‘Emigrants often face crises unacknowledged by themselves and unnoticed by others’: an interview with the psychotherapist Olga Movchan

Photo: Olga Lioncat
Photo: Olga Lioncat

Every emigrant’s story is unique in its own way, yet similar to other such stories. Inevitably, virtually everyone who moves to another country is initially confronted with loss, with reduced professional status, a rupture of bonds of kinship and feelings of loneliness. How is forced emigration more dangerous than a planned move? What psychological problems do emigrants most often experience? What are the signs of depression in an emigrant? What psychological complications most often arise in mixed marriages? How can emigrants hold onto their identities and maintain bonds with their parents? In an interview with Kommersant UK, Olga Movchan, a professional psychotherapist specialising in gestalt therapy, discusses the personal crises of emigration and how to overcome them. 

Today emigration has become the norm. People move to the most unexpected countries for the most varied reasons. In your view, how do the psychological consequences of coerced emigration differ from those of planned migration? 

First of all, during coerced emigration, levels of stress and uncertainty are significantly greater and the sense of security is significantly lower. Suppose someone has made a planned move for work or family reasons, such as marriage. They rent a flat in advance and are accompanied by a container of things. In this case, they feel in control of the situation as they understand the reasons and the duration of their move. During coerced migration, however, the emigrant has little agency and decides little. Decisions are tactical and serious compromises are inevitable. All of this causes alarm and significant tension. 
Coerced emigration is always a consequence of external problems which may be experienced as violence. In these cases, the adaptation which is part of the immigration process will be more troubled. People who have been required to change their country of residence develop a different view of the future. You may have noticed that they often prefer to talk of ‘relocation’ rather than ‘emigration’. This is to underline the temporary nature of their current circumstances (the move will be followed by a return home). Psychologically, ‘relocation’ is easier to accept. For Russian speakers, the word ‘emigration’ sounds quite dramatic as it is associated with previous waves of outward migration which are remembered as tragedies. Hence, objective problems overlay the intergenerational memory, making the experience even more painful.

Based on what you’ve seen, what problems do people encounter in emigration? 

One of the first obstacles a recent arrival encounters is that, compared to the indigenous population, their rights are significantly curtailed. The locals live in the country by right of birth while immigrants need to receive a visa, work permits, documents giving a right to medical treatment etc. Essentially, they are required to prove their right to be in the country. They took this right for granted in their country of origin and so they develop feelings of loss accompanied by a sense of injustice and uncertainty which may be rather painful. This contributes to the broader emigrant experience. 
The second inevitable issue with which virtually every emigrant is faced is an identity crisis. Sometimes, this is not a change of identity, but rather its loss, as many achievements made in their home country such as education, professional position and the respect of colleagues are drendered void. For example, a successful doctor who once headed a department in a major clinic must become a student obliged to take an exam to prove his competence. Immigrants are not accepted as they were previously and so they also cease to think of themselves in the same way. Besides losing their habitual position in society, communication problems also arise. Quite often, linguistic limitations, as well as the inability to fully communicate in the new environment mean that, especially at first, they fail to pick up the cultural codes or the significance of expressions which are clichés for the local population. The captivating orator is transformed into a tongue-tied mute who does not react to funny jokes and is unable to sustain a discussion of topical issues. This can be excruciating and may lead to a serious identity crisis. Survival strategies must be reacquired or new ones found. 
The third difficulty emigrants have to get their heads around is an unbelievable amount of minor and major details in various spheres of life, such as where to buy bread, how to dispose of rubbish, how to answer letters etc, all of which require a lot of effort, time and energy. A problem during the first stage of immigration is an acutely overloaded consciousness. People feel lost and this leads to a fall in self-esteem. They ask: “Why am I very tired when I haven’t done anything?”. Often during this period, emigrants feel like they have disorders on the autistic spectrum. Ordinary stimuli seem excessive. For instance, an emigrant may know the language and communicate well with colleagues in a working environment, but if they go with them to the bar, then the noise and other conversations around them make it hard to focus and follow a discussion. The person may begin to feel, on the one hand, that they are overwhelmed and on the other, lonely, as they are isolated. Another challenging aspect is that new contacts are needed but the emigrant lacks the energy to make new acquaintances. Instead, they want to meet with close family members to relax, but these have been left behind in their home country. A vicious circle develops, making the emigrant more vulnerable to stress at this time. 

Are there emigrant communities and a diaspora where people can meet? 

This is an important part of the support network for emigrants. However socialising within these groups is both both a help and a hindrance; people sometimes become desperate as they feel assimilation is impossible, so they begin to isolate themselves within the emigrant community. 

People of what psychological type find it easier to emigrate, and which find it harder? 

Different psychological types have compensatory pluses and minuses, so I wouldn’t say that one specific type is more resilient to the process of immigration than others. Everyone encounters difficulties and finds their own way of adapting. For example, introverts find it easier to bear solitude but it is much harder for them to make new acquaintances. People with more extrovert tendencies find social isolation agonising but they are able to establish relations with new people more quickly and learn to express themselves in new conditions, so it is easier for them to adapt. On the one hand, those with a narcissistic background experience a more distressing and severe identity crisis and suffer more from the drop in self-esteem, as their reduced status causes them to experience shame, one of the most acute feelings emigrants may experience. On the other hand, their ability to focus on achievement can help them to adapt through professional attainment. 

What are the signs of depression in an emigrant? 

Emigrants develop the classic signs of the so-called triad of depression; disrupted moods (unfounded feelings of oppression, experiences of melancholy, sadness and apathy), loss of willpower, asthenia (this condition involves heightened lethargy, exhaustion and depletion or loss of the ability to sustain long physical or psychological exertion) and a general sluggishness of the intellectual processes, with worsened memory and shortened attention spans. In children and adolescents, depression is often manifested as asthenia and a feeling of helplessness: “I’ve done everything, but I still don’t know how to get good grades for essays at that school. I'm knackered and I can’t be bothered any more!'' The first manifestation of emigrant depression may be asthenia with physical symptoms, possibly including insomnia. This may not yet be depression, but ignoring these signs may lead to a more severe depressive state. 

What psychological problems most often arise in marriages between Britons and Russian speakers? What features of the local mindset are important for emigrants to know? Do you work with anglophone clients? 

I mostly work with English-speaking clients, although few of them are native speakers. However, I do get some inquiries from such clients. I work with mixed couples, including Russophone clients married to Britons. These couples have some special features which create complications and require explanation. First of all, there is a cultural difference in how intense emotions are expressed. A feature of British culture is expressiveness without underlying emotion, with exaggerated and emphasised affability, politeness and enthusiasm in conversation. In Russian culture, by contrast, there is a general reluctance to express positive emotions combined with openness about negative ones. Also, it is permissible to express your mood to a significantly greater degree. Secondly, the Brits are more bottled up; if something isn’t working out in their personal lives, they don’t complain and don’t let it show. On top of this, in Britain, it’s commonplace to hyperbolically criticise the government, institutions and the class system, while in Russia, especially in recent times, this is perceived as on the verge of treason. Thirdly, Britons are much more laid back about everyday discomfort. A Russian-speaking mother can’t understand how their eight-year-old child can walk home from the swimming pool with wet hair even though it’s freezing outside, while her British husband doesn’t even bat an eyelid at such trifles; here it’s usual to save on heating bills and wear warm clothes indoors. Fourthly, behind the facade of excess politeness, the Brits have a concealed tendency to tease and needle each other. For them, this is a form of wordplay. Russophones may find this style of speaking upsetting. Finally, like local people the world over, Britons find it hard to understand why new arrivals struggle to perform simple tasks such as answering a letter from a child’s teacher, taking washing to the laundry or making an appointment at the doctor’s. Newcomers are going through the laborious immigration process which requires great energy and may provoke asthenia. In the initial stages, this may be the cause of serious conflict within the couple. Emigrants often face crises unacknowledged by themselves and unnoticed by others. Someone who has moved to the UK to be with their British partner may believe they have sacrificed a significant part of their life for their other half’s sake and expect a little gratitude, but their spouse may not understand this. The emigrant truly has sacrificed something, yet at the same time, their local partner is providing them with a lot; their social network, often their home, upkeep and help getting settled into British society. The situation is complicated by the fact that Britons, like many Europeans, do not consider emigration a significant event as they are always moving to other countries, especially for work. Someone born in Britain finds this easier because English is an international language, so linguistic difficulties are a little harder for Brits to understand. Mutual support is important as well as an understanding that each partner is in a different reality as many questions must be resolved. As I see it, the most crucial aspect is for people to be curious and eager to get to know their partners. Quite often, they start to pretty much reject each other’s identities; ‘I won’t celebrate your holidays and in revenge, you won’t celebrate ours’ This is a sorry story. It’s a happy story when both sets of holidays are celebrated and we’re curious about how it all works. It turns out that this interest in different cultures is a source of resilience. 

Photo: Olga Lioncat

Many parents who move to other countries don’t teach their children their native language or traditions. What’s the reason for this? How acute are identity problems for the children of migrants, if at all? 

I see far more people who want to support their native culture and traditions and teach their children the language of their birth. However, serious study not only of the spoken language but also of reading and writing requires quite a lot of effort from the parents and many don’t have the energy for it. But a child, especially a small child growing up in an English-speaking environment will not want to study Russian because for them it is simply an extra lesson which does not help their socialisation. What’s more, parents who have adapted poorly themselves may fear that by teaching their own language, they will hinder their child’s assimilation. And if they can’t leave their Russian-speaking support structures themselves, but they want to and it's important for them, they may hope to achieve this aim via their child, or at least to push the child towards English culture. A child of emigrants who was born in the new country or moved there at a young age will have to choose their identity one way or another; they may develop their emigrant side, or they may not. Possibly, in their teenage years, when interaction with their peers is important they will distance themselves from their parents and native language but this may also be part of the separation process (in their home country they would have done this in some different way). It is unfortunate if, at the start of emigration, this separation frightens the parents and they begin to attempt to stop it as this will have a negative effect on the child’s development. Rather than hindering them, the child’s intention to assimilate must be supported while parents provide a base and make accessible traditions from the home country so that their children know them and can make them their own. Possibly, when they are older, they will become interested in the culture of their country of origin and their roots. It’s great if a child has the flexibility and freedom and their parents have the opportunity to preserve their culture and language whilst not impeding the process of assimilation, as sometimes happens. 

What problems do the children of emigrants experience, besides a change of their customary surroundings and culture? 

The principal problem for the children of emigrants is that their parents are going through the adaption process and so can give them significantly less of the attention they need than previously. They stop noticing the child and their difficulties. Children may find themselves alone as they have lost their old friends in their home country. They are required to assimilate into a new school and develop new relationships, but their parents cannot give them enough support. 

These are difficult times. Many families have stopped talking to each other due to political differences, for instance. But the generation gap didn’t just spring up out of nowhere a year ago. It cannot be justified by politics alone. What can be done when bonds with parents are broken? 

In such a conflict, both sides are experiencing a plethora of negative feelings, including sadness and feelings of guilt. At the emotional level, this rupture is perceived as a loss. But this is not unique to emigration as a breakdown in relations can occur even if people live in the same town or country. 

How can people manage the fear of being far from their parents and either not having the time or being otherwise unable to come at short notice to help them in emergencies? 

The fear of losing parents, or of some other misfortune befalling them is understandable. This is natural and not pathological. All that can be done is to try to protect them from unforeseen situations (a responsible person may be found who can look after them). This may reduce anxiety a little although it can’t put an end to the fear people have for their close ones. It’s important not to put anything off or leave things unsaid. Do what you want to do with them while they're still alive. 

The phrase “Closing the Gestalt” [the name of a popular Russian TV series about helping the dead to find closure with the living] has already become a meme, but what is really meant by this term in therapy? And how can we come to terms with never being able to go back to the country where we were born? 

The phrase entails a recognition and expression of your anxieties, related to unresolved situations or experiences from the past, which allows their influence on the present to be controlled. As for returning to the country of origin… “never”, of course, sounds a little too dramatic. No one knows the future. I remember plainly my parents’ friends leaving at the start of the 1980s with the feeling that they would never return, but by the 90s, they were able to come to see us and walk the streets of Moscow once more. The psychotherapist Gianni Francesetti, on contemplating human loss, speaks of the development of two loyalties; a loyalty to lost relationships through which we have lived and a loyalty to life, which continues to flow forward. This means it’s important to accept something valuable has been lost and at the same time, to find some sort of commitment to real life and the future. Everyone preserves their loyalty to the past in their own way; some write articles or books about the past and present of their ancestral homeland, others open restaurants serving food from back home while still others talk of their native culture and language. Preserving an interest in the new life and yet finding a place in it for the past seems essential to me. This may help people to cope with the fact that it’s currently impossible to return to their homeland.


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