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Upside Down Expat

The sting of expat guilt

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Free Happy Woman Enjoying Nature. Beauty Girl Outdoor.

Living overseas, away from family, can incite guilt for many. Yet it can be hard to assess whether the guilt is a sign our life is misaligned with our true desires, or if we carry an unprecedented amount of responsibility.  This post assesses where you may sit on the overseas scale of guilt.

Once, I killed a bee. Immediately I felt guilty. In what appeared to be a revenge attack, seconds later, a second bee, I assume a member of its family, came along and stung me. Of course, this reinforced my remorse; I really shouldn’t have flattened that bee, even if it was going to sting me.

It’s a scenario symbolic of the pattern of the guilt that has plagued me throughout my life. The fear of impacting others negatively frequently threatening to engulf me like a swarm of bees to a sticky mess of honey.

No guilt has bit with the intensity it has since I have lived overseas.

Living far-away from my family is a persistent stress that sits just under the surface of my conscience. It takes little to trigger an internal storm of remorse; a special occasion or an important milestone, or, particularly painful; family members falling unwell. It never leaves me.

Yet ironically, it’s the force of these feelings that have taught me to eliminate culpability that doesn’t accurately reflect my values, desires or responsibility.

Because excessive guilty feelings are most likely shaped by our upbringing, and, particularly as women, society.

If you feel guilty for living overseas, here’s a guide to assessing whether it’s a real reflection of your inner self, or if it stems from somewhere else; 

Rarely Feel Guilty – Independent family values

Some families’ are not reliant on one another socially, emotionally or practically. Mobility may have been a part of life for a long time, or individual freedom is the fundamental fabric of their family. As a result, living overseas only incites guilty feelings occasionally. This is arguably a healthy way to be. Although for those that continue to be close, a regret at missing out on time is likely to remain.

Regularly Feel Guilty – close family ties

Other families are more inter-reliant. This is true in my immediate family; we lived close by and saw each other all the time. While family members are openly excited for the opportunities that come our way, including living far away, strong bonds can mean our absence is felt more intensely. For this we feel immensely guilty. Mostly though, the genuine sadness at missing out on memories is an accurate indication our life is not a true reflection of the values we like to live by.  Yet, dwelling on it is futile. As with our life’s desires split in two, we’ll always be required to relinquish an option that is the ‘right’ thing to do.

Always Feel Guilty – Skewed sense of responsibility

If we find ourselves thinking living overseas impacts others more than ourselves, it may be that we hold a skewed sense of responsibility. Many reasons; challenging childhoods, unhealthy relationships or societal conditioning can cause us these emotions. We may hold a misplaced perception that our life choices affect others more negatively than they do. Yet when we inadvertently allow others’, perceived or real, ideals to guide us more than our inner values, we can wind up living a life that’s not properly aligned with our true desires.

Constant Sense of Guilt – You’re a woman

I’ve yet to meet a man that has articulated guilt for living his life in exactly the way he likes. Yet, it’s a conversation I’ve had with women from many countries. It’s a disparity driven by society; women are conditioned to be caring and conscious of others’, while men are nurtured to think more of their individual needs. It’s why men get labelled selfish universally!  We can confuse selfishness and self-care, often adopting emotional responsibilities that are not ours to bear. Yet while trying to satisfy everyone but ourselves may seem like an easier solution at times, it will take its toll eventually. Including on those we are aiming to please.

Intensely Guilty but Resentful – Family put you on a guilt trip

Whether harshly direct or subtle but intentional, some families inflict a thick layer of guilt on relatives living away. They may take it as a personal betrayal. But while we can all understand the loss felt from living away from our loved ones, ultimately to do this is to project responsibility for feelings onto family. They may be effective in administering culpability, but can also simultaneously inject a deep sense of resentment. In this case, applying pressure to repatriate can sometimes have the opposite effect and push loved ones further away.

Overwhelmed with Guilt – Family members unwell or unhappy

When family members fall unwell or on unhappy times, we can feel an inevitable and tremendous sense of regret that we’re not there to help take care of them. Unfortunately, particularly after living away for a long time, it’s not always easy, or best-for-all, to uproot established lives. Yet it’s possible to provide support from afar, while remembering that our loved ones wouldn’t want us to live our own lives unhappily.

Feeling guilty for living overseas can pose an incessant threat to our happiness.  Yet, while some guilt is good, guiding us to live a life aligned with our values and desires, a skewed sense of responsibility can drive us to make decisions that are not in our best interests.

Good guilt can be defined by a genuine sadness, not only for our families, but for ourselves. Our main regret is missing out on time together. This complicates things when we love life overseas, but in the long-term it may help us decide which parts of our life to make a priority.

Unnecessary guilt may be able to be defined when we feel driven to make decisions that immediately ease our discomfort and anxiety. The pain so intense, we can feel compelled to dash home more quickly than we’d run with a colony of bees up our bum!

Yet often the right decisions are the most difficult ones. They may sting for a little while, but it’s nothing compared to the pain we experience when we fail to live a life aligned with our desires.

Whatever the source, putting our happiness first is not wrong; it’s wise. Like a bee must feed and prune itself before it can collect pollen and pass honey to everyone else, to fulfil our real responsibility of treating others lovingly, we must first look after our own needs.

And we can’t do that if we’re unhappy.

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