How To Cope With The Reality Of Emigrating From South Africa
For those of us who are active on emigration and immigration forums, one thing is extremely clear – despite expat resolution to move abroad and make new lives, there is always a pervasive longing for the things we’d left behind.
And no matter how strong our convictions and motivations for packing up shop and shipping off, we’ll always carry some remorse for abandoning our homes. It’s part of human nature to feel torn in two when making big changes and decisions, but these feelings of remorse are not constructive and they won’t contribute to us building our new lives abroad.
We discuss some of the reasons behind this remorse and why it’s best to let these feelings go.
Why expats face mental health issues: South Africa’s mental health challenge
Emigration is undoubtedly stressful for people from all parts of the world, but it’s important to understand that approximately a third of the South African population is said to be suffering from mental illness. Though there are other countries whose populations are may experience mental illness levels which are even more pervasive, South Africa’s greatest problem is that three quarters of all individuals with mental health issues will never get help. There are several reasons for this, one of which is the Department of Health’s lack of funding to address the mental health crisis – with only about 4% of its budget allocated to mental health.
Compared to other western nations in particular, South Africa has not had much opportunity to deal with its controversial and divisive history. In addition to inter-tribal wars and clashes, the country is still discussing the legacy of colonialism, apartheid, post-apartheid corruption while struggling through all this to build both literal and figurative bridges, fend off the trauma of pervasive crime and poverty and finding our feet in a society which remains polarised beyond, seeming, repair.
With a third of the country struggling with illnesses such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, aggression, post-traumatic stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, alcoholism, eating disorders and ADHD – it goes without saying that big changes such as emigration would further contribute to mental health issues.
Leaving our loved ones behind
Though some saffas move abroad with brood and family in tow, many South Africans must leave their loved ones behind when making the big move – and more often than not this decision is completely out of their hands.
Some countries do not allow elderly or ill individuals visas or citizenship, while others are too expensive to allow for the mass exodus of whole family groups to their shores. But there’s another problem which South African expats face; the reluctance of their relatives to leave South Africa and even outright hostility at the thought of emigration.
It’s a tough enough decision to choose such a big move, and even harder when those you love most do not share your views or when you cannot take them with.
What you’re left with is increasingly fragmenting relationships which emphasise all the reasons why your move may seem “wrong”. You may be riddled with guilt at the thought of leaving your loved ones unprotected or uncomforted on their own. Or perhaps you are bombarded with opinions of your own inadequacy, abandonment and weakness. And no matter how determined or strong you are, a situation like this will undoubtedly cause guilt. In fact, researchers have proven that depression can be distinguished from normal sadness due to the sufferer’s proneness to exaggerated feelings of guilt and self-blame. Essentially, it’s a vicious cycle where the guilt you are constantly showered in causes depression, which only serves as more fertile mental ground for further instances of guilt.
The big divide: your brain and change
The last thing you need to consider about emigration is that human minds are simply wired to resist change. The human mind controls our habitual activities (the things we do every day) through the basal ganglia. These activities take little mental effort and require less energy consumption. Anything which takes up less energy is viewed as “safe” by the brain, which hardwires these activities and give us a sense of calm and pleasure.
Change, however, stimulates the prefrontal cortex responsible for insight and impulse control. This part of the brain requires far greater energy to “operate” and is linked to the amygdala – the part of the brain which controls our “fight or flight” response. The greater the change, the greater the energy required and more likely that your amygdala will spike your body with anxiety, fear, depression, fatigue, anger, sadness, aggression and other mental issues.
Moving abroad doesn’t just present your brain with one changing variable to compute – but a myriad of unknown variables. The physical location, language, culture, customs, products available at the store, social cues, financial implications, food and pretty much everything about your life is overhauled. And your response to this change will be greatly instinctual. This means your feelings of remorse of longing for “what has been”, are mostly your brain’s way of trying to return you to the state before the change occurred. It creates emotional and physiological responses to the change which falsely warns you that what you are going through is bad for you and what you had was better.
Our minds also trap us in the “sunk cost fallacy”. According to psychologists, this logical fallacy manifests as our brain’s preoccupation with things we have lost which cannot be recovered. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman states that historically organisms who avoided threats were more likely to pass on genes, and that it’s therefore hardwired into our minds that it’s better to play it safe – we therefore focus on our losses much more than our gains.
You truly DO miss home
No matter how many other reasons there may be for your emigration remorse, the fact remains that you simply will miss certain things about South Africa and you do grieve for this loss.
No two countries are ever the same and no matter how great your new home is, not all the grass will be equally green. Leaving your heritage, loved ones, friends, sentimental experiences, memories and places behind will be hard – and it’s necessary for you to grieve this loss.
Tricks for curing emigration remorse
So now that we’ve covered some of the reasons why you feel emigration remorse, we’d like to give you some tips for overcoming these feelings.
- Stop drawing comparisons: listing pros and cons had been necessary before moving abroad, but now that you’ve done it, cast that mental checklist aside and stop placing the two countries head-to-head in a perpetual standoff.
- Take a break from the negativity: this includes getting off the forums and groups which highlight negative emotions, experiences or stir up old ghosts and animosities.
- Be cognisant of your mental health: mental illness is exactly that – illness. With the high incidence of mental illness in South Africans, there’s every likelihood that you or someone in your family is struggling with real, and treatable issues. Don’t be too proud to seek help if you feel overwhelmed.
- Let go the anger: easier said than done, but your anger and disappointment in the place you’d left behind and/or the people still living there will only serve to create more mental angst. Whenever you catch yourself enforcing this pattern of thinking – stop in your tracks and ask yourself what you’re wishing to achieve with this thinking.
- Remind yourself that your feelings may be false: since your brain wants you to believe that this big change is dangerous, your feelings of angst and stress may not be real at all. Whenever you start feeling anxious, ask yourself whether the perceived threats and worries are true issues and whether you have any control over them. If not, then send those thoughts on their way.
- Guilt is a wasted emotion: guilt is an unfortunate reality of emigration, but it’s also a completely wasted emotion. Psychology Today states that our western society’s culture is “deeply enmeshed with the Abrahamic ethic of fear and punishment”, This means you’ll undoubtedly feel guilty about your decision, but guilt has no positive outcomes in our lives and are draining emotions to deal with. Understand that you’ve made the decisions you have for the right reasons and that you don’t have control over all the losses.
- Make change part of your “habits”: the only way your mind will understand that change is not something to be afraid of is by continuing to introduce it to new experiences. Though you want to just get your life back on track, be sure to try new things continuously and challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone. This will stretch your ability to deal with new situations and dispel fear of the unknown.
- Just take some time: grief, remorse and anxiety after such a great move are inevitable, but as with all loss – these feelings will lessen over time. Do what you can to accept your situation but also be patient – the more you get used to your new life, the more your mind will also let go the baggage and anxiety it’s been carrying around all this time.