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Home, homeless, homeland, homesick… What do you feel reading these words? For expats “home” can be a rather abstract concept. If you have ever left your home country, experiencing a whole myriad of emotions seems almost inevitable.

It seems that the wish to belong is deeply rooted in our humanness. Working as a therapist with expats, I often witness precisely this: the relationship we have developed with our “original home” may impact the way we are experiencing our life today, in a new place. 

It seems extremely important to make sense of our own life story, a story that always starts somewhere, in a specific family, a specific home and a specific country. Even if that country is far away or even no longer exists, except in our memories.

What Does "Home" Really Mean for Us

For some, “home” comes down to a house or a suburb or a town, for others it is a country. For many of the modern nomads I am meeting through my work, home is more of a continent or a whole set of countries. Sometimes we struggle to answer the question: “Where is your home?” This question - simple for some - then becomes quite challenging. Often, an expat’s life becomes a journey searching for the answer to this particular question.

Home is a place where we feel safe and protected. This makes sense, and I guess any home should have this quality.

But sometimes, for some of us, the place where we were born didn’t feel safe or nourishing. If that original “home” felt oppressive or traumatizing in some way, leaving became a matter of self-protection; the only way to allow the necessary self-development to take place.

I remember very clearly my departure from my native Russia. When I first stepped onto Italian ground, discovering the palm trees and sun-tanned people lively gesticulating around me, I was almost instantly overwhelmed by a feeling of familiarity. Strangely enough, I felt safe and at peace. I didn’t master the language yet, I didn’t know anybody there, but I felt like I was back home.

Years later, coming back to my home country, I didn’t experience anything so intense.

Bad Home vs. Good Home

One of my clients started our first therapy session with a very strong statement: “I hate the place where I come from”. Those first words became the beginning of her journey back to that place which haunted her. Dealing progressively with this old trauma, she started her work towards growth and self-fulfillment.

A child may feel angry when home becomes emotionally challenging or unresponsive. This feeling is often so unbearable that the psyche needs to find a way to deal with this ambivalence. Often the easiest way is to split the home in Bad and Good, separating two conflicting parts. Then we can hate one of the two and ignore the other one. Or, alternatively, adulate the Good home and ignore the Bad one. In both cases, we lose touch with some parts of our culture and ourselves. To integrate these parts becomes one of the aims of the therapy process.

An example of the first case (alignment against the Bad home), is when some emigrants are looking for inclusion, trying hard to melt in the new culture. The cost may be to lose their own language or links to their family who stayed back home. In the second (the idealization of the Good Home), the emigrants prefer to evolve in their restricted social circle, to eat their traditional food and to keep speaking their native language, segregating themselves from the life of the local community.

Dogs vs. Cats

In the Western culture we tend to think in opposites. Duality seems the easiest way for us to make sense of the environment. Black and White feel much simpler then too many shades of grey. Do you remember your school teacher asking you to find opposites to the words written on the blackboard?

We often project some of our feelings and thoughts onto our pets, for example. The duality Cat vs Dog is very common for many Western cultures. Pets are often part of our experience of home, of comfort, of that unconditional love that seems to be an intrinsic part of the belonging experience.

There is a belief that cats rather tend to attach to a place, as opposed to dogs, which develop stronger links with their masters.

My guess is that, somehow, we intuitively feel this difference: some of us are easily attached to a geographical place and put roots in a specific ground, whilst others would always keep searching for a better place to be in.

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