Why Do We Experience Reverse Culture Shock When We Repatriate?

The areas affected by reverse culture shock are complex and often beyond our awareness. And we sometimes lack the vocabulary to describe our emotional chaos and name our pain points. Wiebke Homborg explains to us the underestimated challenges of repatriation.
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When expats return home after their international assignment, they suffer similar stress symptoms during the readjustment to their home country as they did when adapting to the host country at the beginning of their foreign assignment.

The reverse culture shock is not a single moment or a sudden breakdown, but rather a complex, largely unconscious emotional state that can last for weeks or months. It is important to understand that repatriation is a major transition and takes time. Time to process everything. Space for the mourning over leaving a country, loved ones and a piece of yourself. It is the clearly marked end of a very special phase of life, going hand in hand with significant personal growth and thus an identity and mindset shift.

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place. Like you’ll not only miss the people you love, but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” – Azar Nafasi

I have summarized the different causes for reverse culture shock in the following diagram based on what I found in literature, field reports and articles combined with real-life experiences from clients and my own. The areas affected by reverse culture shock are complex and often beyond our awareness. We sometimes lack the vocabulary to describe the emotional chaos and name the pain points. This overview should serve as a basis for reflection.

Why We Experience Reverse Culture Shock

Stress due to unrealistic expectations about how easy reintegration will be. Boreout syndrome: Life used to be more exciting.

Loss & reverse homesickness – An irretrievable life phase ends. Grief over the absence of friends, language, climate, places, status, privileges, lifestyle and adventure.

Alienation and lack of understanding – You as well as family and friends have changed. Feeling misunderstood. Rejecting others.

Incompetence – Lack of knowledge about latest social and professional developments. Hard earned skills from abroad are not appreciated or appear to be useless.

Fear & indignation about not being special anymore. Others want to know only little about your experiences abroad.

Confusion about identity, role expectations, changed values, conflicting emotions and new self-image.

From Glorification Of The Time Abroad …

Typical for this phase of repatriation is the glorification of the time abroad. With a transfigured gaze, you rave about all the beautiful experiences and ignore the negative ones. Disillusionment sets in and now it’s the unpleasant aspects of home that stand out. Instead of wearing pink glasses, you now look through your “abroad glasses”, harshly judging the ones around you and criticizing everything.

Ironically, your environment expects that you have settled in and are doing well by now. On the inside, however, you suffer more than ever. You may not have a supportive friend by your side or even be ashamed that you aren’t happy. It’s completely understandable that you’re struggling with yourself, because little by little you realize the extent of your own transformation. You have changed and so have the others.

In addition, being a “cultural hybrid” comes with insecurities and emotional chaos. You start questioning if the assignment was worth it after all. A queasy feeling sets in as you fear you have to start all over again. In their jobs, repatriates often struggle with loss of status and autonomy. Everyday routines still have to be established, which costs a lot of energy. The transformation process is exhausting, and you have a tendency to be irritable, unfocused, unenjoyable and withdrawing.

For children, the process can be just as complex and lengthy as for adults, even if they don’t show it so clearly. Here, parents should observe whether behavioral problems or longer depressive phases occur and seek professional guidance. The responsibility for the children’s well-being often places an additional burden on the parents during this time. All family members need extra attention and loving understanding for each other.

… To A More Balanced Perspective

And now finally the good news: It will pass! Sooner or later you will settle in and fully arrive. Now home feels familiar again, you meet friends at the supermarket, you are fully integrated in your job again, the children have settled in at school, the social network is in place. Routines and everyday life provide security, you regain control, develop more self-confidence and a vision for the future.

In this stage, both your countries can be viewed and reflected from a more balanced perspective. It becomes clear that you can combine the best of both worlds. It doesn’t have to be an “either-or” – you can create your own “as well as”!

Work with me! As a trainer and coach, I accompany repatriates through all stages, from assignment preparation and culture shock to reentry. I offer workshops as well as individual and group coaching.

Picture of Wiebke Homborg

Wiebke Homborg

I help expats navigate the underestimated challenges of repatriation. Reintegrating back into your home culture is often harder than adjusting to a new culture abroad – it takes time. During our sessions, I support the client in processing the losses, managing expectations and becoming aware of the tremendous personal growth that has taken place abroad. We develop strategies for combining the best of two worlds and moving forward in career and personal life.

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