How to deal with reverse culture shock

going back home can be stressful

Don’t let reverse culture shock ruin your visit back home.

Reverse culture shock describes the feelings of confusion and frustration someone may experience returning home after time abroad. It is not easy to get over it because no one expects not to fit in at home anymore. Even though you rationally accept that life at home didn’t freeze the moment you left, to actually see people get by quite fine even without you is a big shock even for the least egocentric person.

Spending time abroad changes a person, whether they can see it immediately or not. You don’t realize how accustomed you have become to those “strange” little habits of your host country that you couldn’t make sense of at first. Sadly, this epiphany comes when you go back home. Perhaps this is why one of the most surprising and hardest to deal with “symptoms” of reverse culture shock is when you realize that you miss your host country as much as you used to miss home… or even more!

Why do I feel like a Martian in my own home?

Going back home for the first time is an exciting moment in the life of every expat. We have all spent hours planning our stay. Anticipation and daydreaming about  various reunions, conversations and other possible memorable events take more time than actually getting the suitcases ready.

Unfortunately, soon after you arrive, you start to realize that the places you used to go with friends feel sort of weird and unfamiliar even though they haven’t changed. For some reason you don’t feel as close to your friends as you used to. Even the neighbourhood you grew up in doesn’t seem like the safe harbour you thought it was when you were leaving. Suddenly, being home is not as good, as safe and as comfortable as you expected it to be.

There is also that unpleasant moment when you share your life-changing experiences abroad and you can see the people closest to you trying their best to show understanding. You feel they want to show empathy even though they a) don’t have the slightest idea, b) would love to change the subject to something mutually interesting, or c) all of the above.

Is there a cure for reverse culture shock?

Of course there is! First of all, preparation is a key factor in dealing with reverse culture shock. Remind yourself that life went on, that it is possible that your relationships have been altered because of time and distance. Don’t have high expectations, rather consider a couple of worst case scenarios, just in case. The less you expect, the harder it is to get disappointed. It also makes it easier to be pleasantly surprised.

Be patient. Give your loved ones time to understand what you have been through, but also, give yourself time to get back into their lives and their “not-so-extraordinary stories”. While buying a new car might seem like nothing, compared to the Argentinian dance instructor who taught you how to tango… in Argentina, it could be the highlight of your best friend’s year.

Search for activities related to your host country that you enjoyed during your stay there. Try to contact people from the host country that now live where you are, or connect with other expatriates who might understand what you went through.

The best way to not drown in the sea of culture shock (reverse or not), is through communication. Whether it is your friends and relatives at home, or your new friends abroad, keep in touch, share your experiences with them and ask about their lives. Not only will it strengthen your relationships, it will also make future transitions less stressful.

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Carolina says:

Hi Lily, I’m very sorry to hear your expat experience has such a netigave side. It’s unfortunate but I think a reality that there are often cliques within expat communities. Although I’ve never felt blatent snobbishness from other expats, it certainly seems there is a hierarchy here in Brussels as well. Andrew and I certainly aren’t at the top of the financial ladder and found we had little in common with many of the other expats we met. On the upside, after 6 years, we have a wonderful network of friends here but it took a long time. I’m wondering if there are any classes or activities you are able to enrol in? Maybe some beginner’s language classes or cooking classes in English? It could be a way to meet some other like minded people. I also found the internet to be a big help when I was going through my rough times. There are many trailing spouses out there these days who are blogging and who are willing to lend support. Some of my best expat friends and supporters are people I’ve never met in person but have had meaningful emails and skype conversations with. Hang in there and I hope things get easier for you.