Fish out of water: The transition to expat life

Are you planning a new life abroad? You may be fulfilling your dream of immersing yourself in a different culture. Or perhaps you yearn to live in a warmer climate? It could be that your life is such that you feel the need to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh start in a new environment. Maybe your career advancement is dependent on an overseas posting? Are you moving to join your partner in their home country?


You won’t be alone in going through the experience of becoming an expatriate (commonly abbreviated to “expat”). There are over 4.5 million British citizens living overseas, with around 300,000 joining them every year. Their reasons for living overseas will be manifold. Some will be expats for a short period and some will never return to their home country. But, whatever their story, they’ll all have one thing in common: they’ll experience, to a lesser or greater degree,  “culture shock“, the period of confusion and disorientation during which they learn to adapt to their new environment.

The honeymoon phase

Unless you’re unfortunate and had to move overseas against your will, it’s likely that, when you first arrive in your new home, you’ll go through a honeymoon phase. Everything about your new environment will be exciting and welcoming.

What’s not to like about the warmer weather? There are so many new places to see, places to eat, and people to meet. You’re finally able to live in the same country, and the same house, as your life partner. You’ve got home help so you can leave the kids and enjoy an evening out as a couple.

Reality sets in

But, slowly and surely, feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, confusion and fatigue will begin to creep in and take over. Reality sets in. This isn’t a holiday; it’s not temporary; this is for the foreseeable future. Where you once saw excitement, you begin to see hurdles.  

You’re not as fluent in another language as you thought; everything you say seems lost in translation. You can’t work out how to get the wi-fi connected. You’re missing your favourite food and restaurants. You’re no longer the go-to person at work to get things done; in fact, you know nothing about how the local market works.

Your partner gave up their job to be with you on your overseas posting and is struggling to make friends. You’ve got no close friends on the ground to confide in and blow off steam with. Your parents back home are making you feel guilty about leaving them. Everything seems so much of an effort; you’re exhausted and emotional. Why did you agree to this?

Settling in

This period should pass and you should settle into your new home. There’s no rule as to how long this will take. For some, it never happens, and they conclude expat life is not for them. But, most expats carve out a new fulfilling life in their new environment. They master another language; they make new friends; they embrace different cuisines; they work out how to negotiate business relationships; and they make new experiences they will carry for them forever.

Working with a therapist

Whether you’re currently planning your move abroad, or your expat life is already underway, working with a therapist can help you prepare for, and unpick, the many emotions and experiences that new expats face but are all too often unprepared for.

When choosing a therapist, you may find it helpful to work with someone who has first-hand experience of both culture shock and, as you will probably return home one day, reverse culture shock.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, SW11 1EH
Written by Linda Clark, MA Counselling Reg BACP MA Hons
London, SW11 1EH

Are you looking for someone who can help you explore the issues and challenges you're facing in a non-judgemental and genuine manner? I support clients in reflecting on their situation, making positive changes, building resilience and achieving personal growth. Going to counselling can be daunting:...

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