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Understanding guilt in relation to our life abroad

Guilt when moving abroad (also known as expat guilt) is a thing, and it is incredibly multilayered. It spans from feelings around dear ones back home to your new life abroad. But once we understand it, we can use guilt as a way to be a better communicator and bring forward changes that we want to see in our life. 

If you are curious and want to learn more, I recorded an episode on my podcast We are here, too, and I have included a detailed blog post below about guilt when living abroad.

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Defining guilt: an emotion full of meaning

Guilt is an emotional state characterised by a sense of remorse or regret over actions or thoughts that one believes to be wrong or morally unacceptable, where family values, societal standards and culture shape the form of our guilt. If we go a bit deeper, guilt shows us our uncertainties and fears, our need to bring changes into our life in ways that feel more aligned with who we are.

Guilt as a social emotion

When we move abroad, we are exposed to different customs and different ways of understanding and socialising, therefore our moral compass may clash with the one of our host country. And we are lost and need to figure out how to respond. 

Furthermore, living abroad can sometimes create additional stressors that may contribute to the feeling of guilt, such as missing loved ones, feeling homesick, or struggling to adjust to a new environment.

Ultimately, guilt can be a moral compass that informs us that we need to bring in changes, review/ come to terms with our priorities, make amend when needed and set a more solid basis for future challenges.

What are the feelings associated with guilt when living abroad?

Those who experience guilt may have feelings of remorse about something they have done which is considered wrong. I don’t know about you, but during my time abroad, I lived through countless situations when my priorities clashed with my moral compass, and decisions had to be made that upset all parties involved (and I’m referring to attendance at funerals and weddings to meeting friends).

The years of the pandemic were particularly difficult. Feelings of insecurity, confusion and anxiety also came to the surface around those times, not knowing how and what to prioritise to ensure that everyone was ok. 

Shame is another feeling associated with guilt. I found this feeling popping up, mainly when misunderstandings result from language barriers and different cultural references. 

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Exploring the common causes of guilt among those who moved abroad

Guilt can be a complex and personal experience that can be related to living abroad in different ways. Although a human experience, guilt is not universal, and you know what relates to you and why. That said, these are some common causes of guilt among those of us who moved abroad.

Separation from family

Being away from loved ones for an extended period of time can sometimes lead to feelings of guilt for not being there for them or for neglecting important relationships (for example, the birth of nieces and nephews).

Cultural differences

Living in a foreign culture can sometimes lead to feelings of guilt when our behaviour clashes with cultural norms or values.

Financial success

Financial success is a double edge sword. On one side, you may feel guilty for a wealthier and more stable life compared to your dear ones’ back home (and you may feel guilty for not being able to contribute or not contributing enough).

On the other side, if there is no financial success and you are struggling, you may feel guilty for choosing a life abroad, feeling exacerbated if you had dear ones insisting that you stay. 

Abandoning responsibilities

Living abroad can sometimes create a sense of guilt if you feel that you are abandoning responsibilities, such as looking after the family business, caring for ageing parents, supporting siblings financially, or fulfilling cultural or familial expectations.

Enjoying life abroad

Finally, some of us may feel guilty for enjoying our life abroad and feel like we are being disloyal to our home country or neglecting our roots.

Overcoming the challenges of guilt while living abroad

Overcoming guilt when living abroad can be challenging, but we can implement a few strategies to support us in the process.

Talk it out

Sharing your experience with someone you trust or a mental health professional can offer a new perspective, clear your thoughts and explore why guilt is there in the first place. You’ll be surprised to find out how much there is. Making room for these feelings to come to the surface in a supported environment relieves tension stored in our body and improves some of the physical symptoms associated with it (such as poor sleep hygiene or an upset digestive system).

Communicate

Keeping in touch with friends and family back home can help you feel more connected and reduce guilt. 

Communicating openly and honestly with your loved ones fosters empathy whilst managing expectations. Sometimes, we have to have difficult conversations, even when we fear offending or hurting the people we care for the most. I still remember vividly the time I had to tell my parents that I had no idea when I would be back from Scotland, to have then another conversation with them to say that I had no plans to come back (and it’s now been over ten years!).

Examine

Guilt is a great tool to re-examine our belief system. This process, at times painful, will put us face to face with our current situation and empower us to shape a life that best aligns with what we have now. It will help us feel more confident and secure in our choices, and it will also make us feel more integrated in the new place. 

Remember your why

Life abroad can be challenging, and guilt is the voice over our shoulder that says “you shouldn’t have left, go back”. Remembering the reasons that brought you to move abroad in the first place may help to quiet that voice. And if that feels difficult and your why is not there anymore (you may have fulfilled it already or other whys need your attention more), you can now build on that knowledge and work on ways to move forward. 

Conclusions

Guilt is a normal part of the human experience. Living abroad can bring about guilt due to being separated from loved ones, missing important events, and navigating cultural differences. Whether through regular check-ins with family and friends back home, seeking support from local resources, or embracing the new culture, there are various ways to manage guilt and make the most of your time abroad. 

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3 thoughts on “Understanding guilt in relation to our life abroad

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