Do we really know what we're doing when we leave our home to live in a foreign culture? Why do some of us keep leaving, travelling from place to place, never settling, never really feeling at home? This book will be of interest to migrants, people on corporate relocation, HR professionals, executive coaches, intercultural trainers, cross-cultural psychologists, relocation counselors, social scientists, and anyone interested in the deeper impact of globalization.
Greg Madison End of Belonging
Do we really know what we're doing when we leave our home to live in a foreign culture? Why do some of us keep leaving, travelling from place to place, never settling, never really feeling at home? In today's globalised world it is increasingly expected that many of us will go where the job takes us, but at what cost? This book tells the stories of 'existential migrants', people who left home in order to discover themselves. It also warns us that there may be an unexpected psychological effect from thinking we can just live everywhere. We may end up homeless. The 21st century could herald 'the end of belonging'.
Settling for Homelessness
Greg Madison, PhD
Stroll through any hectic office in the City of London and it’s clear how international our working culture has become. Look at who occupies the desks and it probably looks like a mini-United Nations. What motivates our international colleagues to leave their homelands and become foreigners abroad, either for a year or two or continuously, place after place, over years? Apart from the ubiquitous economic reasons, is there anything else motivating these people to choose to become ‘strangers in a strange land’?
Recent research has identified a form of ‘Existential Migration’ underlying the choices of voluntary migrants; movement into new cultures provides an opportunity to explore issues of personal identity and questions about how one should live. Below Dr Madison shares his findings with The Times Supplement.
It is usually assumed, especially in corporate sectors, that the motivation for living and working abroad is financial recompense and career progression. It turns out that this is not an adequate explanation for why some people leave home to live as foreigners in a new country. Close examination of the experiences of people who choose to migrate unexpectedly reveals that some of these people are actually moving internationally in order to express deeply felt personal needs. These ‘existential migrants’ discover more about themselves and feel more alive when confronting unfamiliar cultures. But by exposing themselves to a vast range of different people and foreign places they consequently end up living with questions about the meaning of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ in the world generally. With contemporary global economies people are increasingly expected to live around the world as part of their work. These research findings help us to understand the deeper significance of living abroad, including new perspectives on acculturation and culture shock.
Alan is a manager in an investment bank in the City of London. Six years ago as a recent business graduate, he left his native New Zealand to ‘seek his fortune’. After a year in Australia and two years in the Netherlands, he arrived in London where he’s worked for the past three years. Alan presents as an intelligent, curious and ambitious young man with a passion for travel. He is proudly self-sufficient and independent but this is mixed with an air of melancholy. Alan talks to his friends about an increasing feeling of restlessness at work, mixed with a recurring anxiety about his plans to buy a property in London. For the past couple of weeks he has been feeling homesick for family and friends in New Zealand but also increasingly preoccupied with the idea of moving to New York, where he spent an exciting three-week holiday last summer.
It may be tempting to simply view Alan as typifying a breed of young international executive moving around the globe according to the demands of 21st century capitalism. However, even a superficial examination of Alan’s motivations for leaving home begins to offer another story. An exploration of Alan’s life reveals that while growing up he had always assumed he would leave New Zealand, in fact he never really felt ‘at-home’ there. This is curious. Why would he not feel ‘at-home’ in the only home he’d ever known?
Looking back, Alan gradually realises that all his decisions, including education and career choices, were designed to hasten his departure from home and increase his ability to live in other places. This was such a natural longing for Alan that he was shocked when he discovered that many of his friends planned to build their lives around family and friends and the familiar streets where they had played as children. In contrast, Alan always remembers being attracted to anything foreign. He experienced the familiar home environment as too conventional, predictable and even suffocating. Though he had good family relationships and a good social life, he always felt different from those around him and longed for the adventures he would have once he left his homeland. He remembers thinking ‘life begins when I leave home’. Alan’s current deliberations reveal his long-standing dilemma regarding the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of settling in one place. He lives a deep contradiction of wanting to belong somewhere but his contempt for familiarity pushes him to move and start all over again.
Alan’s story illustrates a process of voluntary migration that has not been recognised previously. Unlike pure economic migration, simple wanderlust, or forced migration, ‘existential migration’ is a choice to address fundamental aspects of life by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner. These individuals move across cultures, sometimes repeatedly, in search of self-understanding and to remain ‘fully alive’. These individuals are actually seeking to express deep ‘existential’ questions such as ‘who am I’, ‘how can I fulfill my potential?’, ‘where do I belong?’, ‘how can I feel at home?’ Most of these individuals leave their home cultures because they never felt ‘at home’ in the first place. For some, the choice to leave can eventually result in not being at home anywhere in the world, leaving these individuals to live within a sort of ‘homelessness’ that includes a complex mix of inconsolable loss as well as perpetual adventure. These individuals raise interesting questions about our assumed ideas of home and belonging and our conventional bias towards settled forms of life.
The research that revealed this process took place four years ago in London and identified consistent themes within this experience. Themes include the importance of self-fulfilment, the need for freedom and independence, accepting that anxiety is part of life, and an interest in remaining fully alive through the challenge of foreign people and places. Among these migrants there is a marked preference for the strange and foreign and a consistent refusal to settle for the mundane.
The concept of existential migration fits well with themes in existential philosophy, especially the concept of the ‘unheimlich’, which points to the foreign and unfamiliar heart of human existence. No one really knows him or her self. To feel at home is seen as an attempt to tranquillise the anxiety and insecurity of our existence.
The concept of existential migration also illuminates the issue of corporate management retention after international reassignment (many managers are unable to settle back into their jobs when they return from working abroad). For example, until now psychological theories have not acknowledged how the deep and unexpected upheaval from exposure to different cultures is related to existential and philosophical issues. Even if an individual has relocated solely for business purposes, he or she may find that what they had taken for granted in life is challenged because it is done differently in the new culture. Upon return to the home country, that revelation is not always convincingly ‘papered-over’, resulting in a restlessness and questioning of what was previously unquestioned. Suddenly they are not so at-home at home anymore.
The research shows that these voluntary migrants, often educated and successful, value the change to talk about these experiences of home and belonging, even though these discussions tend to be very emotional and poignant. Paradoxically, the voluntary migrants who participated in the research found that openly discussing their experiences of leaving home, often for the first time ever, resulted in a shift regarding their feelings of restlessness.
These ideas require a radical rethinking of the consequences of the globalised world being created around us and marketed as an unproblematic evolution of international commerce. A kind of global ‘homelessness’ may be on the horizon; perhaps we are heading towards a time when no one really feels at home anywhere anymore, an end to belonging. It is exactly these deeper issues that the study of existential migration has revealed as issues for us all.
Greg is a Registered Psycotherapist and existential Chartered Psychologist lecturing on a doctoral programme in London. He maintains a private practice offering home-world dialogues, psychotherapy, coaching and mediation, in London and Brighton.
There is more information about existential migration on his website: