After a few weeks abroad you may well feel ready to come home, but a lot of people struggle with a variety of emotions when they return. After the initial elation of seeing family and friends again has worn off, you may realise that you have changed as a result of your experience, and don’t quite fit in any more. The symptoms of this are what we call reverse ‘culture shock’. You may feel angry about the wealth of your home country, or the lack of interest your friends have in what you’ve been doing. You may feel guilty that you’ve left behind people who needed your support, or sad that you made friends you might never see again.
Once you’re suffering from reverse culture shock, there’s not much you can do to get rid of it. Time is the biggest factor, as you gradually learn to adjust. But time can be helped by some very simple practical steps:
Recognise it. Once you realise this is what you’re suffering from, you have the reassurance that you’re not cracking up. In fact, your apparently erratic behaviour may be perfectly normal! Link up with people who understand. Other people have been there before. Really, we have. Find us, talk to us, hang out with us. It provides you with a lot of comfort just to know others can sympathise with what you’re going through.
Find some stability. One of the causes of reverse culture shock is that fact that you don’t fit back in where you left. So find somewhere you do fit in. Seek out new friends, particularly among former mission workers who can see things from your point of view. Take up an old hobby, try and find old haunts that haven’t changed, listen to your favourite music and read your best books. Eat your favourite food.
Talk it over. It’s crucial to talk to an experienced debriefer. Most sending organisations will organise a debrief, many church missions committees are able to offer this service, and Syzygy is very willing to help you with this. Just email email@example.com to arrange a debrief.
Make no major decisions. Because reverse culture shock can cause emotional instability, it’s important that you don’t rush into making decisions during the first few months you are back in your home culture. You may feel tempted to rush back to the field because you feel guilty about the wealth of your lifestyle in comparison to the people you’ve been working with, or feel that you’re not cut out to be a missions partner because you can’t cope. Once your emotional equilibrium begins to return, you’ll be better equipped to make a rational and prayerful decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
Here are some questions for you to think about to help you make the transition:
As I return home, I feel . . . . .
I think the easiest/hardest part of going home will be . . . . .
I think the easiest/hardest part of leaving will be. . . . .
I am looking forward to . . . . .
God has used me to . . . . .
I have learned . . . . .
I won’t miss . . . . .
The most important thing to do about reverse culture shock is to recognise it for what it is. Once you have done that, you are well under way to recovery. Sadly, we know of too many cases where it was not even heard of, and people have suffered for a long time as a result of unresolved issues. If you are properly prepared for coming home, and have a debrief, you should make a complete recovery even if you end up fitting differently into your home culture than you did before you went. If after several months you still feel tearful, angry or guilty and seem unable to cope with things as well as you did before, you should talk to your church leaders or sending agency and explain that you think you need further help to deal with the issues arising from your trip.