Expat Guilt. The one topic guaranteed to fire some people up, the one topic that’s tormenting many of my readers, my groups, my tribe. The topic that gets the most attention, the most comments, the most bitterness, the most sadness and causes every shade of angst you can possibly imagine.
Expat guilt can ruin your life overseas as you’re so busy thinking of others that you can’t truly live your own life. But you're not alone - believe me!
Discover what expat guilt is about, what it’s for, how it can help you see your life choices from another’s perspective, and most importantly, how to manage these heavy feelings. Find out how to deal with your family’s feelings and how to cope with your own.
I’ll give you the tools to help you escape the trap of expat guilt and move forward to a happier life abroad without neglecting your family and friends back home.
Don't let expat guilt get in the way of the exciting life you deserve. You deserve to be happy in your life overseas!
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"Guilt is a useless feeling. It’s never enough to make you change direction - only enough to make you useless."
Okay, let's do this. Expat guilt is what this particular episode is all about. And if I sound a little jaded, it is because I am. This is one topic guaranteed to firestick some people up. The one topic that's tormenting so many of my readers, my groups, my tribe.
The topic that gets the most attention, the most comments, the most bitterness, the most sadness and causes every shade of angst you can possibly imagine. Expat guilt can ruin your life overseas as you're so busy thinking of others that you can't truly live your own life. But you are not alone, believe me. So many of my expat tribe say that they struggle with feelings of guilt. On the one hand, we have expats who feel guilty for leaving their parents when they move overseas, particularly if the parents are ageing and infirm.
On the other hand, we have the kind of parents who make their offspring feel guilty for moving even a short journey away. Sometimes there's both. It's a tough one and guilty feelings are hard to deal with. But if they are not dealt with in a healthy way, they can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression and worse. So let's take a bit of a dive into this.
What is guilt? Guilt is a negative emotion experienced by a person who believes that they have caused harm. You might feel guilty when your behaviour hurts another person. Guilt is defined as a feeling of having committed a wrong or failed in an obligation. The thing is, there's guilt attached to many parts of life.
Guilt that you've not achieved what you hope for. Guilt that you've got bad habits or addictions that you just can't break away from. If you're a mum, then you have mum guilt on top of everything else too. Are we doing the right thing for our kids? And then you move overseas.
And so you have all of that guilt and expat guilt as well, which is basically all of the other guilts times 100. What is expat guilt? The decision to move abroad is usually one that suits your immediate family. So you, your partner, your children. And it can be made for a whole host of reasons.
A better life being the most common one, job opportunities is another. But ultimately it comes down to choosing a better lifestyle for you, your partner and your children. The trouble is, there is a whole set of other people who demand your attention, your consideration, and maybe even your physical presence. You may feel as though you're abandoning the people who care about you. Perhaps you feel guilty because you know your family will really miss you.
Maybe you're worrying that they will view your decision to move overseas as a reflection on them, or that you're disrespecting them somehow. They raised you so perhaps you should feel obliged to do what they want you to do. Even if your family is incredibly supportive, you may well still have feelings of guilt.
And if your family is unsupportive, expat guilt is even worse and you have the whole conflict issue as well. It is dreadful. However, guilt is not always a negative emotion. Guilt helps you see things from somebody else's perspective as the ones who are moving away to new and exciting lives.
Expats can find the pressure of disapproving family deeply upsetting, very unsupportive and extremely annoying. But just for a moment, let's look at it from the point of view of those left behind. Your parents, your children's grandparents and your wider family. Imagine you've invested years of your life raising, nurturing and loving your child. You've watched them grow.
You've watched them learn to make their own decisions. You've watched them succeed and fail. You've held their hand every step of the way amid the ups and downs of life. You have done a great job and now you can let go a little bit.
You can take a back seat, you can watch them raise, nurture and love the next generation and you get to enjoy the privileged role of grandparent. Life is good. You're a very involved grandparent. But then comes the bombshell.
They are moving. They're moving away. They're moving to a whole other country with your beloved grandchildren. The shock can be devastating and conflicting. We raise our children to become independent adults.
We want to see them live their lives to the full and to be happy. That is our purpose as a parent. And then when we do a really great job of raising them to become fully independent, they want to spread their wings and live their own adventure without us. Ouch. The thing is, now they're doing a great job by following their dreams.
And now they want the best possible life for their children and that just happens to be living in a new country. They get all the adventures, they get the new stuff. But for the ones left behind, there is nothing new. Only a hole.
Where a family used to be. You try to be brave and you try to be positive when faced with what feels like a huge loss. Just remember though, you are not losing them. They are just moving. It's not an ending, it's just a different sort of beginning.
You will always be a huge and important part of their lives and they will always look to you for guidance, support and love, no matter where in the world they may be. I'm not going to tell you how old I am, but I still phone my mom for guidance and for advice. My daughter still comes to me for advice, even though she's also an adult. Parents are so important and it doesn't matter where in the world we are. There are telephones, there are emails, there's all sorts of wonderful new technology which makes living apart so much easier.
These days, however, some family members react to this moving away thing by trying to make you feel really bad about it. And they pile on the pressure with anger, with weeping and wailing and massive guilt trips. Needless to say, I don't think much of this tactic. What do you hope to achieve by this? That they'll drop their life plans and stay nearby to suit you?
Don't you want your children to be happy in their life? If you keep doing this, you'll create such a deep resentment that family ties may not ever be retied. You may never be properly reconciled. I understand the pain that you're going through, but taking it out on them like that is not going to solve anything. So what can be done about this when somebody tries to insist on you changing your entire life and to move back to your hometown so that they can?
What is it that they actually want from you? Is it control? The guilt trips part of a control loop. They still want to treat you as a child. Anyway, I'm in danger of getting quite ranty and very much off topic here, so let's move on a bit.
There are a couple of words that crop up time and time again when it comes to talking about expat guilt. I'm going to tell you one, and the other one you can find out in my master class, because this is such a massive topic and one that has come up again and again. I've actually created a master class called Erase Expat Guilt and Reclaim Your Life. I'll link to it in the show notes. So I'll tell you one word that comes up when talking about expat guilt, and the other one, as I say, is in the masterclass, and that word is selfish.
Let me just quote you something and I'll try and get my voice just right for this one. It's actually part of a comment on an expat child. So it says guilt. Yes, that is an appropriate response for being selfish. Being part of a family means sharing love and support.
It is looking out for one another and comes with responsibility to one another. You have hurt many people who made you their priority, including your own children, who now must uproot while you have made yourself the priority. So feel guilty. You deserve it. So, as I say, that is just part of an absolutely stinging comment on my article about expat guilt.
That particular article gains the most comment out of the hundreds on the expat child with lots of pain and lots of bitterness. I'll pop a link in the show notes so you can read the article and the following comments. Okay, let's be honest about this. Moving abroad is a selfish decision. We want a better life.
We want the adventure. We want all the good stuff that expat life has to offer us and our children and what is wrong with wanting a better life? And yes, it is the right decision for you, for your partner, for your children. So, yeah, I guess this is a little selfish, but we want the best life that we can get.
But those left behind may not agree and this will inevitably cause sadness, distress and in some cases, even conflict. So your parents, your siblings and friends are going to miss you and would probably prefer that you didn't go. You are being selfish, and selfish equals guilty, doesn't it? However, this is my take on this. If you're selfish for moving away, aren't the other people being selfish if they try to stop you?
They aren't thinking about what's best for you, only what's best for them. And they may try and cover it up by saying that you're being cruel to the children, but you're not. Are we really meant to live a life of self-sacrifice, and yet I know some people do think that, but I don't. I would rather bring up my child overseas, which is what I did. And she has had the most amazing life.
It's been the right one for her, it's been the right one for us. Guilt is unavoidable, from the moment you even think about relocating. You're guilty and selfish if you go, but you'll end up feeling resentful and guilty if you don't. It's unavoidable, it's limiting and it is soul destroying.
So instead of trying to avoid it, let's look at what we can do to reduce the impact of those feelings. So how do we deal with expat guilt? Now, I'm only going to touch lightly on this because I spend a lot of time going over this in my Expat Guilt Master class, which you can find linked in the show notes. When you're feeling excited about expat life, it can be really difficult to deal with your family's opposition. As I said before, try to take a step back and look at it from their point of view.
Try to be empathetic. Try to consider why they might be against your decision. Only you know, your family circumstances, your culture, their expectations and their ways. So I don't even want to put any more emotions into your head at this point but have a think about why they are so against you moving overseas.
If your family is actively trying to make you feel guilty for moving overseas, they're putting the guilt trips on. They're sobbing in the corner, they're getting cross, they're telling you that you are cruel and all sorts. Then you are going to feel very stressed out in this case, to handle the guilt trips that you're getting, here are a couple of pointers and again, this is by no means exhaustive for the reasons I mentioned just now. First one is to acknowledge their concerns with an honest discussion. Empathise, tell them that you understand and that the feeling is mutual.
You will miss them as much as they will miss you. Number two, create and maintain healthy boundaries. I understand this is very difficult for some but have a go. If your family is projecting too much negativity your way, you need to let them know that this is not okay. They need to understand that you are in control of your own life choices.
You are an adult now. And yes, I know that it's easy to revert back to being a stroppy teenager when you are around your parents. That's quite normal, and they will still view you as a ten year old child. So you need to level up.
You need to meet at an adult level. And the third one, plan some visits in advance so there's something for them to look forward to. But do not promise to visit them every spare moment, every spare holiday that you have. Otherwise you will not get the best out of living in a new country. Perhaps one visit home for you and one visit abroad for the grandparents is a good compromise.
If you're living very far away, then perhaps meet in the middle again. Set boundaries so that you don't feel obligated, you don't feel pressured to sacrifice your life for them. If you try to do your very best to support each generation, your parents and your children, you will quickly burn out. And I say I've got many more tips and advice like this in my master class, so I'm not giving away all of my secrets to a happy expat life today. Just a few.
So now let's talk about how you can cope with the feelings of guilt. I'll give you some mechanisms to help you deal with it. When we leave guilty feelings unresolved, they can negatively affect our mental health and sometimes to a very serious level. First thing is to accept your guilt. It is a natural part of life.
It's a natural part of expat life. I'm afraid other people just don't want you to move. You do want to move. So you are going to feel guilty about that at some stage. Just add it to the list.
Reassure yourself that in time, those feelings will pass. They will, I promise you. Guilt is something that everyone, certainly every parent, experiences at some point. We feel guilty about how we spend our time, how we spend our money, whether we are good parents, whether we eat the right foods, weigh the right amount. The list goes on and on.
The thing is, we don't let guilt get in the way of all those other decisions, do we? So why should this decision to move away be any different? I mean, I feel guilty about buying myself loads of house plants. My latest thing. They are likely to die shortly after they come into my home.
But I still do it. Expats feel guilty for missing weddings, for missing new babies, for missing birthdays. Sadly, for missing funerals and other big family oriented events. It's part of the life that we sign up for. And you also need to be aware that leaving people behind is not the only source of guilt for expat.
Sorry. There's also anxiety about how the move will affect your children. You'll feel guilty if they struggle to settle into their new home or their new school. You'll feel guilty if they cry because they're missing their family and their old friends. You'll feel guilty when they're confused and upset by the new language and culture.
And you'll feel guilty when things don't quite work out the way that you planned. And you end up feeling homesick because then you'll wonder if all the grief and upset was even worth the effort. Just stop. Stop right there. You see, guilt is a useless emotion and it keeps us from living our life to the full.
We can get so caught up in it that we end up neglecting to live, to experience, to enjoy. So feel the feelings, acknowledge those feelings and then let them go. Your kids will settle. They will make new friends. They'll quickly grasp the new culture, probably quicker than you will, and all this angst will pass.
Don't let guilt take over your life. That way leads to hell. Guilt can be crippling and it can eat away at you. Guilt can ruin your entire experience and make you doubt the wisdom of your move. Guilt can even make you give up and go home with your tail between your legs, but only if you let it.
A chap called Daniel Mayeri wrote, guilt is a useless feeling. It is never enough to make you change direction, only enough to make you feel useless. It's true. It's unlikely that you're going to change your plans and stay home. So recognise guilt as a useless or pointless feeling and move beyond it.
You made this decision to move overseas with your eyes wide open. I hope you did. It's an amazing opportunity. Accept some guilt if you must, but don't dwell on anything that you can't change. And that's the key thing.
What's the point of worrying about something that you cannot and do not want to change? Talk it through with your nearest and dearest. Perhaps keep a diary of all the ups and downs. But don't let guilt control the direction of your life. Don't let it control your future or your children's future.
It can be helpful to remind yourself that guilt is not a completely negative emotion. As I mentioned before, it helps us to see things from another perspective. And feeling guilty just goes to show that you care about your family and once again, acknowledge that and move on. Don't let expat guilt get in the way of the exciting life you deserve. You deserve to be happy.
As I've mentioned once or twice, I've recorded a master class all about expat guilt, where I go into much greater detail about how to escape from the trap of expat guilt, how to deal with your family, how to deal with their feelings and how to cope with your own. It includes numerous tips, loads of advice on how to deal with it all so that you can embrace your expat experience. And I'll give you the tools to help you move forward to a happier life abroad without neglecting your family and friends back home. So if you'd like to work through that, to discover how to let go of the expat guilt and to reclaim living your life the way that you want to, check out the link in the show notes. It's called Erase Expat Guilt Built and Reclaim Your Life.
I hope you find it useful. Now let those feelings go.