‘I feel so guilty’. It was a friend of mine who first said these words. T-Bug lives on a remote island a short flight, then boat ride then car ride from the mainland. I don’t see her often. She said she tried to go grocery shopping once. The supermarket was in the next town and she had to have a convoy of security escort her. They all followed her around the supermarket isles, pushed the trolley, unloaded her things for her at the checkout and watched as she paid. Aside from the circus she felt she was in, T-Bug said the expat guilt was too much for her because the cost of her shopping was more than any of those people earned in a week. Maybe even a month.
What is expat guilt? I Googled it to see what had been written about it. Most articles talked about the kind of Expat Guilt people get from leaving their homes, their families, elderly parents, removing children from their friends, cousins and support systems. Missing special occasions is definitely a challenge. It is inevitable when you are emotionally attached to places and people that guilt will creep in somewhere along the line.
The other kind of expat guilt I found less information on is the one I mentioned at the start. The one where we are clearly in a position of privilege compared to those we are surrounded by. That feeling we get from knowing we cannot solve the world problems, that you are blessed with a life so much easier and accessible and you question how this all come about. Why me, not them? These kinds of thoughts can creep into you day, your life and affect your behaviour, the choices you make and even how you live in your own home.
Guilt is a normal and natural emotion to feel. You should not down play it; however there are strategies and things you can do which may help manage the strength of your feelings.
Let’s take a look at the different types of expat guilt you can feel and see if I have any useful suggestions to help.
The leaving home kind of expat guilt
Generally people have ties to home. Family, friends and responsibilities. Each person has to find a way to work through these issues for themselves but here are some pointers to keep in mind:
- This is your life. You have a right to live it the way you want. At the end of the day you do not want to regret taking advantage of an amazing opportunity because your mother cried that her baby was moving away or because friends became jealous.
- Set clear boundaries with the people around you, stating what you need from them. Do not put up with manipulation or negative attitudes. Talk to people and help them understand your motives, but know when to stop. Some people will just be unhappy about it and you cannot change that.
- Be empathetic to your friends and family too. It is as much a big change for them as it is for you. Everybody has to adjust to the change and we all do it differently. Some people breeze through these things and others don’t. Give people the space they need to do this.
You write the roadmap to your life, and you alone set the expectations for how your family and friends treat you. As an adult you get to set boundaries and expectations about the power they exert over you.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and entitled to feel any emotions they choose to feel, and you are perfectly able to sit and listen to all of that. What they don’t have the right to do is use manipulation or guilt to try and influence you to suit their own agenda. You will be surprised though, at how genuinely happy and excited most people are for you.
Uprooting your Children
Do you have guilt over uprooting your children? I did. Wow, the impact of saying goodbye to their friends was overwhelming. When we first arrived the children became very homesick and FB was expecting her friends to be at her birthday party. I felt devastated and the guilt buckled me. What matters here is recognizing why you have made this decision. Your children will be richer for it because they have parents who show that it is okay to be fearless, to try new things, to be adventurous. They get exposed to new cultures, meet new friends and they will be okay because you will find alternatives to missing friends at parties. They get two homes, the old one will always be there and the new one. Something I had not expected was how much closer my two have become. They are the best of friends who adore each other, support each other, protect each other and are always there for one another. I hope this relationship stays as close the older they grow.
Here are some tips that we found helpful in helping our children:
- Spend extra time giving cuddles, and engaging in positive conversations
- Don’t downplay their emotions, they are real, relevant and allowed to be expressed. Talk about them and then ask the child to think about the things they have enjoyed in their new life so far, or ask about what they can look forward to. Make some plans to go on fun adventures that will get them excited. Get older children to research cool places to visit and things to do in the new country and come up with a plan to visit them.
- Talk about home whenever it comes up, reflect on memories, talk about planned trips back and also talk about the fun of having two homes now.
- Bring a few small trinkets from your family home. I packed sparkle stars and sun catchers that the children and I had made for craft. They were hanging in their bedrooms and around the house and now they hang around our new home.
- Create new rituals on arrival in your new home. We started going out for icecream and having sleepovers together. When we had settled more we started baking again and now regularly bake cupcakes.
Remember that children need to feel the full range of emotions and have a full range of experiences. It helps them develop important coping and life skills. Not to mention resilience. We get fearful when our children suffer, but everybody has to feel sadness, fear, rejection and hurt. It is a normal part of life and learning skills to manage these early will help your child flourish in their future.
Leaving elderly relatives, the sick, and the lonely behind
This one is deeply personal. My Gran just turned 98 and I was not home to celebrate. The photos of my family together were beautiful to see but emotional for me. When I spoke to my Gran about moving she was nothing but supportive. I guess I am lucky my family is pragmatic and are very focused on what is best for the individual and their life. The rest of us work around that to provide support and make it work. It is not like that for everyone and I get that.
Here are some tips which may help with this kind of guilt:
- Do what feels right for you, not out of guilt or obligation but what is right in the long run for you and your immediate circumstances. Trust your instincts here. If it is better to stay home a bit longer so you can put better supports in place, then do that.
- Speak to the people you are most concerned about and ask their advice. It is important to be honest with the people you are close to about how you feel and be guided by that. You may be surprised at their advice to you.
- Set up ways to stay in touch. We have so many options available now with technology. The world is a smaller place. I write letters to my Gran. My mum prints them off and gives them to her. We use Skype and the kids come in and out of the room to talk to grandparents and show toys like they are sitting in our loungeroom with us.
- If you have a reliable postal service you can send care packages home.
- Work with your company and family to arrange visits home. By setting dates in advance you give your loved ones something to look forward to.
Guilt over social inequity
If you move to a developing country like the Philippines or a third world country you spend your days driving past homeless people, children living on the sides of freeways and houses made of cardboard and sheets of corrugated iron. When you are at home and you want to treat your children, it is always in the back of your mind that your maid is there and watching. Can she give her children the treats you give yours? No, probably not.
I really struggled a lot more when we first arrived because I arrived with goals to get myself and the children involved in charity work. We have limitations here that I had not considered and that made me feel worse.
Here is some advice on how to manage expectations about the new world you live in:
- People begging on the street are often part of a syndicate and buying into it keeps kids out of school and damages efforts made to break the poverty cycle. If you want to give something, give food. Keep long lasting foods in your car such as crackers and small packets of biscuits to hand out.
- Disabled beggars are often deliberately disabled to earn money or they are pretending. Giving money to this group is again, supporting illegal activity and not assisting people in moving out of the poverty cycle. Give food if you want to give anything.
- Buy local and support local farmers and business owners. Go to markets for fruit and vegetables. When shopping for gifts for home, support local artisans. Buying local is keeping money in the economy and supporting peoples independence.
- Speak to different charity organizations to find ways you can contribute. Be mindful though that sometimes the most powerful help you can give is actually raising money for charities. It is important the community members are involved in their own development. They need to care for each other and build houses and support their local areas. This builds a sense of belonging and also responsibility.
- Employ local people as your domestic help. Offering stable, reliable employment is one of the best things you can do to help. This helps the economy and that person’s family.
- Remember that happiness is not indicative of social status or wealth. In fact some of the happiest people are the poorest. They are okay with what they have and place importance on different parts of life to the rest of us. This does not justify poverty, or inequity, it is just something to be mindful of, that we don’t put our expectations of what a good life is, onto others.
A little bit of guilt is good. It means you have compassion and empathy. That makes you human. That is a strength and shows your good heart.