Dealing with expat guilt

May 20, 2019 | 12 comments

By Carole Hallett Mobbs

Moving abroad is the adventure of a lifetime. It’s scary, exhilarating, intimidating and awe-inspiring in equal measure. There are ups and downs in every moment of the planning, packing and moving.

Guilt is a natural part of deciding to become an expat.

The decision to move is usually one that suits the immediate family and can be made for a whole host of reasons – job and retirement opportunities being two common ones – but ultimately it comes down to choosing a better lifestyle for yourself, your partner and maybe your children. The trouble is, there are almost always other people who demand your consideration.

Split responsibility

Living in a different country brings with it a strange sense of split responsibility. Your primary obligation is to your immediate family but you also get to feel responsible for those left behind.  Unless you’ve developed a unique ability to split yourself in half, this is something you’re going to have to face up to.

Let’s be honest about this – moving abroad is essentially a selfish decision. Your parents, siblings and friends are going to miss you horribly and would probably prefer you didn’t go and selfish equals guilty, doesn’t it? Yes, it is the right decision for you. But those left behind may not agree and this will inevitably cause sadness, distress and in some cases, even conflict. We’re taught as children that being selfish is wrong but let’s take a moment here to look at the alternative.

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Stay at home instead?

You have the choice to not leave and stay at home. You miss the amazing opportunities that an expat life offers you and you bend to the will of others. You’ll always be on hand to deal with the everyday family ups and downs, you’ll never miss a birthday or family Christmas, your children will grow up in the bosom of their extended family and you’ll care for your parents as they get older. They will all be happy that you’re there. Initially they’ll congratulate you and be thankful that you ‘made the right decision’ but eventually, as time ticks on, your sacrifice will be forgotten and everyone will go about their lives as if nothing momentous ever happened. Everyone that is, except you. You will be left forever wondering what might have been. You won’t feel guilty – but will you feel fulfilled and happy?

Now who’s being selfish?

Now let’s look at this from another angle. If you’re being selfish for wanting to move, aren’t other people being selfish if they try to hold you back? Oops – that’s the sort of thought that you’re going to feel guilty about later! There it is again – guilt. Completely unavoidable from the moment you even think about relocating. You’re guilty (and selfish!) if you go… but you’ll end up feeling resentful (and guilty!) if you don’t. Unavoidable, soul-destroying and limiting. So, instead of trying to avoid it, let’s look at what we can do to reduce it.


The first thing to do is accept it. Other people don’t want you to move, you do want to move and you are absolutely going to feel guilty about that at some stage. Just add it to the list! Guilt is something that every adult, certainly every parent, experiences at some point – we feel guilty about how we spend our time, how we spend our money, how often we call home or spend time with our loved ones, whether we are “good” partners, whether we eat the right foods, weigh the right amount, lose our temper too readily… the list goes on and on. The thing is, we don’t let guilt get in the way of all those other decisions (I feel guilty about eating chocolate and buying handbags, but I still do it!) so why should this decision be any different?

Take a pragmatic approach

Approach it pragmatically. Why are your family and friends reluctant to see you go? Simply because they’ll miss you. They may go through a grief process, with all the usual stages – denial, anger, sadness… and eventually acceptance. Counteract this and set in place a reassuring schedule of contact. Arrange regular Skype catch-ups, book them tickets for their first trip to see you, buy them beautiful stationery and tell them how excited you are about writing real letters. Get them involved in the everyday decisions; let them help you and make them feel needed. Especially for parents, seeing a child move away from home (even a grown-up child) comes with a feeling of rejection; of being “cast aside”. You can minimise that – and you’ll feel good about it; not guilty. Embrace your independence!

You also need to be aware that leaving people behind is not the only source of guilt for expats (sorry!) There’s also anxiety about the effect the move will have on those who are going with you, particularly children if you have them. You’ll feel guilty when they struggle to settle in to their new home and new school. You’ll feel guilty when they cry because they’re missing their extended family and their old friends. You’ll feel guilty when they are confused and upset by the new language and culture and you’ll feel guilty when things don’t quite work the way you planned and you end up feeling a bit homesick, because then you’ll wonder if all the grief and upset was even worth the effort.

Guilt is crippling and it eats away at you. Guilt can ruin your entire experience and make you doubt the wisdom of your move. Guilt can even make you give up and go home with your tail between your legs…but only if you let it.

You made this decision with your eyes wide open. This is an amazing opportunity, a fresh start, a new life. Accept the guilt and be honest about it; talk it through with your nearest and dearest, keep a diary of the ups and downs but don’t let it control the direction of your future.

Credit: Expat Child,

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