Re-Entry 101

The Moment Everything Changed in Re-entry (spoiler alert: it had nothing to do with reverse culture shock)

A few days into my first re-entry after living abroad for a year, I happily joined my parents and brother for a family dinner. While growing up, we each sat in one particular spot at the dinner table, and at that first post-abroad family dinner I quickly noticed that my younger brother was sitting in “my” seat. 

I asked him to move so I could sit in “my” spot at the table.

He said no, because it was “his” spot.

I said, no, it’s mine.

Move it.

Now. 

But he wouldn’t budge. 

(I should mention here that I was 17 years old and my brother was 14!) 

The thing is, I’d been away from home for a year. And my family had only lived in that house barely a year before I left for Germany. So maybe my brother had indeed claimed “my” seat as his after I’d left. Or maybe I’d simply forgotten which chair I used to sit in.

I really don’t know.

What I do know is that I got super mad, burst into tears, and ran off to my bedroom, where I spent the rest of the evening crying my eyes out and wondering what was wrong with me. 

At the time, I couldn’t explain why I’d blown up over something seemingly so trivial. After all, wasn’t living abroad supposed to make me flexible and adaptable?!

Nor could I explain – or even identify – the overwhelming mess of feelings that overcame me as soon as I saw my little brother sitting in “my” spot at the table. All I knew was that I suddenly felt bewildered, lost, and completely alone during my first re-entry freak out.

That moment at the dinner table confirmed what I’d started to suspect during those first few weeks back home – that everything had changed. I was different. My family was different. My friends were different. And, more importantly, we could never go back to the way things were. 

Feeling like I’d lost “my” seat at the dinner table poked at a deep fear I could feel but not articulate — that choosing to leave home to live abroad meant I’d lost my seat at the table of my family, my friends, and my home. I had no idea where I fit in anymore. Even more confusing? I was so upset and sad at feeling like I no longer belonged while simultaneously not wanting to fit in anymore.

Re-entry is SO much more than reverse culture shock!

At its core, re-entry is about figuring out who you are and what you want your life to be like now. It’s a highly emotional experience, and you’re likely to feel many complex and often contradictory emotions in the weeks and months (sometimes years) after returning home after living abroad. And it’s completely normal!

How did other returnees feel in re-entry? Here are some emotions returnees shared with me:

  • Inspired, resentful, impotent
  • Joyful, inspired, dissatisfied
  • Inspired, isolated, lonely, challenged
  • Excited, frustrated, isolated 
  • Isolated, directionless, reflective
  • Disoriented, sensitive, hopeful
  • Sensitive, isolated, thankful
  • Frantic, inadequate, isolated
  • Introspective, reflective, forward thinking
  • Overwhelmed, eager, isolated
  • Inspired, happy, lost/isolated/lonely
  • Overly critical of my home culture, misunderstood, and very, very tired
  • Relieved, anxious, drained
  • Appreciated, yearning, frustrated
  • Disoriented, isolated/lonely, overwhelmed/frustrated

As you can see in the list, not all of the emotions these returnees feel are negative! But a good number of them are.

That’s why the first step in the Re-entry Roadmap process – and the first step in making re-entry a transformative experience that fuels growth – is recognizing and naming your emotions.

There’s amazing power in just that first step — I’ve seen it first-hand in workshops and coaching sessions! Identifying your emotions and then processing them is one of the keys that unlocks the deeper insight, meaning, and ease you seek in re-entry. Living abroad is the catalyst. Re-entry is where your transformation is made visible!

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About Author

Dr. Cate Brubaker is on a mission to make re-entry after living abroad a positive, transformational force (even when it’s not easy…especially when it’s not easy)! Cate is the author of the Re-Entry Roadmap workbook and the Study Abroad Re-entry Toolkit. 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.