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Coping with expat-guilt

Exploring the woes and growth of expat guilt.

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Aina Masood

Ever find yourself questioning your decision of moving to a new country, far away from your family and friends: your support system? Believe it or not, this is entirely normal. When we move to another country, the stakes are high, the expectations are grand, and the challenges seem insurmountable. But, having taken the plunge, doubt catches up with us. Did I make the right choice? Was it worth it? What about my friends and family? Would I be able to survive here? Should I move back? Can I do it? Is this even fair to my friends and family? We have all asked these questions, and while some of us have made peace with the decision, many of us still struggle with them.

Expat depression is a common mental health issue among the international community, and research suggests that one of the major contributing factors is expat guilt. According to American Psychological Association (APA), guilt is a painful emotion that we experience when we feel like we have committed a wrong, have failed in an obligation and/or thought, said, or done something that reflects poorly on our beliefs and views about ourselves.

Settling in and merging into a new culture and country takes time, months, or years. When the initial honeymoon period is over, and the reality starts to set in, we might find ourselves overwhelmed, unsure, insecure, lonely, and frustrated. To fulfil the image of a happy and satisfied international, we might end up hiding and invalidating our feelings. Further confusion is caused by having to live in a split reality. One reality is the life we are trying to build, and the other is the life we have left. Trying to keep our friends and family up-to-date and making new friends simultaneously is arduous and takes up a boatload of energy and time. Moreover, missing the big moments like birthdays, weddings, graduations and being unavailable to lend a shoulder, only adds to the guilt.

"Change is hard but can be beautiful."

What can you do to manage the guilt?

Recognise that what you are feeling is guilt. Look for the signs of guilt in your behaviour and dig deeper to see where it originates. For example, is it not talking to your family enough, or is it having difficulty managing the time zones?

Accept that your situation has changed, and you have jumped across borders. It is bound to change your priorities, your relationships, and you. Change is hard but can be beautiful. Give yourself and your friends and family time to adapt to this change. Take your time to heal because making a move always requires giving certain things up, and you should allow yourself the time to heal from the things lost and left behind.

Investigate the changes, the feelings, and the thoughts associated with the move. Ask your friends and family about what they would like to have, daily check-ins or weekly calls, postcards, or pictures through social media. Try to make them a part of the process, so they don’t feel left behind, and you don’t feel guilty for leaving them behind.

Nurture the positive emotions and experiences. Try to express gratitude for the things you have and the opportunities of making new friends. Validating your feelings of being overwhelmed, loneliness, and fear is also essential to manage them better. Try to do activities that bring joy to your life, like cooking on a video call with your family or taking them on virtual trips around your new neighbourhood.

Professional help is also an option if the move brings up emotions and experiences that are disturbing and too overwhelming to be dealt with on your own. It is also important to realise that seeking professional help can be very beneficial during, before or after a significant transition in your help.

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