When you read about the most common problems expatriates (from now on, “expats”) face in their experience of living abroad, you notice that the topics are recurrent. I will list some of them, and offer a more in-depth description of the psychological consequences associated with the experience of living as an expat.
The first issue mentioned is “culture shock,” which refers to the stress of being immersed in a new culture. But this is problematic, because if you are immersed in a new culture, it seems that you are at least on a good path since you are already participating in the new culture. If you are in shock, it is because you haven’t been able to “get into” the new culture yet. The metaphor of the “shock” allows us to describe this experience with elements of disorientation, frustration, and even a lack of motivation in the process of ̈getting into” or adapting to, the new culture.
Another common mentioned symptom here is “homesickness,” which indicates that the expat person is missing home too much (family, friends, loved ones). The feelings most commonly associated with this figure are isolation, loneliness, and sadness. The general advice given in these cases is to keep in contact with loved ones while the establishment of a new social network is constructed.
But the two most common symptoms usually associated with the experience of living as an expat are anxiety and depression. This has been extended to the point of creating the “expat anxiety” and “expat depression” categories. In order to de-pathologize this experience, I can say that you can find these new disorder categories on the web pages of health insurance companies selling their products to people who are about to moveabroad. Despite this comment, anxiety and depression are the most frequent disorders associated with mental health in general. You can see the stats of the Institute of Mental Health. So, if these are the most prevalent disorders among the general population, if you move abroad, these may also be part of the possible affective factors in your experience.
But let’s try to delve deeper into this and consider some factors involved in the expat experience.The first factor to be considered are expectations. When someone moves to another country or a new city for some time, that person is going to be confronted with “unknown things”, uncertainty, and concerns on how things are going to be in that new experience.
Here I can confidently say that if there are “unknown things,”or “uncertainty” around something, it is because there is at least a “lack” of knowledge, or a “lack” in knowledge.
A not infrequent response to “lack” of any sort is to fill it in, and one regular way to fill in the “lack” is to do it with something we produce, with fantasy being a very frequent way.
Those produced fantasies are a very interesting source of material for psychoanalysts like me because there, we tend to observe the staging of some scenes that, like dreams, show where and how people tend to posit themselves in their relation to others, to the Other, and to themselves.
But the fantasies implied here can be of a different sort. We can easily recognise that there are fantasies related to moving to another country, about how things are going to be, how the experience is going to change us, how it’s going to make our social life much richer, how much fun it’s going to be, how much we’re going to enjoy it, etc. etc. And then, after some time, some weeks, or a couple of months, reality comes in, and as is frequently the case, it does not match those fantasies, or if it does match them, it may do it in some ways but not in others. The concomitant feeling is that of disillusion and frustration.
Those fantasies, when they are conscious, we can call them expectations. That is, we have clear expectations about our new job in a new country, about our future relationship with local co-workers, about our research project abroad and our relationship with other scholars, and about our upcoming social life. But the most important parts of those fantasies are not very conscious at all. Or better say, they are unconscious.
For example, let’s take the fantasy related to moving to another country with a prestigious scholarship. In this case, you are now part of this prestigious group of people, and secretly, for some of you, this can resonate with the realization of some narcissistic or grandiose fantasies that are not very conscious. But the unconscious realization of that narcissistic fantasy can lead to some problems because that grandiosity is not correlated with how people might actually be relating to you, as one scholar among others.
Or just consider the opposite consequence or effect. The fact that you received a prestigious scholarship increases your feeling of insecurity because now you have to demonstrate that you perform at certain high standards, and you start feeling that you are not capable of that. So, the scholarship now is increasing your self-diminishing behaviour, and then inhibition may be a consequence. So, at a certain moment in what is supposed to be an amazing opportunity, you develop some forms of inhibitions, and then you can’t write, produce, nor create, and neither can you concentrate. With an increase of self-criticisms, a low self-esteem is produced, and inhibition and procrastination increases and are part of your daily life.
Another important factor to consider is that, at the beginning of the expat experience, you don’t have a relational network as you may have back in your home country. This is important because we are more sustained in our relationships with others than we usually acknowledge. This doesn’t mean that these relationships we have at home are always healthy or constructive relationships. It means only that we tend to occupy a specific and unknown place in them, which is not a minor thing. Not having that network can feel like those tightrope walkers that have no net below them. Being without that relational network that is more or less established at home is exactly that: you are in another country now, but without the “net” that will sustain you in case you fall, even though you have to do the “work.”
But if we want to be more specific, we can say that in moving from one country to another, you are leaving behind those intersubjective spaces where we act or interact with others, and those spaces are very important for our sense of being or sense of self. Now, when you move, you need to build up both a new relational network and those intersubjective spaces or “public spaces” (used in a more restrictive way) that are part of those relationships and where you produce or obtain your sense of self or sense of being.
Another factor are daily practices. In moving to another country, one thing that you leave behind are some practices and routines that are also important in maintaining a sense of self. Exercising, reading or writing at certain hours and in certain places, eating certain specific food and at certain hours of the day, all of which contribute to the production and sustaining of a sense of self. When those practices and routines are interrupted, the consequence is that our sense of self is affected by that.
So far, I have not highlighted all the positive aspects of this experience. However, I am interested in pointing out some factors that require attention if they persist over time. I have identified two main sources of stress that can affect your sense of self, or in other words, and more broadly, your sense of well-being. The first stressor is the result of the clash between fantasy and reality, which can take different forms, either because fantasies are conscious (like when we have expectations) or unconscious (like when fantasies gratify narcissistic tendencies). The second stressor is how much your sense of self is affected by the move to another culture, where your relational network is not yet developed, your intersubjective space is not yet constituted, and your everyday practices are still unfamiliar. When this is the case, you are at the very beginning of the transition.
However, I want to emphasize one last point. Because there is no established relational network or intersubjective spaces yet, there are no routines or everyday sustaining practices that promote certain ways of being and feeling, you are also confronted with an immense opportunity. For the first time, you can feel free from the demands of the imaginary other and from the gaze of others that sustain and, at the same time, constrain us. We tend to accommodate to others’ demands, which constrains us in realizing our desires because our desires may be, among other things, threatening to those same relationships, and we tend to suppress or repress them. So this experience may have a liberating effect and may offer you an opportunity to establish a different way of relating to your desires, and of making you feel lighter and freeing you from a weight that you didn’t even realize you were carrying.
(Notes of a Presentation at Fulbright Argentina, March 16, 2023)
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