While vacationing in Trinidad this past January I was chatting with my mom about how different our lives were when my sisters and I were growing up. We sat back and reminisced about the moments that each Caribbean child knows all too well! We laughed as we talked about the hectic mornings she endured EVERY morning as she packed lunches, got us all outfitted in our perfectly ironed uniforms and into the car by 7:30 am for school drop-off. Then after school, let’s not forget about the countless hours of extra lessons and practice, which were followed by even more homework upon returning home. While at the time I thought that life was way too chaotic for any sixteen-year-old to endure, looking back now, I realize just how much my parents sacrificed and worked on a daily basis to ensure that my sisters and I would grow up to become educated, all-rounded individuals.
Mid conversation with my mom, literally out of nowhere, the guilt washed over me. While the conversation did not even include the topic of me moving away, in fact she wasn’t even talking about me specifically at all, the guilt continued to form.
Guilt is a tricky thing. In some ways it’s important. It operates as a social glue that motivates us to consider others’ feelings or fix things when we make mistakes. On the other hand, it can paralyze us through resentment, avoidance, or even a reluctance to enjoy life.
While most people imagine expat guilt involves the family back home giving you a hard time for being far away, there are many more ways the guilt manifests itself in day-to-day life. Expat guilt is the voice that tells you you’re wasting the experience when you take a nap instead of exploring somewhere new in the city you worked so hard to be in. It’s being embarrassed to post certain photos on your social media because you don’t want your friends or family back home to think that you’re being a showoff. It’s feeling selfish for taking a vacation that doesn’t involve a trip “home” or feeling like you’re a disappointment for not moving back home and utilizing your skills to help enrich the country you were born in.
I would love to say that the feeling of guilt gradually subsides the longer I live abroad but that would be untrue. I don’t know one expat who doesn’t face this insidious internal dialogue of guilty self-talk. And in reality that’s where it all goes down—in your head. This week I’ve been thinking about the kinds of guilt I often experience living abroad, read on to get inside my head!
Guilt surrounding your family
Let’s start with the heaviest. As I previously mentioned, the guilt I feel when I really stop and think about how much time I’ve actually spent away from my parents and sisters is incredible.
Most days I’m fine, going about my every day life normally. But there are always those moments, more like triggers, which come about and make me remember life back home or the fact that my parents are growing older and I’m not there to physically spend time with them (my heart is breaking as I type this).
The subsequent feeling is one of overwhelming guilt and I start to think of myself as being really selfish.
My parents have given me everything I’ve ever wanted and although they always go on about how proud they are that I’ve essentially made it so far on my own, the guilty feeling can never escape me. Sometimes you just need your parents, no matter how old you are. It sucks that I can’t eat breakfast with them on mornings or spend time with them on weekends, have my mom take care of me when I’m sick or go clubbing with my little sister like the good old days. In some ways, I’m even surprised that I feel guilty at all since I should have known what I was signing up for when I moved so far away in the first place. Nevertheless, the guilt is still crippling.
Missing out on special events, also known as FOMO Guilt
Sometimes I forget just how old my friends and I are. Regardless of my love/hate relationship with social media, I am grateful for Facebook and Instagram since these platforms truly make you feel like you’re still in the loop or connected to your friends despite the distance. But it’s never the same…
With each wedding, birthday party or special event that I miss, I feel like I’m drifting further and further away from the people who have known me my entire life and seen me at my best and worst. While it sucks that I can’t be there to share life’s special moments with them, I can only hope that the memories I create in my current life will be just as valuable.
How do I cope?
I’m still trying to figure this out. I welcome all suggestions!