Your visit home  is coming to a close. You´ll be back to your “normal” life abroad soon, but all you can feel is a knot in your stomach. As your departure time approaches, you fight back the urge to cancel your flight or throw away your passport. You reluctantly get on the airplane, holding on dearly to an overpriced airport beverage like it´s a piece of home. You sigh heavily as you exit the plane, and spend your first two weeks back feeling irritable, off-track or simply down in the dumps. You´ve got the Expat Re-entry Blues.
There´s got to be better way.
There is – and it starts with understanding what is behind the re-entry blues and then experimenting with ways to work with it.
In part one of this two-part series on expat re-entry blues, I will focus on this often neglected aspect of expat life. I´m not talking about the blues you feel when you repatriate permanently to your passport country. Rather, I´m focusing on the sneaky blues that ruin your last few days of a visit home and then proceed to stalk you as you readjust to your “normal” life abroad. (Don´t worry, I won´t leave you without any defenses, in part two I´ll offer more ideas on how to battle these blues, including my final video in this special video series.)
Expat Re-entry Blues Flips Culture Shock on Its Head
When people land in a new cultural environment, it is common to feel excitement, anticipation and, of course, some shock or disorientation. An optimal outcome is adapting, at least as far so we feel satisfied.
The re-entry blues works much differently.
You take a break from your expat life likely after you have already adapted in significant ways. Maybe you visit home or take a much-needed vacation. Instead of anticipating an upcoming adventure into the unknown, you remember and dread the things you least like about your life abroad. Once you return, you are burdened by the renewed sense of a sharp contrast between “here” and “there.” You actively yet unconsciously find evidence for why you feel so miserable in the first place. Gradually, after a few days (or even weeks) pass, you dig yourself out of the rut and return to your normal life.
Up until now, you may have not been able to put your finger on your resistance, reluctance or even the sadness. One experienced expat shared what was running through her mind as the expat re-entry blues hit her, “What´s going on?! I was happy before. Now I am mad as hell, and I don´t know why!”
I believe part of the problem is either that the level of awareness of this type of expat re-entry blues is low, or that our experiences of it remain somewhat taboo to openly share.
It´s time to start talking about it.
There are lots of reasons you may slip into this special kind of blues. Here are four.
1. Expat Re-entry Blues Is the Second Leap into Cold Water
When you first move abroad, you don´t know exactly what you are getting into. It´s like standing at the edge of the high dive, peering down at the pool and guessing how cold the water is. When you take the plunge, the shock from the icy water  hits you but your only choice is to get used to it.
The second time around though, you have a much better idea of just how cold the water is. Brrrr.
You ask yourself, “Do I really want to jump back in? Do I have to?”
For you, the cold water may represent a reluctance to be back in an environment where slower customer service is to be expected. Perhaps it´s a resistance to the awkwardness you feel as you try to communicate in the local language. There may be a gap in shared values or a realization that becoming part of the local community is going to take a looong time.
Go ahead, jump back in. You know it´ll be a shock to your system, but you can have confidence in knowing that you’ve got what it takes to acclimate (again). Getting used to the water is a renewed commitment to your growth. Reluctant or not, it´s a willingness to continually extend your intercultural understanding.
2. Expat Re-entry Blues Is a Home Hangover
It´s easy it is to get intoxicated by the comforts of home. You do all you can to take in cherished conveniences. You pack in every waking moment with friends. You share belly laughs and familiar foods with precious loved ones. It´s no wonder that your mood takes a dip after these lovely highs.
Be good to yourself and create a soft space to land when you get back to your life abroad. Go ahead, indulge in cheesy movies (or whatever brings you comfort) to soothe your soul.
3. Expat Re-entry Blues Dances with Bias
Neuroscience has taught us that our brains are inherently selective and biased . It´s simply impossible to pay equal attention to everything all the time. As humans we have evolved to pay attention to what is negative – or threatening – so we will survive.
When you live in an intercultural context, there can be big differences between preferences or values that may initially feel like they “threaten” your preferred way of doing or being. If you´re a person who values boisterous conversations over wine at a fine restaurant, and the community where you live values privacy and quiet – this part of you may feel threatened. If you value punctuality and high-quality service, and you find yourself in a context where your expectations are not met – then these needs may be jeopardized. (Good news, I´ll help you deal with this in depth in part two).
The trouble with letting this negativity bias go unchecked is that we keep looking at our world with a distorted lens. When stuck in the expat re-entry blues, we run the risk of only seeing selective contrasts of what is better “there” than “here”.
Next time this wave of negativity hits, simply acknowledge it.
You can try something like, “Wow, look at how much attention I am giving to what feels off right now. Maybe it´s a good time for me to get some rest.” This simple shift can help you get distance from what feels bad. At the same time, it serves as an important reminder to consider what feels right – a meaningful portion of your life abroad.
4. Expat Re-entry Blues Is a Red Flag
If you´ve got a bad case of the expat re-entry blues, then it´s likely a sign that you need to take an honest look at what´s off in your life:
- What are you least excited about returning to?
- What are your biggest pain points?
- Which of your needs are not being met?
Scan the list and identify where you have power to change the situation. No matter how hard we try, we cannot change others. What we can change is our perspective and our actions.
Today is the day. After you have opened the curtains and thrown out the empty pints of ice cream, it´s time to let new light shine in. Welcome the expat re-entry blues as an invitation to become a more active creator of your happiness abroad.
In the comments below, I´d love to hear what brings on your re-entry blues and what you do to climb out of it.
I look forward to hearing from you!
P.S. If you want to get concrete strategies on how to battle the expat re-entry blues, don´t miss the video coming up in part two! Subscribe now.
P.P.S. Please share the link (https://sundaebean.com/expat-life-free-video-series/) with your friends to invite them to this video series before it is over!
 The question “Where is home?” is often hard to answer for expats. Check out this post for more on this dilemma: The Struggle with the Question “Where Is Home?”
 A colleague and dear friend of mine, Dr. Kris Acheson, shared this metaphor used in one of her classes and has given me permission to use it here. You can read more about Kris here.
 See, for example, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson
Wow! I have exactly the opposite reaction. I get anxious about returning to the States, and, once there, can’t wait to get back to Costa Rica.
Thanks for your comment. I am guessing there is something about Costa Rica that really fits you – so you feel like you are coming “home” more there than when you are in the USA. Just guessing maybe it is something about quality of life that fits better in CR – or a misalignment with the what is happening in the USA. Getting anxious about going the US is likely preparing yourself for the classic cultural re-entry shock. 🙂
Quite true, sundaebean, on both counts. I’m far more comfortable in my adopted country than in the States. Also, from the start, I have considered myself an immigrant as opposed to an expat – an important mental distinction for me. I’ve known a LOT of expats here who fit your article perfectly, and many who decided to return home, whether it was to the States or elsewhere. Living overseas can be extremely stressful, especially in the first few years.
I just love the cold water metaphor, and re-entry into Saudi Arabia is extra cold water! After seven years though, it takes a short time for me to adjust, thanks to awareness of where my strengths and expectations get triggered and knowing how to convert that into positive energy. Still, its never easy, and requires vigilance (sometimes lots of it). Thank you for a very insightful article.
Hi Kruger – I am glad that you could gain something from this article. I agree – after years of practice, you get better and adjusting as long as you stay aware of your strengths and expectations. A little mindfulness can go a long way. I would love to hear specifically how you convert that into positive energy – the more tips shared here the better!