We know that moving to a new country and adapting to expat life are challenging tasks. However, returning home after living abroad can be just as challenging and even more problematic. Join me in this article, where I explain what can happen and, above all, how to face the reverse culture shock and fully enjoy your return home!
What is Reverse Culture Shock?
It is the process of readjusting your home country while both you and that country have changed. Your “new” self has to adapt to your “old” home.
These changes take you by surprise. You expected that everything would be the same. When that doesn’t happen, you may feel confused, frustrated, disoriented, irritable, even with the smallest changes that don’t correspond to what you remember.
You are readjusting. The result of the ambivalence of not feeling at home as you thought you were and of having adapted and accustomed yourself to the ways of acting, thinking, and lifestyles of your host country (even though you thought you weren’t!).
The adaptation process comes when you realize that you are not the same because you have integrated a different culture and vision of life into your identity. And those you left (friends, family, work environment) have also changed.
How is Reverse Culture Shock?
– Unpredictable. You don’t expect this kind of feeling. Even if you’ve read or talked about it. How you feel takes you by surprise, again and again.
– Ambivalent. It’s a constant struggle between euphoria and disappointment. Why, if I want to be here, do I feel this way?
– Associated feelings: happiness, excitement, confusion, fear, disappointment, anger, isolation, irritability, sadness, nostalgia, anxiety, frustration.
– Physiological/organic changes: Sleep and eating alterations – your body is re-adapting to food and even water!
– Adaptation to climate (natural light, temperature, wind, etc.)
Stages of Reverse Culture Shock
This is a crucial stage if we want to live a calm and less stressful process. Organize all the bureaucracy, contact a recommended moving company, where you are going/will be living, etc.
There may be an initial phase full of joy and excitement about going home and being with all our loved ones we missed.
3.- Confusion (culture shock)
These may be because we encountered something different from what we were used to or what we were hoping would remain as we would like it to be or what we wanted to find.
We are no longer a novelty, and now it is time to face up to “normal” life, leading to feeling isolated and out of place.
We experience a process of mourning as we leave this new life that we had created for ourselves abroad and to which we got used to.
Also, we are grieving the memory and recollections we had of our country of origin, and the people there, friends, family, acquaintances have probably changed as well.
There is a feeling that the effort to have a sense of belonging will never end as if we will always have to be adapting.
5.- Adjustment and Integration
To adapt ourselves again to that difference that we find.
Circumstances that Influence its Duration and Intensity.
– Why you moved.
If you left “running away” from something (a bad love relationship, a family problem, and even ideological and political reasons)
– The time you were abroad.
A stay of 8-12 months is not the same as one of more than five years. The more ideas, norms, and values you have adopted from the culture from the country you have lived, the more difficult it will be to get used to them in your home country.
– The number of times you have lived abroad and returned to your country.
The first time you return to live in your home country is the most difficult because it is the first time you have lived abroad and the first time you return home again. Each time you return to your home country, it also becomes easier to adapt because you know what to expect.
– The contrast between your home country and the country where you have lived as an expatriate.
The more cultural and language differences exist between countries, the more likely it is that re-adaptation will be difficult
– The amount of interaction you had with friends and family while residing abroad.
– The amount of interaction with the locals in the country of origin.
– Important life events.
Significant changes may occur in your expat life. Perhaps you got married or became a parent. Or the loss of a job, death in the family. All these changes can affect the return dramatically because they can negatively affect the come back to your country of origin.
– Whether or not the return to the country of origin is voluntary and planned.
This has to do with being mentally prepared to go home. Expats who do not want to leave the country where they are residing may experience more difficulty adapting because they miss the country’s culture. They resist accepting the country of origin.
– The reasons for returning.
Suppose you went abroad with a primary goal and could not fulfill it (you didn’t find a job, you left because of love and the relationship did not prosper, etc.). In that case, the feelings and thoughts will not be the same as if you returned from studying or an assignment for a specific time.
Before becoming a Repat
If you are considering repatriation and are undecided, I invite you to ask yourself these three questions:
Do you want to go back?
Are you taking this step because you want to return, or is it the result of work, pressure from family or friends? Do you think it is time to return? Do you assume that you would be happier if you returned to your home country?
Does this decision only affect you?
It is essential to involve all parties in your decision. I don’t want to say that you have to depend on others, but look at how much you care about their opinion. And of course, if you have a family, if they are willing and how much they would be affected by your repatriation.
Are you ready?
Are you moving alone or with your family? Will your partner going to find a job there? Where are you going/will you live? School for the children? Your social life?
Try to organize everything you can before you take your flight back. Repatriation is not easy; the more you take off your shoulders, the stronger you will feel for what is to come.
How do you prepare yourself before going home?
If you are reading this article before returning, keep these tips in mind:
Ritualize your goodbyes.
From your house/department, from the people, from the streets, from the places you loved to visit.
Get in touch with your closest friends in your home country.
Find out about their lives, find out, ask questions. Tell them about yourself too, about your news, about what you want them to do when they meet again.
Coordinate the practical and bureaucratic aspects BEFORE you return.
From the moving company to your children’s school, to your partner’s residence visa, etc. Everything you can organize from afar.
How do you deal with reverse culture shock?
1.- Integrate what you have learned abroad.
Try to combine habits, meals, traditions you acquire during your time abroad into your daily routine. It will allow you to mold your identity by mixing the new and the already known.
2.- Accept changes, both yours and from others.
It is crucial that you incorporate the idea that everyone has evolved. Regardless of the amount of time you were abroad, the sooner you accept (not that you like it or celebrate it, but accept) that changes have occurred, the more comfortable and less painful your adaptation will be.
3.- Concentrate on the present, on your here and now.
Especially in the most challenging moments, you will feel tempted to return with your thoughts to that beautiful time being an expat. Bear in mind two things:
– memories are partial and subjective, and we tend to forget the bad things.
– your life, your reality, your being, are in the present. That is what matters most and what you have to pay attention to feel good and strong for the challenges that lie ahead.
4.-Be confident that it is a momentary state. It will pass.
Think of all the times you had to overcome obstacles, and you have succeeded! Trust yourself, give your mind and body time to adjust, and be patient. You will be fine!
5.- Talk to people who have been through something similar.
In social media, more and more people share their experiences of repatriation. Contact them, follow their blogs, and even ask them explicitly for their opinions, advice, tips.
6.-Contact a professional specialized in transitions, ideally repatriation.
More and more mental health specialists have specialized in dealing with expatriation and repatriation issues.
I have worked with more than 300 expatriates and repatriates, in addition to having gone through both processes myself.
Don’t forget that it is a grieving process, and as such, it is not linear, and you can “jump” from one stage to another without apparent order. There is no standard way to deal with reverse culture shock. You go at your own time, with your emotions and your ways of dealing with it.
If you like movies, I recommend this film to understand what is happening to you in a symbolic way: Regarding Henry, with Harrison Ford and Annette Benning. I don’t want to go too far ahead, but it has to do with what’s probably happening to you.
Check my new package Roadmap Coaching Session, especially thought for repatriates! Let’s design an action plan for you to navigate your re-entry with joy and ease!
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Still not sure about making the next move? Read the testimonials of my clients living the life abroad they want!
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.