Repatriation Blues: Why coming home is hard and what to do about it

  • young woman feeling lost
Published on 2023-06-27 at 13:00 by TheExpatPsychologist
Often, expatriation is understood to be one big adventure about which one can tell many stories back home. However, the truth is that repatriation (returning home) is often more difficult than expected. 

Repatriation blues

Soon after repatriating, many individuals experience the Repatriation Blues, also referred to as “reverse culture shock”. The term describes a feeling of sadness and emptiness that individuals can experience after returning to their home country. Despite everything back home being familiar, there is a strong sense of feeling displaced and not belonging. As a client once put it: “Returning home after so many years abroad made me realize that I'm no longer the same person. I've changed, but nothing else has.”

Often, the most difficult part for repatriates is that they feel like nobody at home understands them: “Sometimes people even get annoyed when I say that I miss living abroad. It's like they feel offended because I'm rejecting the life they've lived for so long.”

Some people also feel like they cannot share their thoughts with anyone: “They don't even want to hear about my time abroad, what I did there, or who I've met.”

Often, those who've stayed home find it difficult to relate to the expat experience. They may not understand why coming home is so difficult because they've never been away for longer. Perhaps they also misunderstand the repatriation difficulties as complaints. Others may want to listen but just don't know how to help. The bottom line is: Having mixed feelings about living at home again is a normal part of adjusting.

The problem with coming home

So, why is coming home so difficult? How can it be so difficult to return to the place you know so well, to the people you're so familiar with? Precisely that is the problem: Familiarity.

Most of us move abroad because we seek the exciting, the ambiguous, and the unknown. We want to meet strangers, try new dishes and learn a new language. Novelty makes us feel alive.

Upon returning home, the feeling of novelty is missing, and while comfortable, being familiar with everything and everyone soon starts to feel boring.

Often, the home country is idealized while living abroad because it seems like that is where everything is “easy”. Many expatriates visit their home countries once a year to meet with family and friends. This is also often during the summer months. The brief time spent at home conveys the wrong impression, and this is what people have in mind upon returning home.

7 strategies to help with repatriation blues

There are several things that expats can do to soften the blow of repatriating.

1. Preparing for repatriation

As soon as you know that you will return home, you can start organizing as much as possible, i.e., searching for housing, daycare, social security-related matters, as well as leisure activities.

2. Connecting to family and friends

Most expats keep in touch with family and friends back home, but before repatriating, it can be helpful to increase communication. Simply checking in a bit more frequently with everyone back home can make the transition easier because you're already up to date on personal developments and events.

3. Establishing a routine

In transition, we often lack routine. So one thing that we can do early in the process is to think about how a healthy routine could look. You could even think back to the first months you spent as an expat: What helped you settle in at the time? Maybe you signed up for a gym to make sure that you exercise physically. Or perhaps you joined a regular social event, such as Quiz night.

4. Talking to other repatriates

Remember that there are others out there, just like you. It can help to talk to other repatriates, who can relate to the way that you're feeling because they've been there. Even if there are none in your immediate surroundings, there are online communities which will allow you to connect to other repatriates.

5. Managing expectations

Be prepared that the repatriation blues may hit after the initial excitement of returning has subsided. Being mentally prepared to miss abroad can help you be a bit more kind to yourself, e.g., by telling yourself that this feeling is a normal part of returning home.

6. Planning time abroad

Just because you've returned home doesn't mean that you can't leave again. It can be fun to think of a new destination to visit for a holiday or a short weekend trip. This way, you can have both the familiarity of home without having to miss out on the excitement of traveling.

7. Consider getting professional help

In some cases, repatriating can be emotionally extremely challenging. Sometimes, even the slightest smell or taste can trigger a memory of your expat country and strong emotions of longing, sadness, and loss. If you feel that these emotions are significantly impacting your daily life and are keeping you from doing things that you would normally do, you may want to consider consulting a therapist for professional support.