Every expat has the feeling of wanting to return home from time to time. Most times, these feelings are only temporary. Little periods of an emotional down can be enough for us to get us to a point where we want to put a stop to our lives overseas and return home.
And yet, there is also something profoundly different. Some expats have this constant nagging voice in the back of their heads, telling them to return home altogether. Often they have this deep sense of dissatisfaction about their life in a foreign country without really understanding why. A lot of these reasons are common to most expats and they can be resolved quite easily. That’s why, in this article I am going to list 10 of the most common reasons for why expats feel like wanting to return home.
1) Constant feeling of low energy
Low energy is a problem that can arise for expats quite quickly. Combining the stress of work with the stresses of family life, adapting to a new environment, speaking a foreign language constantly and so on and so forth can be extremely draining on mind and body.
If you are feeling this way, then first of all be aware that this is normal. And, more importantly, it can be resolved. In my article Why All Expats Need Regular Periods of Conscious Rest I have gone into more detail on this issue. Here, I will give you some snippets of thought for what you can do to improve your situation and regain your usual energy level:
- expose yourself to familiar things on a regular basis (speak your mother tongue with somebody, watch a film from your home country, exercise a hobby you have had for a long time etc.)
- create brackets of time where you withdraw yourself from work and from the new cultural environment (visit nature, go for a long walk, play an instrument)
- reduce consumption behaviors like social media or television and increase productive behaviors like playing an instrument, writing a novel or painting.
- create periods of reflection where you analyse the things that are draining your energy in the new environment and develop strategies on how to avoid these problems (for example, if there is a lot of traffic in the new city, find a better location where to live in order to avoid going by car too much etc.)
- focus on improving your language skills quickly to the point where speaking the new language doesn’t drain too much energy from you
2) Constant feeling of being overwhelmed
Living overseas requires us to process a lot of new things and adapt to them. Often, this can result in a feeling of being overwhelmed with the situation. We feel like we are no longer in control of our lives and that we are not capable of handling the situation very well.
Ironically, it is often the people who were the most productive and most successful in their home countries, who are being the most overwhelmed by their life overseas. The reason for this is because they have learned the strategies on how to become successful in one particular cultural environment, they become frustrated when these strategies no longer work.
Here are some strategies on how to overcome these feelings of being overwhelmed:
- reflect on what it really is that is making you feel overwhelmed. Under what circumstances do you feel like you are no longer in control? What situations trigger those feelings? What steps can you take in these particular circumstances?
- lower your expectations. Remind yourself that becoming productive in the new cultural environment will always take a lot of time because you are not familiar with the way things get done here.
- get help from other people. Do not be shy to do this! Adapting to a new cultural environment is a hard process for everyone, as it requires us to let go off our long-entrenched belief system. Find people who have gone through the process and who can advice you on how to manage it more effectively.
- take a break for a while. You could either leave your host country for a little while, or simply go on a trip to nature. During the time outside, make sure that you really reflect on all of the problems that you have in the new country. Once you get back to your host country, you will look at the whole situation with completely different eyes.
3) The place is different than what you had expected
Some people move to a new country because they have imagined it to be in a particular way that was close to their dreams. Almost always, these people get disappointed.
Countries are never the way in which we had imagined them. Even if we have already traveled there a couple of time for shorter periods of stay. Experiencing a place as a tourists and living there are always two completely different pairs of shoes. Once we are spending our daily lives in one place, we are not merely looking at it from the angle of excitement. Rather, we are comparing it with the experiences of living in different places that we had before and with the expectations we have of any given place.
All countries have their own problems. All countries have their own difficulties in terms of adapting to them. All countries are exciting in one way and boring in another. There simply is no such thing as heaven on earth.
What you can do when the place is different than what you had expected:
- Learn to accept the place the way it is. You might not like everything about the place, but there surely are some positive aspects about it. Just think about it, in your home country not everything is perfect, either! Focus on the positive aspects that you have found about the place.
- Spend more time in the discovery stage. If you give yourself enough time to discover new things about your host country, you will eventually find a range of positive aspects that you will appreciate. Then, focus your attention on making the most out of these aspects as you possibly can.
- Focus on creating learning opportunities. Learning something is one of the things in life that create the most satisfaction for human beings. Our brains crave constant exposure to new things and constant learning experiences. Luckily, every country (regardless of much you dislike it right now) provides you with plenty such learning experiences as long as you remain open for them.
- Learn to embrace discomfort: when the place isn’t what you expected, then this is actually a good thing. When something goes as expected, that means that there was a degree of predictability. But predictability isn’t what allows you to grow. It is the unexpected and the discomfort that is allowing you to learn and grow.
4) Dealing with uncertainty
Uncertainty is an aspect of expat life which all of us have to deal with. Since we are coming into a new environment, we simply can not predict how people will behave over there. We simply can not predict how our daily life will look like over there. We simply can not predict what outcomes we will be able to achieve over there.
Most of the assumptions that we have been making over the world are going to be disrupted.
In the previous section, I have already hinted to the fact that in order to learn how to deal with uncertainty, we need to embrace the discomfort that comes with it. We need to remind ourselves that uncertainty and discomfort are usual characteristics that come with any real disruptive learning opportunity. In the process of disrupting the assumptions that we are making the world, we are also shaping a completely new identity.
At the end of this process, we will become a different person than who we were before. This process is scary. This process is uncomfortable. This process drains our energy. But in the end, it is getting us closer to the best person we can be.
In order to learn how to deal with uncertainty, here are some strategies you can use:
- Ask yourself what the worst-case scenario is. If all things go wrong in the new place, what is the worst thing that can happen? On a scale from 1 (no problem at all) and 10 (the end of the world), how bad would it really be? After you have decided where on the scale it is, would you be willing to take that risk?
- Focus on the potential benefits living abroad can give you. Once you have determined what the worst thing is that can happen to you and how likely it is to happen, compare this with the benefits your life abroad can bring you.
- Become aware of your feelings of anxiety. Awareness training such as mindfulness meditation can help you to acknowledge your feelings of anxiety, and then take them for what they are. In the past, anxiety was something that showed us when our life was in danger. Today, it hardly ever is a result of potentially life-threatening events.
- Find productive ways of distraction. Once we are in a state of inactivity, our mind often gets filled with a lot of negative thoughts. Instead of allowing this to happen, find productive ways of distracting yourself. With that I do not mean consuming something like social media, but rather activities that require your full conscious attention such as learning a language, learning how to play the piano etc.
5) Dealing with loneliness
Loneliness is one of the most common reasons why expats feel like returning home. Remember that loneliness isn’t a result of the absence of contact with other people. If it were, then probably most expats would be just fine. Although, of course there are also a lot of expats who are struggling to make contact with locals for quite a long time.
Rather, loneliness is a feeling that comes up when we feel like we are missing meaningful connections. Perhaps the closest people in your life used to be your parents, or your childhood friends. A life abroad suddenly forces you to be far away from these people and not to be able to experience those happy moments with them.
Instead, you may feel like you are surrounded by all these superficial relationships with people whom you hardly know. Obviously, this is going to be very different than the types of relationships you were cultivating before.
Let’s have a look at some strategies that you can use in order to deal with those feelings of loneliness:
- Remind yourself that your old connections are not gone. In fact, I feel like several of my old connections only survived because I live far away from my hometown. Because we only see each other every-so-often, the times I spend now with my old childhood friends become extremely interesting every time we see each other. Catching up on what has happened in the mean time, dwelling in nostalgia by talking about old stories, times with old friends are more meaningful than they have ever been.
- Focus on developing one meaningful connection. One mistake a lot of expatriates make is that although they are doing a lot of networking, they do not develop any meaningful relationships with people. It is this ability to share your deepest thoughts and to really trust somebody completely that is making the feeling of loneliness fade. Knowing a lot of people but only having shallow conversations with them won’t help you.
- Be willing to open up your deepest thoughts and feelings. What we need as human beings is to be able to share our deepest thoughts and feelings with somebody else. I have hinted on this in the previous point, but the depth of our relationships is important rather than their breadth. What this means is that we need to find people who are happy to share with us all those things that truly matter to us.
- Find both local friends as well as expat friends. You will need local friends to really arrive at your host culture. Without them, in your mind you are still living in your home country and you will never move on. Without expat friends, however, we lack somebody who can really understand what we are going through. Humans want to share their experiences with somebody who has similar experiences. We want to walk a path together. In the end, both types of relationships are equally important.
So, what comes next?
In this article, I have listed 5 of the most common reasons why expats feel like wanting to return home. Of course, there are many other reasons as well. Regardless of whether your reasons for wanting to return home are among the one’s I have listed up here, I want you to remember that all expats are going through these down periods.
Wanting to return home is an emotional reaction and has a lot to do with all the difficulties we experience in another country. In the end, of all these difficulties are solvable and manageable.
Now, what I want you to do is to really think through what your reasons are for why you want to return home. Do you think that this is a permanent feeling, or is it just a temporary one? What needs to be happen in order for this feeling to disappear? Who can help you to go through that process? What first steps can you take in order to feel more in control of your situation in the new country?
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