Carol came into the roo
m and sat down quickly. She wiped away some drops of rain from her coat and leaned back on the couch. She was looking down and seemed unable or unwilling to look up.
When I asked her how she was, she muttered: “I’m OK.”
She clearly was many things, except OK. After a few moments and a sip of water, she began telling me why, in fact, she was not OK.
“I should be happy. I’m here in this wonderful place, it was always my dream to live abroad. I have the job of my dreams. Today I talked to my sister and she’s getting married.”
I waited for a few seconds to understand the connection between her not feeling happy and her sister’s wedding.
“She’s my baby sister and I have always wanted to see her get married, chose the wedding dress with her…” Suddenly I could see her eyes watering: “But I can’t make it. It’s a long flight and I’ve just started this project. I can’t take a whole week off.”
Once she was able to convey this information, I asked her: “How do you feel about missing your sister’s wedding?”
“I feel… well, I guess I feel guilty I can’t be with her.”
There it is GUILT. Kudos for Carol to be able to say it out loud, many of us suffer with it and we’re not even able to name it.
From the outside, expat life is glamorous and a constant adventure. Days are filled with excitement, exotic food and drink, and international friends. From the inside, expat life many times is quite different. Expat life is missing important days like family members or friend’s weddings and birthdays. It’s not being able to make it home if a family member gets sick. It’s dealing with the feelings of seeing your partner or child having a hard time to adjust in this new environment.
The guilt is real, and it creeps up unannounced. When you least expect it, you start to feel uneasy and restless. People have different ways to deal with guilt, but I think we can all agree it’s a very unpleasant feeling to have.
When you’re an expat, you are often outside of your comfort zone and maybe more prone to these feelings. Here are some tips to deal with this nagging and uncomfortable feeling.
Acknowledge it’s there & Name it
In order to deal with something, it’s crucial we acknowledge it. If Carol had not come to see me, she may have spent weeks with this nagging feeling without really knowing what she was feeling. I asked her questions that led her to name it. Once you know you’re feeling guilt you can start looking into the reasons why and take action.
Engage with other expats
Many of these feelings are common among expats because we have similar experiences. We are away from our comfort zone, many times struggling with communication and language, dealing with loneliness and adjusting to new ways of doing things. These challenging feelings can get all mixed up and talking to our friends and family back home might not be so effective. Connecting with other expats who are going through similar situations can give you a sense of perspective that is crucial. Search for online and offline groups with other expats and share your thoughts and feelings. You’ll be surprised at how we experience time abroad in similar ways.
Use technology to your advantage
If a family member is sick, talk to them frequently. Facetime them. If feasible, schedule a visit sometime soon. Send them gifts, pictures. Make it a habit to talk to them as often as possible so, even with the distance, you feel close.
If it’s a birthday or wedding you have to miss, like Carol did, have them connect during the ceremony or party. With live streaming, you can even give a toast and speech during the party.
Carol decided she was not going to be consumed with the guilt and she came up with a plan: twice a week she and her sister met up online with the pictures of everything, dresses, decoration, flowers, cake design, you name it.
During the dress fittings, Carol and her sister Facetimed and she got to give all her opinions about the wedding. She even opened a bottle of champagne and drank a glass of the bubbly during the toasts while she saw the ceremony via skype.
After the wedding, I talked to Carol and asked her about the experience. “Well, of course it’s not the same as being there. But I was with my sister for the decisions and I felt I was part of the process. The most important thing is I didn’t fall hostage to the guilt.”
Feeling guilty is normal and it will happen if we’re far away from our loved ones. But falling hostage to the guilt is a choice and there are ways to deal with it that will give you the chance to be present and still follow your international dreams.
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