The place to which you feel the strongest attachment isn’t necessarily the country you’re tied to by blood or birth: it’s the place that allows you to become yourself. This place may not lie on any map.Jhumpa Lahiri
If you’ve been abroad for a few years and now thinking it’s time to go back home, what’s in store? Will it be a simple case of sliding back into the comfort of ‘home sweet home’?
You remember the painful times of your move abroad and the difficulties of settling into a new culture. Surely then, returning home should be a breeze… right?
The truth is, you’re not the same person who left. You’ve spent years building a new life in another other country, immersed in a different culture. Therefore, how you relate to ‘home sweet home’ is going to be different.
When you return to your home country after taking the exciting, rewarding and life-changing leap abroad, home doesn’t feel the same. And on top of that, people’s reactions aren’t what you expect them to be.
The expat phenomenon of ‘reverse culture shock’ is real. For many, home just doesn’t feel like home anymore, and that can be quite difficult to process.
Being aware of what you’re likely to face, and preparing for it ahead of your move can really help with the emotional transition.
What is ‘reverse culture shock’?
Reverse culture shock, which strongly parallels the ‘should I stay or should I go’ phase, is the emotional and psychological distress expats and global citizens experience upon returning to their place of origin after being immersed in another culture for an extended period of time.
The myth of returning home
What makes reverse culture shock so startling is home, as we once knew it, no longer exists. Home is much more than a house. Home involves feelings, relationships, routines, predictable relationship dynamics and a sense of belonging.
Living away from ‘home’ and thriving wherever we land requires that we evolve, adapt and adopt the cultural norms of our host country. Over time, our perception of home changes in subtly profound ways and affects our attitudes, feelings and relationship to the people, places and things we left behind.
The unconscious expectation that ‘home’ will stay the same, but now feels foreign, can leave us feeling ISOLATED and ROOTLESS.
And now there’s the task of building bridges between our new selves and the place we once called home.
In his book, The Art of Coming Home, Craig Storti provides insights into the challenges of re-entry that trigger reverse culture shock. Here’s a brief overview of the common experiences:
- Criticality. You’re not as familiar with your home as you once were and now view your culture with critical eyes. You may be more vulnerable to knee-jerk responses, impatience and negative comparisons.
- Marginality. Living away has significantly impacted your identity. Returning home creates new tensions, new questions and new challenges of belonging.
- Overexertion/Exhaustion. You have to re-learn and re-adjust to the routines and rhythms of everyday life. This is just one more item on the seemingly endless list of logistic hoops you’ve already jumped through in the process of returning.
- Resistance/Withdrawal/Self-Doubt. With all the adjustments, disillusionment and frustrations, you may be tempted to escape.
- Situational Depression. Since you may feel like a stranger in your own home, It’s not uncommon that reverse culture shock is often accompanied by a dose of situational depression.
The paradox of joy and grief on returning home can leave us asking ourselves:
- Why do I feel so sad when my life is so good?
- Why do I get angry so easily?
- Why does it seem as if others don’t understand me or I them?
I can relate.
Today, I am an intercultural architect, certified intercultural trainer/coach with a degree in international relations and over 19 years of expat life in Berlin, Washington DC, New York City, Madrid and Cologne.
And as someone who has worked through a few re-entry experiences of my own, I know first-hand that reconciling the joy and grief of expat life with all of its gains and losses isn’t easy.
BUT it is doable.
3 tips to navigate the bittersweetness of re-entry
These tips have not only served me well, but also others seeking clarity around what home means at the various stages of their unique expat journey:
1. Be responsible
Now that we’ve exposed the fairytale of ‘going home’ and revealed the truth of reverse culture shock, affirm your ability to respond to the turbulence in healthy and empowering ways. After all, you have a proven track record of intercultural mastery and resilience.
2. Be strategic
Instead of perceiving this phase as ‘going home’, consider seeing it as the next chapter of your best life and plan accordingly. My 5-Day R-E-S-E-T ebook, will inspire you along your unique path of fully owning ALL of who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re headed.
3. Be kind
You braved your way through the acculturation process. This very same skill set is your greatest tool and ally in mastering the re-entry process with courage, strength and integrity. Be gentle with yourself and others as you step into your new normal.
If you’re currently mired in the ‘messy middle’ of re-entry and reverse culture shock, it feels better to know that others truly understand.
Here’s an interview I did recently where myself and Nicoletta Mura discussed our personal challenges of living globally and experiencing reverse culture shock.
You’re also invited to my Facebook group, Global Citizens on the Move, where you can share your challenges with fellow, understanding expats.