Should I stay abroad? Or should I go back home? 

Anyone who has lived abroad has had to grapple with this question at some point. It’s a frequent concern raised by my clients who are living outside of their home country and trying to make the decision to go home or stay where they are.

As I listen to my clients list off the pros and cons of their possible options, the frustrations of life in the country they’re currently living in and the parts of life they’d dread returning home to, I feel a deep sense of empathy towards them. I too spent year after year debating whether I was making the right decision to stay in Spain. It felt like I’d sacrificed so much to live there, yet I wasn’t happy. Maybe I ought to move back to Seattle? Maybe I was supposed to be in Central America? Or maybe I’d feel more content in a sunnier corner of the USA?

Needless to say, I know first hand that making the decision to go home can be an overwhelming and confusing process.

Like many people who move abroad, I made the decision to do so based on the experience I’d had while studying abroad in college. I’m sure many of you can relate when I say that it was the best time of my life. And who wouldn’t want to recreate those feelings of excitement, freedom and pure bliss that they’d felt during the period of their life when they felt most alive?

But when I moved to Madrid back in September 2009, I found that this joy that I’d felt while studying abroad was eluding me. Sure, I filled up my Facebook newsfeed with pictures that made many of my friends drool over the adventures I was having, I met people with fascinating stories, learned Spanish, made friends with the locals and even added a fairy tale-esque component to my story by getting myself an exotic Spanish boyfriend too. For all intents and purposes, I should have been having the time of my life once again, right?

But I wasn’t. I was constantly plagued with the feeling that I was making the wrong decision by staying in Spain. My parents told me that I wasn’t able to recreate my study abroad experience because the delight I’d felt then had obviously come from the fact that I hadn’t been working. Being a grown up meant doing work you didn’t want to do and sucking it up, and if I was so unhappy anyway then why didn’t I just move back home? None of this made sense to me since I’d come abroad to follow my dreams and pursue my bliss. Going home would feel like defeat. They had to be wrong.

As it turns out my parents were wrong (sorry guys…), but it took me several years, sleepless nights, lots of tears, a breakup, and plenty of my own therapy of my own (yes, us helping professionals need professional help sometimes too!) before I realized just what was missing in my life and why my study abroad experience had made me feel so alive. I started working on my relationship with myself to find a sense of “home” in me, which I can take with myself wherever in the world I go.

Moving abroad can be a slippery slope. Often this decision to leave your home comes from a belief that if you search the world long enough, you will stumble upon happiness during your journey. But pain is an inevitable part of life, wherever in the world you are, and if you believe that pain or unhappiness are signs that you have made a mistake about where you’ve chosen to live then you’re setting yourself up for a never-ending quest.

I think the secret to truly being content and capable of riding the waves of sadness, loneliness, and pain is to find an anchor in yourself. Not in the city, not in the culture, not in the people around you (although their presence certainly helps to weather the storm!). Really, I believe that you need this wherever in the world you are, but that if you live at home you can mistake the familiarity of day-to-day life and the consistency of the people around you for being enough to anchor you.

A few months ago I read an article about relationships that said many romantic relationships end when we adopt the “the grass is greener on the other side” mentality about our partner. The author concluded by saying that we ought to adopt a “the grass is greener where you water it” philosophy instead. Since reading this, I find myself saying it at least once a week to clients in session, even more right now since these doubts about whether to stay or go are running high.

I hear so many of my clients trying to muddle through the mess of deciding what place would be better for them, what place would make them happier and I try to remind them of this–they’re going to have to take their watering can with them wherever they go. This isn’t to say that you should stay where you are if you’re feeling unsatisfied with your work or realize that you want to have face-to-face interactions with your family on a more frequent basis, but I think it’s a healthy way to reframe the decision. Rather than making the decision to move home. Ask yourself:

Where in the world do I want to invest the energy and effort of watering the grass? 

This article is one of my my post popular posts and I receive many emails from people who relate to it. Since writing this article, I’ve moved from Spain to the Netherlands and from the Netherlands back to my hometown of Seattle (USA).

I offer “Stay or Go” Clarity sessions that will provide you with individualized support during this difficult decision-making process with the goal of helping you to make a decision based on what’s most important to you.

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