As the plane made its final approach, my eyes filled with tears and a lump formed in my throat. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I could do difficult things.
After all, I’d just spent an entire year doing lots of new and difficult things, like living with a German family I didn’t know and going to school in a language I had to learn from scratch.
As I walked down the jet way to meet the friends and family who were waiting to take me “home,” I felt so proud of all I’d done and who I’d become while living abroad.
But I was also really, really nervous.
What will my life be like now? If I talk about Germany, will it sound like I’m bragging? Will I fit in here any more? Do I even want to fit in here any more?
Soon after returning from living abroad, ALL I could think about was going abroad again.
I became sad and frustrated when friends and family quickly tired of hearing me talk about Germany. Blending in and speaking my native language every day quickly grew boring. And even though people commented–usually in a positive way–about the new personal style I’d cultivated while living abroad, it was like nobody at home could actually see the person I’d become.
I felt like everyone expected me to move on from living abroad, stop talking about Germany, and get back to “real life” at home.
But that was the last thing I wanted to do.
Welcome to Re-entry
You wouldn’t think that going home, that returning to the familiar, would be so difficult, right?
Yet, for most people, it is.
Here’s how three Wanderful staff members described their re-entry experiences. Maybe you can relate?
“After coming back home from a year of studying abroad, I had a real case of reverse culture shock. I felt incredibly lonely, and felt like I had fundamentally changed in the way of my friends and family doesn’t understand. I didn’t have the words to explain what I was going through and thought I was the only person experiencing it. I hope that future people who return home experiencing what I went through now not only have the words to understand what they’re going through but the tools to address it!” –Beth Santos
“I struggled hard with coming home after studying abroad. I felt like everything was better abroad and no one at home really understood. I also didn’t have any idea how to talk about what I experienced. When people would ask, I’d launch into a lengthy explanation of how amazing everything was and it didn’t take long for them to regret asking!” – Marissa Sutera
“When I returned to the US from my road trip around Iceland last summer, it was genuinely hard to be back. Not only had I gotten to escape a stressful job and take my first vacation in years, but on that trip I was able to live in the moment, relax, and just be happy. Once I had gotten back to Boston, I worried I wouldn’t be able to sustain everything I had gained while in Iceland.” – Kaitlyn Kirkaldy
In my work with returnees I hear things like this all the time!
Whether you’ve been living, studying, working or traveling abroad, research shows that re-entry is THE most difficult part of the entire abroad journey.
And while there’s a wide variety of support and resources available to help you prepare and be successful abroad, once you become a returnee you’re typically left to navigate the complex emotions, shifting relationships, and identity issues inherent in re-entry completely on your own.
Why Is Re-entry So Hard?
Take a look at this iceberg.
What’s interesting about an iceberg is that 90% of it is completely invisible below the water line. So, if you’re in a boat floating on the water, you’ll only see the top 10%.
Re-entry is just like an iceberg.
Most people only see the 10% of the re-entry experience that’s easily visible, e.g., travel logistics, unpacking, getting over jet lag, updating your resume, creating new routines, reuniting with friends and family, and some elements of reverse culture shock, such as seeing your home country and culture from a new perspective.
These are the first aspects of re-entry that returnees encounter, and they share several attributes: they’re visible and easy to recognize and talk about, they apply to a large number of returnees, they’re typically experienced by returnees on a similar timeline, and they’re things returnees most often receive support for. They’re also not very emotionally charged.
In the 90% of the re-entry iceberg that’s invisible below the water line, you’ll find more challenging things like grief, feelings of loss, conflicting emotions, difficulty navigating relationships, loss of identity, feelings of not belonging, and much more.
These are the elements of re-entry that are internal, invisible, emotionally charged, and often very subtle. You’re likely to feel these elements of re-entry, often in a painful way, but not be able to adequately describe what you’re feeling or explain why you’re feeling that way.
Returnees are typically left to process these challenging “below-the-water-line” elements of re-entry completely on their own because they often don’t surface until weeks or months after your return.
That delay often leads to relying on coping strategies that are helpful in the short-term but don’t offer lasting solutions to re-entry challenges in the long run. Things like becoming super busy with work, school, family, friends or other commitments, simply ignoring how you feel, indulging in things that provide quick distraction, compartmentalizing your time abroad, or putting all of your focus and energy on going abroad again as soon as possible (that was my #1 coping strategy).
It’s not surprising that so many returnees cope in these ways, because going home after being abroad often evokes painful feelings, and it’s normal to avoid something that makes you feel bad.
But here’s what happens if you use avoidance as your re-entry coping strategy.
Picture your favorite travel backpack. Now imagine that a rock is magically added to your backpack each night while you’re asleep.
At first, it’s not a big deal.
You don’t even notice the rocks that are added to your backpack every night. And you actually get a little stronger from carrying all the extra weight around.
But then, as time goes on, more and more rocks are added and your backpack gets heavier and heavier. At some point, your backpack becomes so full of re-entry rocks that it drags you down and you can’t move forwards.
Here’s the Good News
With the right mindset, tools, and community, re-entry can be a positive – even transformational – force in your life! Here are three tips to get you started:
- Allow yourself to feel however you feel. A lot of returnees downplay how they feel and discount their re-entry trials, thinking they should (or shouldn’t) feel or act a certain way. Re-entry has a way of bringing complex emotions to the surface, challenging important relationships, and making you question everything. While it’s not the worst problem in the world, re-entry isn’t an easy road to travel. Try embracing your re-entry for what it is and then learning everything you can from it.
- Find the right tools for reflection. Your experiences abroad have fundamentally changed you. You know it. You feel it. But you probably struggle to describe exactly how you’ve changed and what it all means for your life going forward. That’s why I created a guide for your re-entry journey: the Re-entry Roadmap workbook (more on that below)!
- Create a re-entry support ecosystem. One of the ways returnees cope once back home is by relying heavily on a close friend, partner or family member to meet all of your emotional needs. Not only is that placing a lot of pressure on those who mean the most to you, it also sets you up for disappointment if friends or family don’t respond in the way you need or expect. A better approach is to create an intentional re-entry support ecosystem – an intentional network of support. That way, you’ll know exactly who (or what) to turn to when you need a boost (e.g., your best friend, the Wanderful Facebook group, a long run, Netflix), and you’ll be much more likely to get the support you need when you need it, which will help you thrive in re-entry.
If you’re ready to make your re-entry a positive, transformational experience (even if you’ve already traveled a ways down the re-entry road), the Re-entry Roadmap workbook is for you! Through reflective activities and inspirational case studies, the Re-entry Roadmap helps you fine-tune your mindset, adjust “forwards”, create a strong support ecosystem, deeply reflect on your experiences abroad, work through the “below-the-water-line” stuff that surfaces for you in re-entry, meet the new you, find your unique Global Life Ingredients, and then confidently find your best next step.
Whether you work through the Re-entry Roadmap solo, with a coach or a group of fellow Wanderful women, know that I’m cheering you on as you turn re-entry into a positive, transformational experience!
Editor’s note: If you’d like to purchase a copy of the Re-entry Roadmap workbook, you can do so here!
Dr. Cate Brubaker is a re-entry coach, consultant, and author of the Re-entry Roadmap workbook, the Study Abroad Re-entry Toolkit, and the I’m Thinking…Travel! Guided Journal. Cate has lived in Germany, worked and traveled in 37 countries on four continents, and has helped all kinds of globetrotters successfully navigate global transitions for over 20 years.