The urge to migrate twists through the marrow of our bones; the restless energy moving our ancestors across vast wastelands in search of a better life mirrors our journey to self-actualisation. With global migration on the rise what happens to your relationship to yourself and to others when you leave your birth country for a different life? How do you fit yourself to a culture that is both exciting and un-lived and yet as closed as an unread book?
Years ago my mother an economic migrant and native french speaker, studied French A Level at my school together with my peers. Back then I didn’t understand and was embarrassed by her presence in the school corridors. Now I see how courageous and important it was to navigate, and excel in, a world of English teenagers (she achieved Grade A). Undoubtedly she struggled with her inner voice that continues to taunt ‘you are a guest in this country’. How much I ingested of her shame I can’t say. It is impossible to separate the hidden toxicity of shame from my identity – the me who lives, breathes and continually adapts to the pull of three different cultures: my parents’ and the British culture I was born into.
Whether through choice or forced migration the traumatic consequences of relocation can include rootlessness, alienation, difficulties in relating to others and disconnection to yourself – it requires emotional investment to redefine yourself in an alien culture, to start to fit in, to feel a sense of belonging. Dislocation leads to a sense of disease, of being ill at ease with the person you thought you were, without a clear sense of yourself in relation to others. Says Gestalt theorist Yontef (1993) ‘Living that is not based on the truth of oneself leads to feelings of dread, guilt and anxiety’.
You might ask who am I in this new place I inhabit, how do I move, talk, occupy this alien environment? Whose space is it? Am I allowed in? Will the other give up some of their space for me in the territorial dance between us?
“I can’t stay in one place, my home is in my head”* state A-wa, an Israeli pop group who sing in Yemeni as an homage to their grandparents. This sentiment is felt as a spiritual and physical load, the burden of those who carry the heart and soul of their homeland with them wherever they go.
I hold inside me poignant stories of others’ longings for a secure base: the European man who seeks love looks for a woman who understands the food he used to eat at his mother’s table. The woman whose future lies in repeated migrations – whose only home is her partner.
Perhaps a way to reorient yourself to a new country is in finding allies in people from your own culture or embracing your partner’s family. In the therapy room you may want to explore finding a way back to yourself, the you who hasn’t stood still but hasn’t yet found a way to fit in. Therapy can support you to restore the sense of who you are, what you want to say, what you want to ask for.
By rooting yourself in your own identity, you can re-build self esteem and ultimately risk new and exciting relationships in the world around you – your colleagues, peers, future friends and family.
* A-wa, (2019) from the album Bayti Fi Rasi
Yontef, G (1993) Awareness, Dialogue & Process: Essays on Gestalt Therapy. Highland. N.Y: The Gestalt Journal Press