thoughts…) and externalizing problems (so we have hyper-activity, impulse control disorders, etc). Expats often feel isolated, nostalgic and out-of-place. They often report feelings of depression, psychological distress, as well as substance abuse.
A thing that may cause additional stress may be their feeling of “uprootedness” – a feeling that they don’t belong in their home country or in their host country. They feel like strangers wherever they go, suddenly they don’t belong anywhere. With this in mind, repatriation can also be very stressful because individuals expect to come back to their safe and familiar base. However, more often than not, they come back only to realize that time went by while they were gone – their family changed; their baby cousins grew up; their friends were struggling with some things and celebrating others; a part of their town changed… This can lead to a feeling of abandonment – paradoxically, even though the expat is the one who left, he/she is now left feeling like their home and their people have abandoned them and have moved on.
Research suggests that what the expats need from therapy is someone they can relate to, someone they feel can really understand what they’re going through (preferably someone who’s been through a similar experience already), as well as a space where the rich complexity of their entire experience will be acknowledged, explored, and validated.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counseling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Gecele, M., Living Multicultural Contexts, in Francesetti, G., Gecele M., & Roubal, J. (2013), Gestalt Therapy in Clinical Practice: From Psychopathology to the Aesthetics of Contact, 219- 231
Filipič Sterle, M., Verhofstadt, L., Bell, P., & De Mol, J. (2018). In search of the recognition of expatriate complexity: interpretative phenomenological analysis of psychotherapy experience. Qualitative Report, 23(12), 2936-2952
Platanitis, P. (2018). Expatriates Challenges and Coping Strategies: A qualitative Study (Doctoral dissertation, University of Manchester).