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Why moving back is harder than moving away

Have you ever moved back to an ‘old’ place after living somewhere else for a while? Or do you know someone else who has? What most people don’t realise is that reintegration can be more difficult than leaving in the first place

When people make grand plans to move somewhere new OR their company decides to send someone overseas for a contract, a few things tend to happen. Firstly there is usually a fair bit of help and support provided by the company. Secondly, there is a high level of excitement for the new adventure, often combined with an awareness that it will be different

A transition out of the place of origin is expected to be different! Pretty obvious, right? So why would we assume that ‘moving back home again’ would not be?

When I work with people in transition in either international or domestic relocations, the biggest challenges are not on the way out into the world. They hit when people are moving back home again.

Of course this made me curious, so I decided to study this topic in more detail. It seems the most common themes are:

  1. It’s not the same. Clients often tell me that in many ways “nothing has changed“, but in reality it has changed. You can never experience the old place in exactly the same way again, even though many things might feel familiar. 
  2. People returning back ‘home’ feel misunderstood. Some even feel that people don’t care. I always talk about how change is the only constant thing in life, regardless of where we are. But when we experience new things, we often change much faster than the people who experience more of the same. Let’s keep it real here – it’s not that expats want everyone to sing and dance about their adventure all day long. They just want someone to acknowledge their experiences and that they may have changed (most often in a good way!).
  3. Logistical support is only a small part. Emotional and social aspects are harder to do, but the most important ones. Both family/friends and companies tend to find this really difficult. The basic human needs are not only about food and shelter, they need to cover connection and care as well. How do you support a staff member or family member through a reintegration in their old home? Same as you would with anything else! Listen, make space for them and do activities together to create more opportunities of connection. 
  4. What does this mean for career development? Some people are able to propel themselves forward and really leverage off the experience they had in the other place/country. Others come back to a role, company or job market that has stagnated or even worse, disintegrated. For many people career is closely connected to identity – what we do is part of who we are. This is why the career aspect can make the return back home even more difficult if it’s not managed by both the expat and the company they are coming back to. 
  5. It’s important to have a debrief with self and family. Most companies or families don’t spend nearly enough time on this. To mark ‘the end of an era‘ it’s important to have a few sessions to record the learnings, challenges, great memories and new focus points. Unless we create a clear bridge between what was and what is to come, it’s easy to get stuck in the past and not fully participate and contribute in the ‘old place’ again.

What’s your experience been like around this?

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