“Why would you ever want to live anywhere else?” a local once asked me within the first few months of moving to Switzerland. They were understandably proud of their land—Switzerland is fantastic and beautiful in so many ways, but I was in the throes of homesickness, and my culture shock made me feel like a fish flopping around on shore underneath a merciless sun. I had to bite my tongue not to reply sarcastically with a grocery list of all the things that were currently annoying me about Switzerland. Prior to moving to here, I had already been working as a counselor with an international population. I knew the typical trajectory of cultural adjustment: 1) The Honeymoon Period, when everything is awesome, 2) The Deep Dive into culture shock and disorientation, and 3) The Slow Rise into adjustment, integration, and the new normal. (Some people don’t have a honeymoon period, by the way). I knew my period of culture shock would eventually end, but there I was, for all my knowledge, still human, and still vulnerable to it.
Am I the only one who has had the fish-out-of-water experience, or do expats in general really have more angst? It turns out, yes. In 2011, a group of researchers compared 950 expat workers with 1,460 domestic workers, and discovered that 56% of the expats endorsed symptoms of anxiety or depression, while only 21% of domestic workers did the same. That’s 2.5 times more distress y’all! Other studies link relocation in childhood to poorer outcomes in mental health and well-being. It isn’t terribly surprising that people who have uprooted their entire lives might need a little extra tender loving care. Why though? The reasons run the gamut. Work stress, loss of previous support networks, languages troubles, spousal maladjustment, and social isolation and inequity are all on the list. Let me take you through a few common scenarios that understandably up the angst for expats.
Work stress can exist anywhere, but for expats the stakes are higher at work for several reasons. For instance, many expats have chosen to relocate specifically for a job. They’ve uprooted themselves and their families for a new work venture, so if something goes wrong at work, expat employees and their families are more likely to ask themselves if the move was worth it. In fact, a recent survey of expats found that challenges related to a new job was the number one concern for respondents, with 62.8% identifying it as an issue. Expats engaged in international work-based travel seem to carry an even heavier burden, with 75% of travelers and their family members reporting “high stress” in a different study. If an expat suffers job loss, his or her immigration status may suddenly be in question. Even if the expat has lived in his or her host country for several years and has developed deep roots there, they may be asked find a job quickly or leave. Talk about stress!
Individuals who have chosen to immigrate for personal reasons—to join a spouse or other family member, or to escape economic or political instability—may face significant professional barriers in the host country. Indeed, 38% of expat families said that one spouse’s inability to find work in their new country was a major source of concern for them. It is not uncommon for foreigners to discover that the advanced University degree they worked themselves to the bone to achieve in their home country is not understood, recognized, or valued in their new home. They are often left with the dismal choice of starting their education over from scratch or working in a job they are grossly overqualified for. This can cause even the most unfailing optimist to lose heart.
I’m so loooonely, loooonely
About 9 out of 10 expats admit to feeling isolated. That’s a lot of lonely people. Half of those say their loneliness stems from missing friends and family back home. When people expatriate, they are suddenly separated from vital and life-giving relationships that have sustained them through emotional ups and downs over many years. Of course, travel restrictions that have come about in the age of Covid further intensify this reality for expats. Those relationships feel even more keenly precious because they are out of immediate reach, and therefore it is normal for expats to grieve, and to fear missing out on what they have left behind. It always takes time to build relationships when moving to a new place, and language and cultural barriers complicate the process more, which means that, at least for a period of time, most expats are isolated. Since we know that there is a high correlation between social support and psychological health and wellbeing, this fact may explain some of the differences in symptomatology between expats and their local counterparts.
Are You People Crazy?
About two years ago, while spending time outside in my host country, I was scolded for walking across a grassy area with a dog and a boy on a bike. Guess what that person was thinking? “What!? Is she crazy? We all know this field isn’t for fraternizing in!” I had transgressed the unspoken “We don’t walk across this grassy area with dogs and boys on bikes” rule that everyone else knew about, and as a rule breaker, I received the expected reaction to my obvious blunder. But as a foreigner, of course the rule was not so obvious to me. And predictably, I was also thinking “What!? Is that person crazy? Nobody would ever care about that at home!” but we both made sense in our own contexts.
This scenario is familiar to anyone who has ever lived cross-culturally. About 41% of expats list cultural difficulties as a primary stressor. When humans are interacting cross-culturally, sooner or later, someone will do or say something that one of them finds offensive, usually without even knowing it. We do our best to laugh about it and then lean in toward one another out of curiosity and discovery. It gives us a chance to rethink our habitual patterns of interacting—after all, just because some of us are accustomed to everyone behaving like boisterous wildebeests on public transportation doesn’t mean that quiet politeness can’t also be a behavioral option.
Sometimes, though, it is not always easy to see the bright side of cultural exchange in the initial moments of disorientation, when behavior doesn’t engender the expected reactions that they used to at home. Our gut feelings about things can be deeply culturally ingrained. For example, for some citizens of the world, dogs are gross, terrifying beasts who will maul you if they get the chance, and bringing one into your home is absolute insanity. For others, dogs are gentle, loving companions who may as well be treated like children because they share in the most intimate moments anyway, including co-sleeping. Same creature, totally different conditioning. Therefore, in the midst of cross-cultural interactions, a host of emotions may surge up without warning: shame, fear, anger, grief. Expats must navigate this inner labyrinth as they get to know their host culture. Someone living in their own country simply adheres to the cultural rules without bothering to think about them; they are second nature. When you are a stranger in a foreign land though, you don’t always know if what you just experienced had something to do with culture or not—and for some, that uncertainty can cause anxiety to spike.
I Did It All for Love
Some expats have made the bold choice to leave friends, family, and country behind for the sake of romantic love. While cross-cultural elements certainly add depth, excitement, interest, and beauty to a romantic partnership, they also come with unique challenges. Even spouses originating from the same country and expatriating together often experience inequality in professional opportunities, which may bring added tension to the partnership. A colleague from my German class once turned to me and told me that she wouldn’t be attending the final two weeks of our course. She had gotten a job offer, and she knew she had to jump at the rare opportunity in front of her. “So many women come for their husbands’ jobs, and then they have no options after they get here. I know so many women in that situation,” she said poignantly.
When partners come from two different countries, and one partner leaves their home country and the other remains in his or hers, there can be significantly different experiences between the two in multiple areas, leaving the partnership feeling lopsided and imbalanced. Some of these areas include family, language, custom, finances, social support, work, and independence, to name a few. Each partner may find that their sense of self and their roles in the relationship face new trials. Even the most resilient couples will likely face a period of disequilibrium, and may notice a few perennial conflicts that arise in connection with their international status. They will need to work intentionally to find their footing. Feeling overwhelmed about this task is normal; many such couples can benefit from external support when navigating this tricky terrain.
Wait, I am an adult, right?
For all of the reasons already mentioned, it is not uncommon for expats to question their competence and feel like they’ve suddenly been flung back into an earlier developmental stage in life. If you are an expat, you might feel like a two-year-old when trying to find the right words to talk to someone at the grocery store in your new language. After all, you probably do sound like one! Or you might feel 18, if you’ve just started an educational program so you can be competitive in your new job market. Your dependence on your partner for something as commonplace as completing your taxes might remind you of needing a parent’s help for basic things as a child. It is understandable then, when some expats find their confidence sapped by these experiences.
It Was There All Along
For many people, the reason why they are feeling so much “expat angst,” is that their symptoms were actually there all along, but they didn’t fully notice them. Perhaps the comfort and familiarity of their home country acted as a shield that protected them against awareness of how much they were actually struggling. Yet now, in a brand-new context, they can no longer ignore their unhealthy need for control, or their lack of interest in social activities, or the tightness in their chest that keeps them awake at night, or whatever it is that causes them to suffer. The expat experience can be a tremendous gift for those who identify with this category, as it becomes possible for psychological suffering to change and heal once it remains in conscious awareness. Embracing this awareness has the potential to result in deep personal transformation when the right kind of support is also present.
If you resonate with any of the scenarios that I have discussed in this article, and you find yourself longing for formal support, I would love to hear from you, to be a compassionate presence for you, and to journey with you toward healing. Feel free to get in touch with me at email@example.com.
Johannah Baltensperger, LCSW