Expatriation and its specific psychological issues

Mondassur interviewed Barbara Vionnet, a clinical psychologist who offers expatriates online psychology consultations. In this article, she describes the frequent difficulties faced by expatriates around the world.


Does a change of lifestyle affect expatriates?

A change of country, setting, professional, social and cultural environment that can make the person or people experiencing it more fragile. For some, expatriation is a way of life, for others a one-off adventure and an unparalleled source of enrichment , but it can also be distressing, painful and even psychologically destabilizing.
So what are the psychological issues that can cause suffering in this experience of great upheaval?

Loss of bearings

The most common difficulties are the loss of bearings, amplified by culture shock when expatriating to a country with customs far removed from our own. These losses of reference points are often experienced positively at first, as a kind of intellectual and emotional challenge. This is the phase commonly referred to as the expat’s “honeymoon”, a time of discovery, exploration and wonder. This loss of bearings can quickly become distressing and destabilizing in a day-to-day life that is not that of a vacation, or during particularly emotionally-charged events.
For example, how to experience pregnancy on the other side of the world ? One of my patients, an expatriate in Japan, told me how distressing it was for her to have her pregnancy monitored in broken English, with care and support very different from that in France. This mother-to-be felt very isolated in this internal revolution that is pregnancy, with no family support nearby and in the grip of constant anxiety. The difficulties continued when the baby arrived, with cultural differences in childcare and education…

Separation, bereavement…

The changes involved in expatriation will reactivate issues of separation and mourning. How do you rebuild your daily life in a totally new setting, far from your landmarks and ties? The initial stress faced by any new expatriate will either overcome itself for some, or turn into a more or less pervasive anxiety for others. Expatriation resonates with previous experiences of separation, reactivating the experience of abandonment and undermining self-esteem. I find that many of my patients experience the same difficulties: how do you fit in with family and friends back home when you’re an expatriate? Do bonds resist distance? How can we maintain these ties and keep them alive when we’re no longer geographically close? How to exist and find one’s place when special events occur during expatriation: the death of a family member, the birth of a child… How to exist within this family and friendship dynamic when you’re geographically far away?
Everyone needs to feel part of a group, to have a place. When this place is questioned, depressive experiences, depreciation and isolation can arise, despite the omnipresence of social networks.


One of the issues I also encounter when accompanying my expatriate patients is that of wandering, both psychologically and geographically. Not being able to settle down, to project oneself into a life that can be experienced as fragmented between life in the country of origin and that of expatriation, or between different expatriation countries in the case of multiple expatriations. One of my young patients, who was having great difficulty forming ties in her expatriate country, explained to me how painful the prospect of a future separation from potential friends was. Isolation was for her a protective measure against the experience of separation; this difficulty in anchoring oneself for a given time can be expressed in different spheres: social, professional, friendly…
Expatriation can also make the country of origin a stranger place. This is why impatriation also requires a psychological process of adaptation, sometimes readaptation, which, when unsuccessful, can be the premise of a certain wandering.

Alone or with family

Expatriation can be experienced alone, but also as a family. In this case, the expatriation will be experienced differently by family members, which is not without its problems. For some, it will be by choice; for others, it will be by necessity. I’m thinking here of the so-called “follower” spouse and children, especially teenagers. Family expatriation will require everyone to find their place in this new configuration. I follow many teenagers in the midst of internal upheaval, for whom the expatriation experience is painful: difficulties in mourning their friends (very important in adolescence!), difficulties in adapting to their new environment. When internal upheavals take place against a backdrop of changing living conditions, anxiety of varying degrees can arise.

“Fabulous adventure

Another difficulty encountered by expatriates has more to do with the social representations of expatriation. Culturally, expatriation is seen as an opportunity not to be missed, a sign of success, a chance. Difficulties in living this “fabulous adventure” become difficult to admit, and can quickly turn into a feeling of failure. I’ve lost count of the number of times my patients tell me they shouldn’t complain about their new lives. This factor often delays the request for psychological care, which often arrives when the person has exhausted all other possible strategies.
Finally, in addition to the difficulties specific to the expatriation situation, expatriates will have to live with their initial problems, in a new environment, far from their loved ones and family. Expatriation, however enriching it may be, does not erase the initial difficulties.

Find out more about Barbara Vionnet: For several years now, I’ve been practicing visio-consultation with expatriate patients. In my opinion, this approach offers good results, and enables expatriates and their families to receive appropriate support in their native language, as well as ensuring continuity of contact, regardless of their expatriation experience.

Find out more about covering psychology consultations with expatriate insurance.

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