22 Jun 2024
Expats and mental health: YOUR questions answered
Expat Support General Counselling

Expats and mental health: YOUR questions answered

As an expat, deciding to make the move back home can often be harder than the original emigration. This week YLC’s mental health adviser, Lysanne Sizoo, answers a reader’s enquiry on the unforeseen difficulties of saying hej då to Sweden.


Whether it was love, work, or studies that brought you to Sweden, when these come to a natural end, it can be hard to know how to begin the next chapter of your life. At least this was the experience of one YLC reader, who, at the end of her letter, writes, “the process and decision to leave Sweden has ended up being so much harder than that of moving here some years ago. I would never have expected that.” 

As a therapist, I’d be quite curious to ask the reader more about the ‘pull home’ she describes in her letter. Is it a longing to be home, but a fear to actually make the return, or are other people pulling at her, making her feel she ‘ought’ to go home. Either way, any homecoming after a few years abroad needs to be carefully thought through.

Contrary to popular belief research shows that returning home can actually be harder than leaving.

Reverse culture shock

Jane* experienced the usual ups and downs of settling in to life in Sweden and, despite the demise of her relationship, she still feels able to enjoy all the adventures that Stockholm has to offer. She has made friends and is feeling somewhat settled, while at the same time there seems to be this pull toward home. Perhaps it was easier to relocate to Sweden because, at the time, there was a sense of adventure and, above all, purpose to her relocation.

However, when our adventures have run their course and we do opt to return home, we may be in for a reverse culture shock. This is because we expect that we’re going back to the comfort and safety of familiarity, only to find out that everything has changed. That we have changed. We may have expected that our friends, family, and even aspects of our national culture may have changed during our absence, but we might be shocked to learn that our experiences have altered us in ways deeper than we might have imagined.

As expat expert, Robin Pascoe, explains in her book, Homeward Bound,

“What may not have occurred to friends and family back home (…) is that while they may have changed, they have not grown, at least not in the way that those who have been lucky enough to travel would describe growth.”

This psychological growth, the widening of horizons and acceptance that there is always more than one way to skin a cat, is the most wonderful aspect of having lived away from home. But it’s not always one that the home front is terribly keen to hear about.

A while ago, I wrote about group psychology and the understanding within the discipline that, upon their return, the ‘leaver’ in a group needs to earn their place back in the tribe. And while we are often welcomed home with an initial warmth and fanfare, followed by the familiar honeymoon phase, life eventually equalizes and people become disinterested in hearing about our life abroad. Just as with ordinary culture shock, our old and new identities merge, and we inevitably do settle into to our new life back home.

Dealing with projections of failure

I had fallen in love with Stockholm two years before I met my future (Swedish) husband. We were living in England at the time and, for me, moving to Sweden was the logical ‘next step’, but my husband felt he would only want to move back if it meant his career moved forward. Otherwise it might be perceived that his move to England was a failure and coming home a regression.

So while you know that you have been enriched by your foreign trip, despite the fact that the job or the boyfriend didn’t work out, you may still fear that the home front will see your journey as a failure.

If this fear turns out to be founded, what you need to remember is that others’ feelings of fear of change and failure may be being projected on to you. In the therapy world, this is called ‘transference’.

When we feel transference is occurring, we have two options. We can try and explain that we don’t see our return as a failure, or we can brush off their assumptions and continue on our merry way. However, the latter is only an option if we actually believe we aren’t failures. If there is self-doubt in this area, we must deal with this first.

An identity of non-belonging

If you are settled here, yet also feel a pull back to your origins, perhaps it is time to explore another way of relating to the issue. Emmy van Deurzen writes that the true challenge for anyone leaving his or her home country “is to embrace the identity of non-belonging”. While everything in us wants to feel a sense of belonging, accepting that we no longer ‘belong’ home in the way we once felt we did and that wherever we travel in the world we are outsiders, can be incredibly liberating.

Yes, knowing when your time in your ‘new’ country is up is terribly hard, and the issue may be clouded by some of the fear outlined above. But never forget, nothing we do or experience in life is ever wasted.

As the old French saying goes, ”Sometimes we move back to jump forward faster.”

There are no guarantees you’ll get things right, just the promise that whatever you do, you will learn from it and grow. Not a bad proposition in my book.

* Jane is a made up name.


Copyright 2013: Lysanne Sizoo

Lysanne Sizoo



These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and

clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic

meetings are Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would

never be shared in a public forum.


If you have any specific problem that you would like Lysanne to consider in her articles, please contact her here (anonymity will always be preserved). 




Lysanne Sizoo is the founder and director of Turning Point, the only international counselling centre in Stockholm. In 2008 she obtained her psychotherapy license from the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. She has been practising as a counsellor and psychotherapist since 1997, specialising in the field of cross cultural issues, as well as fertility, bereavement, parenting, anxiety and stress management.





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