A Love Letter to the Expat in Me
My childhood as an expat in high-risk countries has greatly shaped who I am today. As a child I lived in four different continents, changed schools seven times, and resided in my home country for seven inconsecutive years. Ambiguity, regular uprooting, or living in the outskirts of a community made me question my identity and where I call home. Therefore, when I work with expats, their stories resonate with me in a special way.
The word expatriate is self-explanatory: it is composed of the Latin prefix ex-, “out of”, and the noun patria, “homeland”. Therefore, an expatriate is an individual who leaves their home country. The term, however, excludes an essential piece of information, the person leaves but, do they ever find their way back home?
Nesting in a Cage
Expats are often educated professionals who have been sent abroad by their employers, usually government institutions or international organizations. These guest workers are temporarily hosted under diplomatic visas which grant them a special legal status in their country of residence. From the outside, an expat is gilded with privilege, but from the inside, that golden gate designed to keep them safe can also serve as a cage.
Expats learn how to build a life with an expiration date and within certain physical boundaries. However diverse the expat community may be, in hubs such as Nairobi, Port-Au-Prince, New York City, or D.C., there can be a sense of isolation. Isolation ranges from the host country and the local community, family and friends back home, to a former life in another time and place. The guilt that comes with privilege silences vulnerability. Expats struggling with adjusting, feel the weight of their career choices. They quietly take on the burden of grief for a life they left behind. They might question their right to privileges when they witness hardships. Expats feel the burden placed on their families as they too conform to the responsibilities of the post.
Signs of anxiety and depression include:
- Moodiness, irritability
- Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
- Loss of interest for activities (including sex)
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Relationship issues
- Social withdrawal
- Avoiding responsibilities
- Lack of appetite or weight loss
- Excessive worrying, sadness, or nervousness
- Feeling overwhelmed and stressed
Expats choose a career path with the ambition of living an accommodated, exciting, and meaningful life. They are often blind-sided by challenges that come with the job. A study published in 2011 by the International journal of mental health indicated that expats are 50% more at risk “to internalize disorders such as Anxiety Disorders and Depression ”and that “living as an expatriate is related to higher levels of stress which has been linked to higher substance use.” Moreover, those who were at a higher risk of internalizing disorders registered a stronger dissatisfaction in their marriages and other relationships.
Finding a Way Back Home
When expats are posted abroad, they leave behind their families of origin, culture, and social network. They also give up things they once took for granted such as anonymity, their freedom, and basic rights. The longer they live abroad, the harder it is to keep the connection with their life back home. Expats often feel like they have outgrown their home of origin. New life and cultural experiences make relating to loved ones harder.
In high-risk posts, the privileges granted by status are also a source of guilt and shame for expats. Witnessing extreme poverty or violence on a daily basis can lead to post-traumatic stress disorders. Some people battle through, burying their feelings as a survival response. Physical threats or health risks enforce their vigilance. They develop functional defense strategies, such as dissociation, or other dysfunctional habits leading to mental health problems.
The hope is that once the assignment is over, they can go back to their former lives. But when they return home or move to another country, the guilt can linger. They find it hard managing without their defense strategies. Expats’ experience of fear or pain changes them forever. They may wonder whether they will ever go back to who they used to be. Will they, indeed, find their way back home?
Reclaiming Lost Parts
It is not surprising to see how some expats have learned to suppress their thoughts and fears to survive in an unpredictable environment. This may lead them to close off some of their emotions and keep them hidden from others and, even, themselves. These may be parts of them that may feel lost in a distant past, but, through an active practice of empathy and compassion, they can come back to surface to reveal their authentic self.
Relational counseling is an effective way to support connection for people far from home as well as those close to home. In a 2017 study, participants showed significant improvement in empathy after 12 sessions of Imago Relationship Therapy. Empathy, in fact, is key to our work with couples and essential to knock down the walls of isolation. It frees couples from shame and guilt and helps both partners truly understand each other.
Imago Therapy focuses on creating an experience in which individuals feel safe and held. Whether with couples or individuals, Imago therapists focus on listening and ensuring their clients feel heard. With couples, the Imago experience creates a secure space to open up and take a leap of faith. The therapists create a holding environment in which both partners can see the relationship through the lens of the other’s life experience. In the case of expat couples, their journey may involve going deeper into their history and revisit with empathy their current relationship to reclaim their lost parts and find their way back to each other.
Home is where the mended heart is
Employers have long pushed down the mental health needs of expatriates on the list of priorities. The environment in which expats are stationed presents more pressing needs to ensure they can live a “normal” life. Raising awareness around mental health struggles among expats is urgent. Expats serve at front-line posts and are dedicated to creating connections and improving peoples’ lives in an increasingly polarized world. Those extremes stretch them beyond their limits and reshape who they are.
In some cases, returning home is seen as a failure, as if they were not strong enough or worthy enough to stay. In other cases, expats return to a place that feels nothing like the place they left behind. They may no longer identify with their culture of origin. They could feel that their relationship with friends and family has changed. It is in those moments, expats question who they actually were or who they have become.
The saying “there’s no place like home” conveys the melancholy experienced in giving up a life with roots. There is no place like home. Indeed, there may be no other place like the home we left behind. But with recovery, healing, and self-compassion, expats can become resilient. With support from employers, friends, family, and professionals, expats can have a safe space for validation, joy, tenderness, growth, wonder, connection, and love, a place to call home.