Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Chances are that even before you set a foot into your new host country, you experience expat guilt. It is this undeniable feeling that you are about to do something that may not be right especially since you have to disappoint and potentially hurt people along the way.
First, we have to define expat guilt. Have a look at Merriam Webster´s definition of guilt:
a feeling of deserving blame for offenses
Now what are the offenses, that you as an expat are guilty of?
As a starter: you are about to leave your country, your friends and family behind. On the one side, your family and friends may not support your decision and they may even voice sentences like "How could you leave us alone!" Or they may say it in a more subtle way "We will REALLY miss our grandchildren. Especially since we are already so old. Will we ever see them again? Do you really have to move?" And let's address the elephant in the room here: you are leaving them alone. You are taking the grandchildren away. And in the worst case scenario you literally do not know if and when you will see them again. That is a fact and it will have an impact on you. It will make you feel guilty.
Even if your family and friends are very supportive of your decision, you yourself will have those feelings. Can I leave them alone? Can I take the grandchildren away from them? How much time do I have left with them? Is it really okay what we are doing? In most cases, especially if you are very close to them, you will experience guilt. Expat guilt.
The same is true if you have to quit your job. What will happen to my job once I am gone? Will I get my job back when I return? What will happen to my career when I will be living abroad? Again, you will experience guilt wondering if you are making the right decision.
Unfortunately, this feeling will keep on giving once you are in your host country. Worries about are we doing the right thing will come up and when you are in the middle of culture shock you might question everything.
Then there comes the time to repatriate and the people back home are looking forward to having you home, but you get the offer to extend your assignment. What are you doing now? Can you stay longer because you like your new life and by doing so disappoint the people back home who were expecting you? You simply can't win.
If you have children expat guilt takes on an even higher level. You know you are responsible for them and yes, the expat adventure is a wonderful experience and everything, but it will also force them out of their comfort zone and they didn't ask for it. They didn't ask to learn a new language, to leave their friends and grandparents behind, to leave their school behind, to become human chameleons, to grow up with many wings but not with a lot of roots. Depending on their age, it was your decision for them. And the moment you have to leave either your home or your host country and you see them cry because they have to say good-bye to a life they will never have again, is brutal. It can make you feel guilty to your inner core.
It all comes down to you making a decision. It is your decision to leave. Nobody is forcing you to go. You could also stay. You have an option A and an option B. And let's face it: whenever we have to decide between two (or more) doors, we fear we go through the wrong one. We fear we may regret our decision for the rest of our lives. We fear we mess things up. We fear to make a big mistake.
Assuming you have already made your decision, you are already living the expat lifestyle the question becomes how to deal with expat guilt.
First of all let me point out that by definition expat guilt is a feeling. It is not a fact, not a certainty nor a reality. It is a feeling. It is you worrying about if you have made and are making the right decision.
What is the best way to deal with fear? To ignore it? To push it aside? No, you address it. Exposure is one of the best ways to deal with fear. In our case you have to be open about what you are feeling, talk it through and figure out a way to deal with it.
For example, if you are worrying that you won't see your parents again. Let me ask you: is this a true statement? Or is it possible to schedule regular visits, phone calls, surprises, post cards and include your family in your adventure? Let your imagination run wild: what can you do so the relationship with your parents doesn't have to suffer.
If you are worrying about your children what can you do to give them stability along all of your moves. What routines would support your children. Maybe it is a Friday evening board game event, maybe it is celebrating their birthday in a similar way. In most cases it is talking with them what they are feeling and not responding with a "But, you have so many privileges" and rather a "Tell me more!" validating their thoughts and concerns.
As much as we expats would wish those problems wouldn´t exist in the first place, they do. And if you don't address them, if you ignore them, you may actually regret your expat lifestyle in the end. But if you think it through, take the time and effort to come up with solutions and remember that the expat lifestyle comes with a price, you will be prepared.
One more thought: option A, staying at home, doesn't guarantee that you have a good relationship with your family, that your children will find amazing friends and school is a walk in the park, that your job runs smoothly, that you will live a life without any problems either, right?
Every decision comes with its own consequences and the decisions we regret the least are usually the once we thought through.
COACHING because it is best to address expat guilt.
BEING BRAVE ISN´T THE ABSENCE OF FEAR. BEING BRAVE IS HAVING THAT FEAR BUT FINDING A WAY THROUGH IT.
- Bear Grylls -