It was the first day of the year. We were on an island off the coast of France celebrating with new friends. After crawling out of bed, I peered out over the window sill and took in the roof tops, grey winter sky, and ocean in the distance. A heaviness, tension sat in my stomach. What was it? By every measure it had been a wonderful way to ring in the new year, so why wasn’t I feeling the pleasant buzz of a new adventure. Was I ungrateful? No, I appreciated being here, this experience. I reached for my phone to see notifications of Happy New Year messages that had come in across various apps and time zones. And there it was, the feeling of missing–of longing for the familiar. It still sneaks up on me, I said to myself. 15 years of living overseas and homesick even with home becoming more evasive and extensive with each move.
Living overseas triggers a mix of emotions. The exhilarating journey abroad introduces you to new cultures, opportunities, and experiences. Yet, amid the excitement, homesickness emerges, casting a subtle (or not so subtle) shadow over your international adventure.
Nostalgia and longing for familiar comforts are common signs of homesickness. Cultural shock, while initially invigorating, may intensify homesickness as the novelty wears off. It can make you question whether you made the “right choice” and doubt your ability to “make it” living away from home. Feeling isolated due to language and cultural differences adds to the challenge of loneliness.
This may be the emotional toll of living abroad but it does not have to be a punishment to endure. Let’s explore the psychological meaning of homesickness and practical coping tools to set you up to Live Your Best Adventure.
Homesickness is ultimately a signal of our belonging needs. When we long for familiar people, places, and things, it is because they belong to us, and perhaps we also belong to them. Realizing “I belong to Texas” when living in Fiji was unexpected after spending years growing up in Texas being asked where I was from as if I were not local. We have the right to exist in, claim, and reclaim the spaces that made us.
Sometimes it is hard to know or even appreciate what we belong to until we become too distanced and experience the gap as a painful longing. It can be hard to predict what we take with us into a new location or chapter in life. That’s because homesickness is not just about missing a favorite meal. Homesickness is about missing the “mundane” and the “normal,” and finding it again can be comforting. Things like, not thinking about which side of the street to walk or drive, being able to share a joke with a stranger, or not needing to ask how to turn the shower on. All the things we take for granted when living in a familiar context.
In fact, longing for home can be like putting on a pair of rose colored glasses and seeing your old world like you never did living there. Getting to go back to your home with a sense of wonder and awe is simply a gift. Many globally displaced people leave their homes without knowing if they will ever have the opportunity to return.
To be able to move between both or multiple worlds is psychologically complex. In a record setting age of global mobility, we are increasingly being confronted with questions of culture and our identities. But we are not the first humans to take on this voyage and chances are, you are holding intergenerational homesickness too:
“Most of us have been orphans from our ancestral land, and with it, our people’s history, including the songs, teaching stories and wisdom ways of our lineage. This ache for something deeply familiar, yet entirely unknown, is our longing for a home we’ve always- never known.”
– Toko-pa Turner, in Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home
Being homesick is an invitation to connect with an ancestral longing to embrace the people and places who have made us who we are, even as our identities continue to expand beyond the known. It can be the assurance that we belong in and to the world as we navigate the feeling of belonging “everywhere and nowhere”.
Resisting the call to the inner journey of integrating these identities may look like:
The inner journey involves cultivating a transcendent sense of belonging and “home”, wherever you are. It is a call to develop psychological flexibility on the search for connection and community. It means allowing yourself to sit with the mixed emotions of longing and possibilities as an imperfect unique human being. Ultimately, embracing homesickness is about embracing your unbelonging too. You won’t fit in everywhere (or anywhere at all), and you don’t have to either.
Ideally, adjusting to a new culture and place would unfold organically and Voila! you would find yourself living your best adventure after a few weeks or months. Seasoned expats and global nomads know better. It’s a wise idea to get some structures in place before the honeymoon phase comes to an end. Using these tools intentionally can support you in moving through homesickness.
1.) Establish a Routine: Integrate familiar elements into your schedule. Is it a morning jog, a cup of tea at a certain time of day, listening to a particular podcast? Identify activities that will keep you feeling like yourself even when your environment has transformed.
2.) Create your Home Away from Home: Even if you opt for minimalism, be able to infuse your living space with a few sentimental items, familiar scents, and nostalgic decor to ensure you can create an oasis in an unfamiliar world.
3.) Stay Connected with Loved Ones: Leverage technology for regular video calls, group chats, and social media updates to maintain a constant line of communication. Take what you can get: a scheduled call, 5-10 minute “express catch up”, or messaging. Meet your homies on their preferred apps or get them on board with your system.
ProTips: Set limits/expectations on when you will respond by enabling a Do Not Disturb feature on your phone so that you can adjust to sleeping in your local time zone. Also be willing to take social media breaks if your feed is getting you down from watching the fun back home happening without you.
4.) Cultivate an Expat Support System: Connect with fellow expats both locally and online through community events, clubs, and interest groups based hobbies, business/career, activism, identity, etc. Fostering long term friendships who get homesickness is crucial. One day, you’ll need their support in adjusting back to your passport country too.
5.) Involve yourself Locally: Actively engage with the local life (yes, even when you don’t feel like it) by attending events, trying traditional foods, and learning the language to deepen your connection with your adopted home. Structure your life to include regular interactions with locals and exposure to the culture at a feasible pace.
6.) Become a Regular: Being inundated by novelty can become exhausting–think overstimulation, decision fatigue, and hyperawareness. Make it your mission to find a “good enough” yoga studio, gym, cafe, bookshop, etc. to become a regular at. If you find something better, you can switch it up, but allow yourself to build familiar anchors in your new life ASAP.
7.) Tend to your Homesickness: Rather than distracting yourself from feeling “bad”, lean into your cravings. You might put on a genre of music that reminds you of home as you cook up a family recipe and curl up to a movie set in your hometown. If you are feeling up for it, invite friends and share a bit of the world you are pining for.
8.) Invest in Trips Home: While not always possible, just having the means for a trip home can be a significant relief. Instead of sticking it out because you have no other option, every day braving a new world becomes an invigorating choice you have made for yourself. And in the event of an emergency or unmissable life event for a loved one back home, you’ve already budgeted to be there IRL (in real life).
Between the ferry and road back to our home in France, I processed my longing for my family, old friends, and even “my stuff” which had been packed away in a storage unit before moving into our new place. Two weeks later, I honored the urge and booked a flight to Texas for the following month (I’ll be on the plane just as this is publishing!). As expats and global nomads, we are constantly dancing with identity and belonging. A trip home is not the solution to every bout of homesickness, but it’s not a sign of weakness either. We need to be aware of our needs and the various ways to meet them in order to sustain globally mobile lives. I had to remind myself that being a location independent therapist is more than roaming to faraway places; it is also returning to the places I belong to.
For additional insights on how to Live Your Best Adventure, visit my website www.drneeta.com. You can take the Global Living Inventory (free download) to assess your adjustment in your host country and set intentions for the new year or book a Discovery Consultation with me for recommendations on where to go from here.