The expat’s feeling of guilt

How to live abroad without feelings of guilt

When you decide to move, to leave your country, your most beloved family and your friends, one of the first things that you keep in your suitcase is a feeling of guilt. Although you are sure of the affection that you feel for the people you are leaving behind in your home country, you inevitably ask yourself if leaving your country is a sign of carelessness or indifference towards those who matter to you, if what it really means is that you have chosen for your own good, without thinking of others. Because feelings of guilt seep in, prospering in insecurity and in doubt.

This is a difficult emotion to manage, which swells up whenever you go away again, after visiting family or after holidays in your country. And when you seem to have found your balance, suddenly somebody in your country loses hers, temporarily or forever, once again destabilizing you as well. You do the impossible to be there, you leave on the first flight, you spend fortunes on travel, you try to keep everybody happy, but that feeling of unrest comes back again when you leave. The words of those who tell you that you can go, rest assured, are of no use. You have already done a great deal, they can carry on without you, but in fact this feeling of unease arises from inside of you: that feeling of wanting to be here and there at the same time, that wanting to be on both sides of these parallel lives that every expat always carries with her.

How can you get over that feeling of guilt due to expatriation?

Some thoughts arising from the experience of so many expats that I have had the pleasure to meet in my personal and professional career:

  • Quality comes before quantity

    As the years go by (especially from 30 years of age onwards), in family relations, among friends and social acquaintances, we give increasing importance to quality rather than to quantity, to intensity rather than frequency. The intensity of the relationship often grows with distance, so much so that we begin to feel that people who are far away are close by, and the time that we have spent at their side, for having been so short, has become more valuable. As Schopenhauer said: "Distance, which makes objects look small to the outward eye, makes them look big to the eye of thought."

  • By going away, you become a point of reference

    Paradoxically, physical distance transforms you into a kind of cardinal point, a person who becomes a reference, someone to call on for guidance and advice. It might be the accumulation of experiences that the intensity of the life of an expat forces you to have, or it may be the fact that they take you as an example because you have had the courage to leave it all behind and go. Very probably, life abroad has increased your capacity to listen, so that often you are the empathetic ear for the family or the circle of friends, the one who they all look to. As Gibran said: "Is not the mountain far more awe-inspiring and more clearly visible to one passing through the valley than to those who inhabit the mountain?"

By observing these dynamics that are created as the years go on, we realize that, in fact, the feeling of guilt is redundant. One often feels closer and more useful to their own feelings when at a distance than living in the flat next door. How is this?

  • When you are, it's at 100%.

    People are often physically by your side with their head somewhere else. When you are present with your five senses, focused on the moment that you are living and on the people in front of you, the person you are talking to notices.

  • By making the best use of the new technologies.

    Since Skype first appeared, the expat’s life has become easier. Instant messenger systems on the social networks allow you to communicate in real time with the people that matter to you. Quite often a message at just the right moment is sufficient for them to realize that you are there.

What about you? How do you deal with living at a distance from your loved ones?

Read the articles on Expats and the world of Intercultural Mind

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