Living in a foreign country is a beautiful experience. Yet, it can also trigger a wide range of emotions, from anxiety to expat guilt feelings that certain people or events may reinforce.
This article will take you on a journey into what it means to experience guilt feelings and how you can better counteract the events that reinforce these feelings. You can sustain the happiness and adventure that attends going to a new place, and if you join me, you will read what can you do to have a fantastic expat experience anywhere!
Expat Guilt Feelings
Carrying your bag and setting off to be away from your family miles away may be one of the most challenging things you ever get to do in your life. Leaving behind memories and the people dear to you may be a difficult decision, but after you have made that decision and hauled your bag to the airport, that’s just about that.
But now that you have taken the first difficult step, you have to deal with an even more significant challenge, a feeling that remains behind the curtain, tugging at the fabrics of your emotions – Expat Guilt.
It’s a feeling like you have abandoned the people that were there for you, that you chose work and selfishness over the people that should mean a lot to you. So that grandpa died, and you weren’t there, your mother was very sick, but of course, because you chose your selfish path, you weren’t there.
It usually comes from the conviction that you should “be there” for your parents, siblings or close friends. Because different circumstances and events would play out from time to time, the feeling of expat guilt may take various forms and hues generated by other things and circumstances.
It could range from one of your siblings graduating or getting married to missing Christmas every year. These feelings can be overwhelming and lead to anxiety and sadness.
It appears there is expat guilt for everyone.
Even if you don’t feel the pressure to be with family or back home on such important milestone moments, you may still be experiencing another form of expat guilt: not “taking advantage” of your experience living abroad.
Being “lazy” instead of exploring, feeling ashamed of living in a fancy area of a “not so wealthy” city, or even feeling bad because you want to travel to a new town and not back home for the holidays.
It is also clear that the form expat guilt may take is inexhaustive, including a deep feeling that is not tied to any particular thing, reason or person (even though they are often connected to people).
By far, the most common type of expat guilt is guilt that has to do with not being close to home, family or meeting the family’s expectations for you. This type of expat guilt is mostly stoked by express comments, subtle responses, coded messages or even outright accusations of abandonment.
You already have a lot of internally generated guilt feelings to deal with. When you have somebody or a group of people reinforcing guilt, it soon becomes a nagging, emotionally draining feeling.
So how do you approach guilt feelings, allowing you not only to cope but to thrive in your new environment?
How to cope with expat guilt
1.- Set boundaries.
That is the first thing you must do. The most effective way to go about your boundary-setting is by communication.
Communication is key to solving most of the problems we encounter as humans. Your feeling of guilt most times would be triggered by the comments, actions or inactions of people you know and care about (otherwise, their opinion would not matter to you).
Speaking to them about how they make you feel might be all you need to take care of your guilt feelings. The conversation might include what you can do to strengthen the bonds and reduce the distance. If the people involved get too unreasonable about things, you may as well minimize contact with them.
2.- Working out a visiting arrangement
This is a great way to set boundaries and manage your guilt feelings. Arranging how and when you visit or reconnect with your loved ones may help reduce the expectations because everybody knows when to expect you back. Not that you have to abide strictly by the travel plans, but at least it reduces the comments about “how you have abandoned family” and, consequently, feelings of guilt.
3.-Taking Proactive and Practical Actions.
Moving away from your home country is a necessary decision you considered and needed to make. Having now made it, you should focus your energy on managing the aftereffect of your decision. This you could do by scheduling regular skyping sessions, facetime, calls, etc.
Have an “emergency plan” when the guilt kicks in: call a person you trust, immerse in a self-care routine.
Feel the guilt but remain on your journey. This is hard advice to give, but giving up and running back home maybe even worse.
Managing Inner Expat Guilt.
Having taken steps to halt the external reinforcement of expat guilt, how about the guilt that comes from within? The accusations you label against yourself?
Accepting that you would feel guilty at a point because of the decisions you have made. Whether expat guilt or guilt over other things, guilt feelings are still emotions, and we feel emotions whether we want it or not. If this is the case, we might as well accept our guilt feelings living abroad.
Expat guilt doesn’t go away or vanishes. Make room for those uncomfortable feelings, be clear about the values that made you decide to live abroad, and be kind and compassionate towards yourself.
Remember: all emotions are helpful and providers of information. Guilt might be a sign of fear, uncertainty and self-doubt. It expresses a need, and it is essential to address it.
If you are searching for an expat psychologist online, I can help you. My counseling approach is based on scientific methods helping you identify, connect, and move forward towards your goals, guided by what matters to you.
Do you want to know more about on how to overcome Limiting Beliefs of life abroad? Check my Workshop here
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By your side,
Gabriela Encina is an online psychologist specialized in expat women and supports them with the guidance and tools they need to feel confident, make the best decisions for their lives, build and maintain meaningful relationships and prioritize their well-being.
Her approach is practical, solution-oriented and focused on the present.
Gabriela offers counseling to expat women in Spanish, English and German.