Before I began working with international clients, I, like many people living abroad, wasn’t fully aware of the challenges that come with moving back to your home country. It wasn’t until I started supporting clients who were going through the difficult process of repatriation themselves that I began to fully understand the challenges that come with moving home after living abroad.
In most situations, my client’s struggles with re-entry are compounded by the fact that they think that what is happening to them isn’t normal. If they had been able to navigate life in another country, often in another language, why was moving back to a familiar place so difficult? Just shifting their mindset to see returning home as an equally complex change provides a sense of relief for many.
So, when my expat friends began asking me how I was feeling about my own upcoming move home, I took the opportunity to introduce them to the concept of “reverse culture shock.” I explained that repatriation is an incredibly challenging process for many people, and for some, it can take up to 18 months to fully adjust to life back at home.
When these same friends have checked in with me to see how I’m doing now that I’m 6 weeks into my own repatriation journey, they’ve been surprised to learn that I’m really enjoying life here and the transition has been fairly smooth.
After hearing so many difficult stories of repatriation, I too have been surprised that my own experience has been relatively easy. I’ve been tempted to sum it up as just saying I’m lucky, but I suspected that wasn’t the full story. So, I took some time to reflect on what aspects of my own repatriation process have helped make it more manageable. Here’s what I found:
- I was able to make an intentional choice about moving back to my hometown. This isn’t possible for everyone, and not having control over this decision can make the adjustment that much more difficult. Whenever possible, taking time to intentionally reflect on the question of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” will make for an easier transition.
- I made the choice to move home because Seattle is a city where I can live a life aligned with my values. I also reflected on what aspects of my lifestyle abroad would be things I wanted to recreate back in Seattle. One of these things was to prioritize finding a neighborhood that wouldn’t require me to depend on a car, which is a freedom I’d enjoyed while living in in Europe. Repatriation is that much harder when the place you’re moving back to isn’t a good match for your values or your lifestyle.
- I had the time to say goodbye and made sure to do so in a very conscious way. I said goodbye to not only the people, but also the places that had been important to me in Amsterdam. I also was able to visit Madrid, the city I first called home while living abroad. Being able to attend a silent retreat also gave me a great deal of time to pause and reflect on everything that living abroad had meant for me. Although this probably isn’t a realistic option for most people, saying goodbye in one way or another is an essential part of successfully navigating transitions. Writing a goodbye letter, holding a going away party, or some other symbolic gesture, are all simpler ways to say goodbye to the place you’ve called home.
- I moved home during a time when my life abroad was going quite well. Many people choose to move home in response to difficult moments they face abroad, assuming that life will be easier back home. However, this can often make the repatriation process even more difficult because life has its own set of challenges wherever we live (**There are times where moving home is the greatest act of self-care we can make, but it’s best done with the full realization that it won’t mean a life devoid of challenges, but one with a unique set of challenges).
- Going into the repatriation process with the knowledge that it would be hard allowed me to see any challenges as temporary bumps in the road, rather than permanent challenges. I also have avoided other common mental pitfalls like seeing hard days as proof that I made a mistake in moving, or criticizing myself when moments of reverse culture shock arise. This awareness also equipped me to approach the move to a city I once called home with the same attitude as I’d approach a brand new city—one that is curious and open-minded. Thinking that the place you’re moving back to will be easy because you’re “going back,” only makes repatriation that much harder. Home has changed, and you’ve changed during your time abroad. There’s no way it can be the exact same as when you left.
- I’ve given myself permission to continue to embrace my identity as a global nomad, even though I live in my home country again. Some “repats” struggle to adjust to life back in their home country because they want to “fit in” in the same way they could when they lived at home before. I find that the triangle metaphor behind the “I am a Triangle” community to be incredibly helpful for embracing the reality that you’ll never quite fit in in the same way as when you left. Then the challenge may shift from fitting in to finding your other triangles–either in-person, or online.
- I clearly communicated to my friends and family that this move could be a challenging transition. This has opened up the door for me to lean on them for support if needed, and for them to understand why I might not be as available as they’d like me to be. If their support isn’t enough, I’ll absolutely reach out to a professional, such as a therapist, or coach, for additional support. You might think that with my previous work as a therapist, and now as a coach, that this sort of communication would come naturally to me. However, creating realistic expectations, setting boundaries, and asking for help, are all things that I continue to work on. However, I know that repatriation is that much harder when we think we need to do it all on our own.
As I mentioned above, the process of repatriation can take up to 18 months, so it’s quite possible that I’ll have more to report as the months go on. However, I now feel confident that my own repatriation process will continue to be relatively smooth. And that’s because I see that woven into all of my observations above is the fact that the tools of mindfulness and self-compassion have been essential in supporting me throughout my journey of returning home.
Not only have these practices helped me to create a portable sense of home inside of myself, but they’ve helped me to practice acceptance. I knew from my experience with my clients that people struggle more when they don’t accept that repatriation is tough, but I didn’t realize how powerful it would be to go into repatriation with an attitude of acceptance. Now I can see that accepting the reality that going home could be hard is precisely what’s has made it manageable. As mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says,
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
My own repatriation process actually hasn’t been completely smooth, but acceptance has left me with that sensation because it’s helped me to surf the waves that come with moving home.
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