By Ashlea Maher
New research into how the expatriate experience shapes individuals reveals that moving to the UK is viewed as an “existential need” and results in significant and lasting physiological effects.
While investigating why so many young Australians continue to embark on the rite-of-passage adventure of living in the UK, Australian Times spoke to leading psychologists and psychotherapists about the experience.
In his latest published study The End of Belonging, London psychologist Dr Greg Madison explores how and why expats, including Australians, live in London.
His analysis reveals that Australians migrate to the UK with a ‘deeply-felt existential need’ for adventure, in search of self-understanding and career growth.
He told Australian Times that many people choose to move overseas because they do not feel truly settled at home.
They actually migrate in an attempt to resolve this lack of settledness.
Despite the emotional effect that relocating away from Australia has, Dr Madison said the experience is one of the most life-changing experiences one can undertake.
He argues that who he describes as ‘existential migrants’ discover more about themselves and feel more alive when confronting unfamiliar cultures.
“Unlike economic migration, simple wanderlust or forced migration, ‘existential migration’ is a chosen attempt to express or address fundamental aspects of existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner,” Dr Madison said.
“Individuals leave their home because they never felt ‘at home’ in the first place.
For some, the choice to leave can eventually result in not being at home anywhere in the world, leaving these individuals to live within a sense of ‘homelessness’ that includes a complex mix of inconsolable loss as well as perpetual adventure and self-discovery,” Dr Madison explained.
He added: “These individuals raise interesting questions about our definitions of home and belonging.”
“Is home where we are most ourselves or is home the very thing that exiles us from ourselves?”
Dealing with the issues of home and belonging, he said, are “very emotional and poignant”.
UK psychotherapist Paul Clark regularly helps Australian clients to deal with their expat experience.
He told Australian Times that the ‘relocation process’ faced by Australians’ is a challenge that impacts uncomfortably on their psyche.
Warming to the UK way of life is a battle for Australians, according to Clarke.
“There’s always the question, do you hold onto your original heritage or adapt to the culture you are now in,” he said.
“I notice people find the British culture less easy to adapt to. I think it’s the lack of directness; the British reserve and lack of directness is quite difficult for Australians to navigate around,” Clark explained.
Clark also believes that as they struggle to deal with British culture, expat Australians must also confront a sense of something being ‘wrong’, arising from feelings of dislocation caused by the fact that they have left their Australian life behind.
Dr Madison said expats will never go back to Australia the same and usually return with a more worldly approach to life. On the whole, they never regret the experience and even feel superior to those who have not undertaken such an adventure.
“There is an assumption of time travel,” Madison explained.
“When expats stay long enough and go back to Australia, they realise they aren’t a time traveller, that Australia has changed. This is also an emotional experience,” he said.
Dr Madison said that expats having difficulties with these emotions should accept the feeling of homelessness and shouldn’t expect settledness, especially in a world increasingly driven by globalisation.
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