Existential Realities of Emigration

What are those existential realities that an individual faces through the experience of emigration?

Emigrating to another country offers, for many, a wonderful opportunity.  It can be matched by excitement and anticipation of new beginnings and yet once the practicalities of an international move are complete and you have arrived to begin your new life, there are often unexpected emotional and psychological responses that can primarily be explained in existential terms. For refugees or those who move to avoid dangerous or war-torn conditions, the desire for safety is interwoven with the sense of powerlessness af  the inability to stay in their own country.

Even people whose first language is English may find it alarming at how different it is to live in another country and they can become overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness, insecurity, nostalgia and a longing for what has been before.  Contact may deliberately be increased with friends and family who are still abroad and discussions often focus on the practical realities of the change in an attempt to assuage the anxiety.  However, deep within, there may be a much deeper yearning for ‘What was’ in terms of how ‘You experience yourself in the world’ – since you no longer feel comfortable in your own skin.

Emigration is one of those experience that reveals the unfixed nature of our lives and the subjective reality of our existence, which is otherwise overshadowed by collective cultural behaviours that hoodwink us into believing there is shared consensual experience.  In emigrating, we often come face to face with the reality that how we see ourselves and who we come to be, is unique and ever-changing. Whilst  informed by social and cultural influences, existentially we are in a Culture of One.

What are those existential realities that an individual might face through the experience of emigration? They include:

  • Aloneness
  • Existential Angst
  • Existential Nothingness
  • Death


The emigrant is shown that he/she alone in their experience of this changed reality. In fact we always are, despite often a deep sense of shared experience. Myths act as social and cultural assumptions of how things are as if there were a fixed objective experience. The enormity of feelings experienced through emigration are a powerful reminder that this is not so. However close we may feel to others, we are experiencing the world uniquely – after all, they are sharing their life with a different person than you are – they of you and you of them.

The only they you know, if you’.

Existential Anxiety

This is different from everyday anxiety or concern. Existential anxiety relates to the ultimate responsibility we have for choosing how to be. Emigration ‘throws up’ painful reminders of our necessity to choose, even if we ‘choose not to choose’. This is not merely choosing one thing over another but one way of perceiving, believing or being over another. Existentially, because there is no objective rightness for our choices (even if we choose to believe it exists through e.g. religious or spiritual beliefs), existential anxiety results.

Existential Nothingness

As you tighten your grasp on what has passed and your sense of belonging, safety or familiar containment within it, you might ask as you experience it slipping away (due to your changed existential position) ‘What if nothing exists in a form recognisable other than by me, the observer?’ You catch a glimpse that all that is, is co-created through relationship. For each of us, our relationship with others, ideas of country, culture, family, life stages etc are merely subjective despite the considerable attempts to describe them within some consensual reality.


The ultimate existential reality is that we are born and we die. Making sense of our existence is a unique experience and one which constantly changes. If we become rigid, believing we have found the answer to life itself, in existential terms we become inauthentic, assuaging our anxiety through rigid belief systems which ignore our phenomenal selves. There are of course many deaths along the way and the experience of emigration reveals these in many forms; unfamiliar social and physical environments can be so profound that one is challenged when trying to automatically adopt the experience of a fixed consensual reality i.e. an inauthentic position. Emigration represents the death of the self as once experienced.


What is possible?

If you are struggling with these existential realities – feeling alone, misunderstood and disconnected after emigrating and fearful of losing ‘what is’ and in entering the new world of ‘what is possible’, stop for a moment and take time out.  If you can bear the anxiety of this journey and resolve within yourself the existential aspect of your being, you will not be buffeted by these and other changes in quite the same way; instead, despite the anxiety that meaningful living entails, you will embrace life with choice and presence rather than distraction and fear.