You moved back to Canada...and life is not working out well
Sometimes a move back to Canada doesn't work out very well. Every year I hear from people for whom this is the case. If this is your reality then it can be helpful to understand that you are not alone. Most people find that what their life looks like after a return to Canada is not exactly what they had expected, desired, needed, and wanted before they moved back.
When this realization happens questions then arise:
"What should we do now? Do we make this work out? If so, how?! Or should we leave Canada again and go back to where we were before (or to a new place)?"
Great questions and again, trust that if you are reading this because you are coming to this point, or are at it already, you are not alone and any feelings of discombobulation, disappointment, frustration, anger, shock, and even possibly fear are authentic and understandable.
What comes next can be a gift or a curse.
It can be a gift if you dig in and find out more about what you expected Canada to be like for you, why those expectations weren't met, and what you really need and want in your life next. Then you can make decisions for moving forward from a place of new awareness and empowerment of yourself with fresh insights and understanding.
Or it can be a curse if in your frustration you immediately pack up and head back to where you came from. Some people do this and find they are right back where they were and the same reasons they left are still very real and potent factors in their life.
Or worse, it can be a curse because you feel powerless in your new Canadian context and your frustration grows until you end up in a dark place emotionally. Yes, it does happen to some people and it is really unpleasant for them to be in that place.
Let's explore the "gift" option instead, OK?
Chapters to explore...
Why you chose to move back to Canada and what you expected...
First: When you prepare to move back to Canada you are feeling the urge to do so for many reasons.
Here are some of the most common ones:
- You miss your parents, family, and/or friends.
- You miss the culture you grew up with and enjoyed in Canada.
- After living in a busy, crowded place in the world you miss the natural, open places in Canada. You want your children to experience them too.
- You had always planned to stay abroad for ___ years and that time is now "up". So it is time to move back to Canada based on your original plan.
- Relating to the previous point, you may have planned to work in the U.S., Hong Kong, Dubai, UK, or elsewhere as an investment in the future so that when you retire you could do so back in Canada in a state of financial abundance. You planned to have lots of adventures to remember in your retirement and the feeling of a life well-lived so far. This has now been accomplished and it is time to move back to Canada.
- There are external macro influences where you are living now that are making you feel uncomfortable and dislike being there. A client summed it up simply to me: "The U.S. is not the same place as it was when we came here 22 years ago." Other clients leave because they lose a job in an economic downturn in the country they are currently in or because there are safety concerns as a result of what is happening in a place. In 2001 I was living in Dubai with my family. After watching the 911 event on television and hearing from local friends that we were "4 hours by [army] tank from the fighting in Iraq" I certainly spent some time rethinking the wisdom of living in that part of the world!
- There are external micro influences that are impacting your life, perhaps in a sudden and very upsetting way. A relationship breakup is a common one. I have supported many unexpectedly single women and men who in the shock of an sudden relationship breakup decide to return to Canada.
- There are deeper changes happening in your life. Sometimes our subconscious mind needs to express to us that there are issues to resolve, wounds to heal, and/or personal growth that needs to happen. These are powerful and usually undeniable influences for us. We either act on them or we suffer by not doing so. Sure, we can temporarily suppress/repress these feelings but by doing so the pressure will build to a point where a volcano will erupt and then life gets very, very messy for us and our immediate family. Think: "Mid-life crisis" as a common example.
To be clear: There is no judgement of the reason(s) you chose to return to Canada! This is not about "right" or "wrong", "good" or "bad". It is only about understanding the reason(s) you had for the decision you made to move back to Canada.
Suggestion: Take some quiet time when you won't be interrupted and write the reasons down. Openly, honestly, and fully. Leave out nothing. Judge nothing, including yourself.
If it feels better to verbally process this, do so with a friend, spouse, or even with a counselor. However, note that when doing this with another person it is harder to avoid external blame or self recrimination. Choose someone who you feel very comfortable exploring your reasoning with and how your move decisions unfolded.
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Next: Why did you choose the location, context, and setup in Canada when you moved back?
Now that you likely understand more about why you decided to return to Canada, there were decisions made at the time about what you were heading towards and where that was in Canada. Here are some common factors returning Canadians share:
- You choose a location in Canada because of a desire to be near family - parents, siblings, grown children + grandchildren. Usually this comes with a component of need to be supported or to be of support. And it normally comes with the desire for a deeper "connection" with family.
- You have friends in a place in Canada that you want to spend time with and be in "community" with. You want to be accepted, have fun, and engage in activities that you and your friends all love. Examples include barbeques, meals out, boating, walking dogs together, sharing life's joys and tribulations in-person, raising children together, etc.
- You used to live in the place in Canada or visited there and want to return to what you remember it to be like. You left that place with warm, happy feelings and expect to feel the same way when you return there.
- You want your children to be raised in a Canadian culture, going to Canadian schools, being with other Canadian children, doing Canadian activities, etc. Defining what you believed this to be and what you are finding it to be now, after you return, is useful.
- You want a certain type of home - a house with specific features, for example, that you can't afford or find the style of in the place you are living now. This might be simply to have lots of space for your family to live in and/or it might because you have lived in a condo all your life and have always dreamed of living in your own full-sized house, for example.
- You want specific geographic attributes. Examples include living in the mountains of BC, being near an ocean so you can boat and fish, living in or near the buzz of a big city like Montreal with lots going on, being in a quiet rural setting on an acreage where you can have a horse or two, being in a location with a more worldly community so you will fit in, etc.
- ...and other reasons?
Again, be gentle on yourself if this process starts to bring up uncomfortable feelings. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. Just truth about what you desired, needed, and wanted in your future in Canada. This process may uncover some deeper and possibly very sensitive thoughts and feelings. That is natural and letting these thoughts and feelings reveal their truth is healthy. Unpleasant at times? For sure. But it is healthy to allow them into your consciousness so you can then do something about them.
Suggestion: As with the previous question, write down your reasons for the decisions you made around where you would move to Canada. If emotions do come up then just keep writing through them. Don't stop. Keep going...
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Your current reality in Canada
With the above clarity on why you left and what your expectations of Canada were you may find it useful to take an inventory of where you are now. This comes in two parts: Who you are right now and what your full reality in Canada is at this time.
Who are you right now?
This question is a very powerful one because between the time when you left Canada originally and when you returned you have become a different person. Some common dimensions of this:
- You are at a different life stage now. You left as a single person in your 20's, for example, and are now in your 40's, 50's, or 60's. You may now have children, be married, have a career or be retired, and maybe you simply look at life differently than when you did in your 20's. This new life stage has very different priorities, needs, and wants than your earlier life stage had.
- Your view of what is important in life has changed as a natural result of the contrast you have experienced, a natural evolution of the person you are, and/or because some external event or internal experience (ie. a health concern) has impacted you.
- You have new goals, dreams, and desires. Your earlier goals in life may have been accomplished and/or seem not as important or interesting now. You may be dreaming of a different life picture altogether. And you may simply desire different things than you did in the past. For example you may have learned that you really like warm weather but in the past you were totally fine with the cold and never thought about it. Another common example is that you might have at one time been happy to be single and not have children. Then a time came when you heard a deeper calling to create and be part of a family.
- You may have new insights into what is healthy for you. This can include the type of people (and how many) you want in your life. When you were younger you might have liked the "party scene" but realize now that lots of people around drains you energetically and emotionally and you want a quieter lifestyle with just a few important people in your life. You may learn that a certain climate is healthier for you. Many people (myself included) suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during long, dark Canadian winters. A sunny climate energizes you and feels very healthy. Another example might be that certain activities are very healthy for you such as outdoor running, swimming, or cycling.
We are not typically taught as children or encouraged to think about what is healthy for ourselves. At some point many people realize that the cost of ignoring their physical, mental, and spiritual health can literally kill them and they choose to make life altering decisions to change this. Anytime is the right time to make changes that lead to a healthier life for you!
For some people this section can be the easiest to reflect on and get clarity. For others this can bring up very, very challenging feelings. We may have childhood trauma with "what you want is selfish. You should do what your [family][spouse][parents][boss] want you to do." For a third time: Be gentle on yourself if considerations of who you are, what you dream you want in life, and what is healthy for you bring up strong feelings.
Suggestion: This is a powerful question. Take the time you need to reflect, discuss, and process this section. It can be helpful at some point to discuss insights about who you are with those closest to you. Then if you need to make some changes it won't be a total surprise to them.
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What is the reality of your life in Canada at this time?
While you may have a lot of clarity about what is not working for you in Canada at this time it can be helpful to step back and take a look at the bigger context and at what is working. Often the "pain point" you are dealing with at the moment can darken the rest of your life picture. Understanding the mix of what is not working and what is actually working can be helpful for making decisions on how to move forward.
Here is a case example to illustrate:
Sarah recently moved back to Oakville, Ontario with her family after living and working in New York City for 20 years.
Now in her 40's, Sarah is a mid-career professional with a new job in Toronto, a husband she met in NYC and married 12 years ago, and an 8-year-old daughter who she wants a healthy life for. Oakville is where Sarah grew up and moving back there was an obvious choice as she would be close to family and the life she knew and loved in the past.
After months of preparing for the move, making it happen, and setting up life in Oakville Sarah was driving up the slow-moving QEW highway to her office in Toronto one morning when she had a sinking feeling in her stomach following a sudden realization that she and her family had traded their busy, crowded NYC life for...a busy, crowded Toronto life.
That evening Sarah took a couple of quiet hours to herself with a mug of tea and took stock of her and her family's life right now. Here is what she wrote down:
What is working in my and our life:
- I have a great job. It was even a promotion from my last job in NYC. My career is going well, though it is quite a bit less fulfilling than it was even just a few years ago.
- I am physically healthy. My husband is physically healthy. My daughter is physically healthy.
- We have no financial worries.
- My husband seems generally OK as he works online and can live anywhere. So he has not had a career change to worry about.
- I now see my mom and dad more often. This was really nice in the first couple of months being back "home" here in Oakville."
What is not working in my and our life:
["(sigh)" This part took a few sips of tea from her mug first and the wish that the tea was actually wine, but Sarah took a deep breath and started writing]
- I am working 50+ hours a week and have just as little quality time with my husband and daughter as I did in NYC. Wrong. I now have less time. In NYC I had a shorter commute to work, could work remotely part of my week, and an efficient lifestyle to support my work. Oakville, Toronto, and the GTA area are not as efficient for my working life and our social life as NYC was. Everyone drives so much here and this adds up to a stupid number of hours every week sitting in vehicles.
- Oakville now is not the Oakville I remember. It is 2x bigger, more crowded, and everyone seems in a rush to get somewhere. It is not relaxing and the healthy "home base" I thought it would be for us.
- My husband has adjusted to life in Canada by diving deeper into his work and I don't see him as much anymore. I think he misses his life in the U.S. In NYC we enjoyed time with our friends, we had fun times together as a family learning and growing, and we had things to look forward to such as weekend trips to Boston and Atlantic City and regular jaunts to Florida, which is so easy and cheap to get to from NYC in the winter.
- I am not the same person I was 20 years ago but my family treats me just like I am. They haven't changed much, are not really that interested or able to understand what our life in NYC was like or who I am now, and are just carrying on with their lives. I now feel somewhat like an outsider here in Oakville with my family.
- We had a "healthier" life in NYC in many ways. Oakville is not healthier than what we had. I traded some pretty good parts of life in NYC for what I thought would be a healthier mix here in Toronto. But it is not a healthier mix. We lost a lot of good things in our life and I haven't found the rich, deep family connection I expected to find, healthy lifestyle I remember Oakville being, and the feeling of a "fresh start" for our family that I thought we needed.
Not usually one to cry Sarah nonetheless felt tears flow as she realized that their lives were heading down a "dead-end street" that she had thought would be a "highway to a better life".
Now what? How can Sarah move forward with these new insights?
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How to deal with the collision of expectation and reality
Sarah was wise. She did three important things that will help her situation:
- Sarah immediately acted on her sudden realization that all was not well. That night she sat down and dug into her situation. It is usually easier to just let such an awareness go and maybe say to yourself "I will spend some time on that this weekend when I am less busy." The weekend comes and goes, of course, and you don't take action. Sarah acted immediately and this means she can address the situation now, before it festers and leads to more pain for her and her family in the future.
- Sarah was honest about her situation. By taking time to herself in private she could feel safe to be honest. She wrote down her insights and analysis. By writing them down her ego could not protect her from the truth or any unpleasant feelings. It was right there on paper. No dismissing it and diverting her attention with the latest Netflix series. This is her and her family's life and she had the strength to face it truthfully to herself.
- Sarah let the tears flow. Yes, this is usually a healthy thing to do. The alternatives? There are many: Get angry at herself, suppress/repress the feelings that come up, fold the notes she made up and hide them away while pretending all was well, and many more possible actions that would avoid the feelings and avoid having to take action.
Because of the courageous and honest immediate action Sarah took that very evening she can now take next steps from a place of strength. She can do so before the life she and her family are experiencing risks coming to a sudden and painful stop on the dead-end street.
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Healthy commitments and steps to take at the junction of expectation and reality
Sarah's situation is just an archetypal case study and everyone's reality is different and unique, of course. But there are some healthy things you can do at this point that are common to most people's situation.
Here are some key ones:
- Make a commitment to yourself that your insights and new understanding must be addressed and resolved soon before bad things happen like "settling for what we have because it is good enough", "waiting for things to work out", and "when I feel stronger and able to deal with this I will". These approaches rarely end well. Expect bad things to happen as a result of inaction or avoidance of the need to address your realization and insights promptly.
- This is not your problem alone to deal with! Unless you are single, childless, and without close family and friend relationships thinking you must be brave and deal with it by yourself is actually just your ego talking. It may feel easier to think you have to "fix it yourself" but taking this course is most likely just turning your life from one dead-end street onto another dead-end street. In Sarah's case she has herself and her needs first to be honest about, then her husband's perspectives and what his needs are, then considerations together of what is best for their daughter.
- Take action promptly. Immediately after you find clarity, like Sarah did, take action to include the other key people in your life. First and foremost schedule a time with your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend. This discussion might happen immediately (that very evening in Sarah's case) if it feels good or in the next day or two. Again, don't delay it until some mythical "when we have more time". The next 24-48 hours is best.
- Set the stage for a healthy conversation with a spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend by getting yourself into a calm, grounded mental and emotional state and ensuring you will have enough time and a quiet safe space together for the discussion to take place.
Side note: After this conversation with your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend include your children's perspectives in your considerations. Children of even just 4-5 years of age and older have more wisdom than we give them credit for and are usually open and truthful about what they want and need. Sometimes just simple things like "I miss the time we had at the playground together" can be a heart-wrenching truth you need to hear to gain the determination necessary to initiate a correction in your family's life course.
- Important: No self-judgement. This may be an impossible thing to accomplish, but aim for it. Decisions were made, actions were taken to move back to Canada, life has become what it is. You did the best you could with the information you had, the needs and wants you understood at the time of making decisions, and with what you thought life would be like after the move. Instead of falling into judgement, blame, or self-condemnation instead choose a higher goal of understanding openly and clearly where you are now and how to change course to get on a healthier/happier path for all.
- Gather more information and discussions until a path forward is clear. Unless it is clear that you are immediately meant to go back to where you just came from or there is new path open in front of you then commit to promptly gathering more information and scheduling the next discussion within the next few days. Delaying doing either of these opens the door to over-analysis, recriminating feelings, judgement, uncertainty, and more. All of these are natural but unhealthy responses that can occur.
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"Going back seems such an easy thing to do! We can just do a u-turn and re-start our previous lives abroad!"
Yes, it can and in some cases this is exactly the right thing to do. Some Canadians have done this and it has worked well for them. If you kept one foot in the country you left such as you have an open offer to come back to a job, you have a supportive community there, and you have the legal right to return and live there then a u-turn move out of Canada can be a very viable option.
But this is not usually the case!
There are many options in front of you for changing course when life is not working out after a move back to Canada. The three most common ones:
- Change geographic location in Canada. From a client recently: "We thought we would end up in Toronto but after landing here and realizing the cost, lifestyle, and how busy it is were not what we expected we changed course and are now going to live in Ottawa."
- Pivot to a new country. Teachers and airline pilots specifically are examples of those who sometimes come back to Canada and then soon head off on a new adventure. Retirees are another group. Sometimes they move back to Canada and then discover the long, cold winters are not much fun and they pivot to a warmer climate to become tax residents there (Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama are popular choices). These "reverse snowbirds" visit Canada for a few months in the summer instead of the opposite of heading south in the winter.
- Identify what isn't working in your current context and change it. For most people a radical change to a completely different geographic location in Canada or full pivot is not necessary nor actually healthy in their case. Usually what is needed is the addressing of what is not working and a re-engineering of their current lifestyle to make it work better. This can include a move to a new location nearby such as urban -->suburban/semi-rural or vice versa. Other aspects that can change include how much time you spend working, how and when you spend time together ("date nights" for example), seeking out a new social group, starting new hobbies together, planning vacations and travel that will balance out your life in Canada, and more.
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"Isn't this just reverse culture shock?"
"Culture shock" is a very predictable pattern that people go through when they find themselves in a new culture and many of their unconscious and conscious beliefs, mental models, and ways of doing things come up against small and large differences in the new place they find themselves in. Culture shock typically takes about 18 months to get through. When you move back to Canada you will likely experience some level of "reverse culture shock" as Canada has changed since you left and so have you.
"So isn't all this just reverse culture shock?" And therefore, won't all these feelings pass over time and everyone will just settle in and be happy?
The danger to assuming that adjusting to life in Canada "just takes time" is that this belief can hide real and important issues that need attention immediately. And worse, dismissing feelings with "oh, just quit complaining and get used to it" can cause irreparable damage to relationships and to one's own sense of self esteem, self worth, and empowerment.
How to know the difference between "reverse culture shock" and "our move back is just not working out"
First and foremost is to promptly go through a reflective exercise like the one noted above in this resource. Writing down why you wanted to come back to Canada, what you expected, who you are now, and what is what is not working will illustrate clearly whether what you are experiencing is a serious mismatch or not.
If the issues that come up in your reflection are deeper, in that they bring up really powerful feelings, then this is not reverse culture shock. Instead, it is life presenting an opportunity to create a blessing: Deal with what needs attention and avoid much pain and suffering later.
Adjusting to life in Canada when it is not working out is not something to "brush off" as only reverse culture shock. It takes work to understand what is really going on so that you can address the causes of distress and change your future for the positive. And sometimes it is true that returning Canadians should not "adjust" at all but instead should pack up and leave Canada again.
Yes, reverse culture shock exists for Canadians returning home after many years in the U.S. and further abroad. Most of the time adjustment to a "new" culture can be handled over dinner conversations and by having personal and family favourites (foods, events, activities, people, places) that then focus attention on the positive aspects of life in Canada, counter-balancing the negative cultural aspects that were not expected and welcomed. This then sets the stage for moving through the cultural adjustment phase in a healthy way.
In summary: Reverse culture shock affects almost all returning Canadians to a lesser or greater degree. And it can usually be dealt with pretty easily. If, however, life in Canada is clearly not working out then there is much more going on that needs attention than just reverse culture shock.
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Summary: When life is not working out in Canada...do something about it
Those people who promptly and openly address the challenge of life not working out in Canada as expected through personal reflection, honesty, and openness with those closest to them have the most success in "fixing" their life context and creating a brighter future.
These people choose to treat the realization that things aren't working out as a "gift".
Those people whose lives become a "train wreck" after they move back? They delay, divert, ignore, hide from, and avoid the truth that things aren't working well until life gives them a painful result: Divorce, health issues, mental issues, financial mess, and emotional misery.
These people choose to treat the realization that things aren't working out as a "curse".
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Experiences shared by Canadians after their return
Alison Bradley shares here simple statement on her experiences of moving back in 2021 and her attitude for the future:
"I would be lying if I said it hasn't been a bit of an adjustment, but this too shall pass."
Wendy Caroll shares her experiences, considerations, and decision to return to the U.S. in 2021:
Moving to Canada in Aug 2020 after 45+ years in the US has been the greatest mistake of my life. We are planning on returning to WA state. So many unexpected issues have become evident.
Canada is NOT the Canada I left behind, even though i have visited family regularly over the years. I had become a visitor to Canada and didn't see how it was changing.
I've spent a lot of time trying to discover why I feel I don't fit in Canada and among them is my need for friendships that have history. At 69, I cannot replace friendships that have taken 15 or more years to develop. I miss those friends dearly and cannot imagine spending the rest of my life in Canada trying to build relationships that cannot be built.
I don't know how to be Canadian. It's difficult. The metric system baffles me, how banking is done frustrates me, how businesses operate and poor, in my opinion, service irritates me. I just don't know how things work here and, at my age, I'm tired of learning new things.
I want the comfort of what I have known for 45 years. I want to live where I know how things work. Not living here for so long I don't understand cultural references - I wasn't her when (fill in the blank) happened. I don't get the nuances.
It's like straddling two worlds and as I get older I think I need the familiar. I thought I was moving home to Canada only to discover I was moving away from home. I'm currently planning to return to the US and am very concerned about how my family will react to that. It's not an easy decision but I find as I play out in my mind how I will feel to be back in my familiar neighborhood I find comfort in the thought.
I love you, Canada, but you have changed and I have changed. I'll visit regularly and am proud to have grown up here but my heart is now elsewhere. I tried.
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