The returning alien syndrome

Much has been written about the plight of expats and internationals integrating into new cultures. However, returning to your roots can be just as disconcerting, not to mention alienating. And for the accompanying partner it can be a real shock to see their intercultural, exotic partner suddenly fold right back into their cultural conditioning.

Once you leave your country of origin, supposing you had one in the first place, you become like a plant with aerial roots. You cling to cracks and crevices, wind your roots around existing cultural branches and stems, and grow as best you can from the air around you. Some of us thrive in this way, blooming like colourful orchids in our new homes. Others need a little more support to truly embrace their ‘otherness’ while also extending themselves to fit with the culture that they are temporarily inhabiting. In the end, what we all learn is that to be truly home anywhere, you need to be home in yourself. Your heart is your home. And yet, as soon as we unpack our bags in the country where we grew up we seem to forget many of the lessons we learned.

Returning to my roots

Five years ago, I too returned home, back to the swampy wetlands of my youth. After thirty years abroad I found myself back in the Netherlands, living on a houseboat between Hilversum and Amsterdam. I rejoiced in the feeling that I was back in a place where no one could deny me the right to be, and I chatted my heart out to strangers on buses, having been socially starved in my last posting. However, it wasn’t long before I also met the very demons that I had quite probably run away from all those years ago.

When I was little, I was the funny, sweet, but quite irresponsible second child that couldn’t really be trusted. While abroad I hadn’t just gained life experience, suffered through a number of trials and tribulations, I had also used those experiences to grow into a mature and wise, capable being. And even if I didn’t always feel wise and capable myself, I had diplomas on the wall that proved that other people had, through the years, thought me wise and capable enough to do my work as a psychotherapist. Yet back home I soon noticed how I reverted back to type, undermining the very maturity I had once gone abroad to seek.

As soon as curious aunts asked me if I would get a license here in Holland, I mumbled something about incompatible systems. And rather than talk enthusiastically, professionally and lovingly about my work, I would mute myself or change the subject to the houseboat. Because everyone loved the idea of the oddball Lysanne living on a houseboat. Or so I thought. Falling into the trap of teaching others not to take me seriously because I didn’t, or a least my very much triggered young Dutch self didn’t.

Dealing with old demons

Most expats experience a certain disregard for what you are learning or doing abroad but you can usually shake this off the moment you step on the plane. But for a returning expat it is inescapable. I needed to face the challenge of holding my own and not becoming the ‘little sister’. It didn’t help that the Dutch mental health system was too complicated even for me to understand, let alone showing respect for foreign academic qualifications. Even though I was very much ‘one of us’ I was not ‘one of them’.

And soon the old messages came hard and fast: “why do you always do things differently”, “why can’t you fit in?”, or “do you think your foreign experience makes you more special?” And no, these weren’t the things family, friends and potential colleagues were saying to me, they came from my own headspace, thinking the thoughts that I thought others were thinking about me! And yes, in one case it was said out loud, by a haughty lady at the BIG-register office who snapped; “whatever made you think you are as well trained as a Dutch psychologist?” Now I laugh, but at the time it was all fuel for this inner fire, stoked up by old demons, lying in wait in the Dutch ditches.

If you are a returning expat reading this, or trying to help someone reintegrate into their old life, then I can assure you, there will be demons lurking under the surface. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As a therapist I have learned to love these lurking demons, because the closer they are to the surface of your conscious self, the easier they are to identify and be seen for the frightened inner children that they are trying to protect. My inner child is the very brave and overenthusiastic little girl who tried to show the world she was just as interesting and just as clever as her 4-year older brother. In the process, proving their point that I was immature, reckless and a bit of an airhead. My demon of ‘know your place’ existed to protect her from making a fool of herself. She wouldn’t have needed to exist, if someone had seen my struggle to be treated equally, and helped me to stop pretending to be what I wasn’t and be all of the glorious self that I was. But, and here’s the turnaround, even though the adult wasn’t there then, the inner adult is in me here, now.

And lastly, slipping back into an old life script is not only disconcerting for yourself, it can be the beginning of a real crisis in a relationship that started out when both of you were aliens abroad together. You met and fell in love with a real maverick, an adventurous, fun loving person, only to find them becoming the child they once were, seeking the cultural approval they once needed. So for all returning expats and their partners, I give you four steps to reintegrate and make friends with your ‘homefront’ demons.

  1. Stop pretending to be who you’re not: You went abroad to learn valuable lessons about the world and about yourself. You might even have become the cultural teacher rather than the student. Remember who you became, what gifts you bring, and stand tall. Ask someone, your partner or a good friend, what they see as your ‘foreign self’ and your ‘home self’. You’ll be surprised.
  2. Embrace the frightened child: Listen to the wound beneath the whispers. What was the role you were asked to play when you lived in your home country? Who was it you could become abroad that you felt you couldn’t be at home? And how were you protecting yourself from feeling this pain? Understand, accept and embrace, and then find a nice inner playground for this child-self to play in while telling the demon-whispers, ‘thank you for sharing, but I’ll take it from here.’
  3. Integrate the two: With the old wounds and coping mechanisms understood and embraced, bring the ‘standing tall’ energy into your contacts with the home front, and know that you are privileged to savour the best from away and from home, and can let the things that don’t serve you, slip through your fingers like loose sand. You’re different. Your foreign experience will always make you different. Not better, not worse, just different.
  4. Your true tribe: Your most comfortable tribe may always be other global nomads such as yourself. You’re still part of the tribe. Just because you now live in a country you once called home, no one took away your entry ticket. In fact, once you can dance through both worlds with ease, you’ve well and truly earned your belonging.


Only the lonely

While all around you everyone seems to be settling in and dealing with their relocation by the book, you feel lost, alienated, disconnected and very alone. You think you’re doing something wrong. But remember, no one likes to admit that they are lonely and I have found that everyone struggles at some point. Some people are just better at covering it up. But why should you? Why not accept it as part and parcel of the life you have chosen and give yourself a break?

In my experience people who are on to their third or fourth relocation can be especially prone to an inner emotional collapse, a kind of relocation fatigue. At your lowest point you tell yourself, “why bother making new friends when soon I’ll be saying goodbye again?” This is especially true if you feel the decision to relocate wasn’t entirely your own.

The Transitional void

On the whole, it is normal for all of us international nomads to experience periods of loneliness. And with the ‘in real life’ places to meet now temporarily closed off to us, feelings of displacement can no longer be denied. The only thing I can offer is to use the time to look inwards. To actively explore the feelings that lie under the surface of your loneliness and to see where they belong.

I distinguish three forms of loneliness

Being in the transitional void: The first form of loneliness is due to a lack of belonging. Back home in your country of origin or in the country in which you last lived, you would have created a place for yourself and felt affirmed by the relationships that you had there. It feels wonderful to have ‘your’ café, ‘your’ bakery and especially, ‘your’ people to mirror back the core identity with which you were born or that became your new, expanded self when you moved abroad and settled in. From the moment we are born we look for our identity in the eyes of the people around us. In psychology that’s called mirroring. Parents mirror, siblings mirror, but a culture also acts as a mirror. And more often than not these mirrors can act as a distortion, because seldom our childhood mirrors truly reflect back our whole selves.

When a new culture then mirrors back new, previously buried aspects of yourself, it is a great opportunity, but it can feel disconcerting and even threatening to your established self. And in this gap between shifting selves, loneliness steps in as a way to encourage you to keep trying to connect and find more of the lost or under-mirrored self-parts. I feel this phase of loneliness is part and parcel of the foreign adventure and being kind to yourself and not judging yourself is half the battle won. Be creative, turn the void into an inner adventure to see what wants to come forward and why (and which bits of your established ‘self’ get in the way. This can be truly enlightening. Allow all aspects of yourself to gradually take in your new environment. Take long walks, sit and watch the locals, even in this strange time of lock-down, and discover a sense of belonging in the not having to belong!

The exception to this cultural mirroring are the third culture children and adults, who tend not to have a strong sense of belonging to one particular culture, but to the entire tribe of global nomads. In this, I think they are the heralds of a new interconnected global world. Although rootlessness also has its own consequences. But that’s for another blog.

These natives they… : Another form of loneliness can creep up on you after you’ve really begun to know your new home and the things that make the natives tick. You’ve found new and sometimes surprising aspects of yourself being affirmed and mirrored back, but at some point, this adaptation process becomes self-undermining instead of self-affirming. You feel alone with an inner reluctance and may have reached the limits of your desire to ‘fit in’. And this can feel like a disappointment because you’ve tried so hard and you feel you’re attacking yourself from the inside. We battle with earning our right to be more than a guest but, in that process, lose a little of ourselves, and become disconnected from who we are. However, in any foreign adventure, in any new culture, you discover certain unbridgeable gaps between your host culture and your authentic self.

So, in this instance it is good that your psyche tells you, ‘hello friend, this doesn’t feel good!’ It’s time to give yourself a break from adjusting and find places where you can be true to your own culture and personality, while remaining curious and non-judgemental about the things you and the natives just don’t get about each other. Give yourself permission to stop trying to be something you were never meant to be.  

Wounded loneliness: The third form of loneliness is one that you may have already experienced earlier in life and perhaps even a feeling that you had hoped to escape from into a new adventure. Some people get a rough start in life. Distorted mirroring is one thing, but finding a blacked-out mirror to find your identity in, or one that only mirrors back how you should be and not who you are, can create a deep-seated existential loneliness that needs to be addressed lovingly and with compassion. You may unconsciously be choosing to stay well clear of emotionally intimate relationships, and the international community can be a perfect place to hide.

Yet in the long run your lonely heart is not fooled. You carry your loneliness as a kind of self-protective shell inside you where the price you pay for protecting yourself from others is isolating yourself from others. The fear to be hurt (again) is greater than the fear of abandonment and loneliness. If you recognise yourself in this third example, then maybe it would help to talk to someone about ways in which you can slowly, with great respect for your own boundaries, begin to allow the world back in again. As one of my clients said: “it was incredibly reassuring, liberating and comforting to be able to talk about my internalised loneliness without being made to feel like someone who is just not trying ha rd enough, patronized, ridiculed or laughed at.”

Book your first free half hour intake session with Lysanne now.


Therapeutic tools and exercises

Therapeutic tools and exercises

Attentive dialogue: You tell your story, I listen, I mirror, summarise, draw together some threads into a bigger picture, and may sometimes give you a gentle challenge. I’m not the kind of therapist who just nods and say hmm all the time. However, your story is the one that takes centre stage, and you don’t have to take responsibility for me, my feelings, my thoughts, as you might in a ‘normal’ dialogue between two people. For some people this is almost the most challenging part, to be given such a starring role in their own life narrative, with no one trying to steal the limelight.

Guided meditations: We are all wired differently and sometimes words can create and uphold barriers to that still small voice of calm. Guided imagery is a way to enter the dreamlike, imaginary world of the unconscious. Sitting quietly, you go on an imaginary inner journey. It’s not hypnosis, and you’re firmly in control. For most people it’s a really relaxing and even fun way to explore the archetypes of the unconscious. Curious? Below is an example of a very common guided imagery exercise.

The inner parliament: Think of a time when you had to make a decision and you felt conflicted, pulled in two directions. You feel like the rope in a tug-of-war! Stretched out and out of control. By stepping back from the conflicting messages and giving them an identity, you take back control of the process, allowing each side to fully express and explore its point of view and becoming their arbitrator, instead of their victim. And no, this is not about ‘hearing voices’, or having multiple personality disorder.

The observing self: This tool from the transpersonal toolbox is useful for people who are on an existential path and seeking meaning and purpose beyond the immediate concerns of the (little) self. This is a wonderfully centring and balancing exercise, and some people even choose to start every session with it.