The other day I was having coffee with a fellow expat and sharing some of our experiences of living and working abroad when the topic of repatriation and reverse culture shock came up.
“Have you ever repatriated?” she asked me.
“Nope,” I replied.
She was quick to respond with some words of warning, “Good! Don’t do it, it’s the worst!”
This expat was lucky enough to know something that many others who’ve lived abroad aren’t aware of. That the process of re-entry/repatriation, or moving back to your home country, is often just as hard (if not harder) than moving abroad.
While I haven’t gone through the experience of being a “repat” myself, over the years I’ve worked with a number of clients to help support them during their own transition back home after living abroad. Although it’s nearly impossible to avoid all of the hiccups of repatriation, there are a few things you can do to try and make your own adjustment to life in your home country is as smooth as possible:
1. Accept the reality of reverse culture shock
Many people assume that moving back to their home country will be a return to the familiar and this expectation can often set them up for experiencing greater reverse culture shock (aka re-entry shock) when they discover that it isn´t as easy of a move as they imagined.
Repatriation isn’t simply “going home.” It involves moving to a new country and to a new culture as you´ve changed during your time abroad and will be seeing things through a different lens than when you lived there previously. Just as moving abroad follows a series of phases of culture shock (honeymoon, denial, anger/flight and finally reconciliation), so does reverse culture shock. As author Robin Pascoe notes in her book Homeward Bound: A Spouse´s Guide to Repatriation,
“Re-entry shock feels like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”
The more you can accept that it will be a phase of transition filled with its own set of ups and downs the less you will struggle with any uncomfortable emotions it brings up. What you need during this transition phase is to have yourself as a cheerleader saying things like ¨These feelings are a normal part of the process,¨ rather than a bully saying things such as, ¨Why am I feeling like this? It should be so much easier.¨
2. Get ready before you even leave
If you haven’t made the move home just yet, there are also a number of things you can do prior to your departure. One important aspect is deciding how to say goodbye to the place that you’ve most recently called home. Some ideas can include:
- Visiting your favorite restaurants and sights
- Having a goodbye party with your friends
- Writing down or blogging a summary of your time abroad
- Holding a symbolic event to say goodbye (for example, writing a goodbye letter to your home while sitting in your favorite park and listening to music that´s you´ve enjoyed during your time there)
If you’re like many people who tend to avoid goodbyes, you might like to know that there is scientific evidence to support the fact that endings can make us happier and that consciously closing this chapter helps paves the way for being ready to process the next phase.
The U.S. State Department provides a list of ways to prepare for the challenges that you´ll face upon arriving back at home. These include asking yourself questions such as
- What are my expectations of home and what changes may have occurred?
- What new things might I have to get used to?
The more realistic you are about what to expect the transition will be like, the less of a shock it will be when you arrive back at home.
3. Work on your coping skills toolkit
With the excitement and logistics of moving home it can be easy to accidentally put your emotional and mental health on the back burner. Many of my clients who I’ve worked with to support during their transition back home have realized that they weren’t taking time to practice self-care. However, reflecting on things that have worked for them in the past and also learning new coping strategies has often proved to be just what they needed to help navigate this transition period.
You can do this by asking yourself what things helped you to cope with difficulties that arose when you were living abroad? Or what things have you done in the past that have been good for your mental and emotional health that you could incorporate into your new daily routine?
Some common ingredients in my client’s coping toolkits include
Getting enough rest
Speaking with trusted friends
Meditation or prayer
Writing down one thing a day that made them smile
Spending time doing the activities that bring them joy
4. Create your new home and identity
Part of the reason reverse-culture shock happens is because people attempt to go back to a place that no longer exists as a person that no longer exists. You’ve changed since living abroad and what you consider home has probably changed as well.
It’s important to ask yourself what aspects of your life abroad you’d like to incorporate into your new life at home. Have you become accustomed to walking to a lot of different places? You’ll want to search for a home that allows you to have supermarkets and cafes within walking distance. Did you have a blog while living abroad? Try to find a way to continue sharing your stories, but maybe with a new angle. If you find yourself missing the food, seek out restaurants serving that cuisine or even try out some of the recipes yourself.
Many people also find themselves feeling very lonely and isolated upon their return home. Not everyone around them understands what they’ve gone through during their time abroad nor can they understand what the repatriation process is like. I encourage clients to seek out international friends, set up a language exchange or even connect with other repats who can support them during the process.
It’s also very common to find yourself feeling very bored upon your return home, which is to be expected considering that you’re shifting from going from a life where you were constantly exposed to new stimuli. Mindfulness skills can be incredibly helpful in teaching you to notice the extraordinary in our everyday, seemingly mundane, experiences.
5. Consider seeking help from a professional
When in doubt, it can be helpful to seek out the support of a professional (coach, therapist, counsellor, etc.) who has experience supporting people through the re-entry process. You can do this before you make the move, or once you’ve landed. Many professionals (myself included) will offer you a short free initial consultation where you can explain your situation and ask them how their services might help you during this period.
Some examples of ways a coach could help you if you’re struggling with reverse culture shock:
- Identify factors that are making your own transition more difficult
- Help you learn new strategies to manage stress
- Create and implement a self-care plan
- Increase your emotional resilience
- Help you overcome unhelpful mindsets
- Teach you self-compassion exercises to help you support yourself through the process
- Help you to identify your values and ways to incorporate them into your everyday life
- Support you through process of saying goodbye to your former home
“It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you.” — Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Screenplay)
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