Voyages Into The Unknown

An exploration using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of the experiences of returning voluntary migrants

Authors: Gareth Mason and Denise Lelitro

Abstract: This study draws on Interpretative Phenomenological Interpretation (IPA) to reflect the experience of voluntary migration and return by exploring the experiences of four British men. Voluntary migrants are understood as those who are not politically or economically driven.

The findings draw on a wide range of literature including relevant autobiographical, fictional and anthropological work to offset the lack of psychological writing on voluntary migration.
Nine major themes emerged. These include travelling as a heroic quest; growth through challenging experience; struggles re-assimilating; and the search for a more satisfying home. Home and belonging emerge as nebulous manifold concepts encompassing spiritual and emotional aspirations beyond its physical dimensions. The study identified early background and life experiences as crucial influences in the outcomes of living abroad and resettling in their native country and hopes to aid therapeutic practice by illuminating these connections.

Keywords: Migration, Abroad, Home, Return, Belonging, Identity



Mythology and religion have influenced much of the psychological writing referenced. The Bible discusses exilic themes in terms of reward or punishment such as Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden or Abraham’s call to the Promised Land.

Trials are another major theme as exemplified by mythological heroes such as Odysseus, who perhaps best exemplifies the physical and psychological struggles of adventuring far from home (Homer, 1946), or the Biblical testing of Abraham or Job. Campbell too discussed the ‘hero’s’ journey from the call to adventure to trials and transformation (1988/1949). This was supported by Jung’s transpersonal work particularly the archetypes of our Collective Unconscious (1951).

The Grinbergs (1984) suggest Biblical and mythological exile stories enshrine early societal practices to avoid conflict – such as the taboos of parricide and incest discussed by Freud (2010/1899) in the Oedipal myth. Campbell says myths personified in tribal rituals validate the individual within a cohesive society although ‘indifference, revolt or exile – break the vitalising correctives’ (1988/1949, p.383). But he also implies seekers of wisdom do not always lose their connection with society. Such individuals can uncover ‘the essence of oneself and the essence of the world: these two are one’ (p.386). He cites the ‘ascetic medieval saints and yogis of India’ (p.385) discovering a ‘universal consciousness’. A respected place may thus exist for these solitary figures – even an active role – as shaman or priest, or their modern scientific equivalents: doctors and teachers, who now draw more on scientific than sacred learning.  Jung (1948) proposed symbols ‘protect a person from a direct experience of god… but if he leaves home and family, lives too long alone, and gazes too deeply into the dark mirror, then the awful event of the meeting may befall him’ (p.59). If the quest far from home presents dangers, the changes wrought may make return problematic too.

While psychological studies on voluntary migration are limited, the Grinbergs' work (1984) is sufficiently comprehensive to include themes on both forced and voluntary migrations. Kernberg’s foreword highlights its exploration of ‘the unconscious processes activated in the individual as… [they] face the challenges of leaving one world behind and adapting to a new one’ (p.ii), and their attention to the significance of social and cultural factors, age and language. They draw heavily on Freud, Klein, Bowlby, Winnicott and Bion in discussing how defences, object relations, and attachment theory can explain conditions such as loneliness and psychosis and how migration can lead to identity crises or enlightenment.

Also discussed is Balint’s classification of people as ocnophilic or philobatic personalities (1959) defined roughly as those seeking respectively either the familiar and stable, or the new and exciting. Balint believed voluntary migrants are usually philobatic.

Mahler et al’s work on separation-individuation (2008/1975) is also referenced, explaining how attachment issues can precipitate psychosis in migrants. Elsewhere, Huntington (1981) draws on Bowlby, Bion and Winnicott to explain how separation anxiety is heightened in strange situations – a situation exemplified by migration when dislocation from a secure base exacerbates poor childhood attachments.

Madison (2010) draws on eclectic sources in exploring voluntary migration from an existential perspective. He describes intangible ideas such as Freud’s uncanny (1919) or Heidegger’s unheimlich (1962/1927) referring to respectively something frightening but familiar, and not feeling at-home. Heidegger’s concepts of dasein, authenticity and fallen-ness are also usefully explored. Madison says ‘the experience of the unheimlich discloses that we drift along in life without a foundational ground, forever cadavering towards annihilation’ (2010, p.227). Despite the grim language, this represents an interesting counterpoint to the psychoanalytic view. We understand not-being-at-home as the state from which angst calls us to recover dasein from its lost-ness in everyday thinking (Heidegger, 1962/1927). We discern a connection here with mythological ideas – such as the ‘call of conscience’, and existential migrants as ‘heroes’ (Madison, 2010). Perhaps it's no co-incidence that many young travellers boast of being ‘authentic travellers’ rather than mere ‘tourists’.

The relative dearth of specific psychological literature was partially offset by examining the escapades of some literary travellers who highlighted issues and motivations common to voluntary migration. Leigh Fermor’s hopeful pioneer set out across Europe 'like a tramp or… like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight… all of a sudden this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do’ (1977, p.12). Meanwhile, Lee highlighted the ambivalence of uprooting oneself while ‘taunted by echoes of home’ (1971, p.13).

The journalist Kapuściński (2008) explored the colourful but difficult realities presented by distant exotic lands. He was influenced by Levinas, a holocaust survivor who studied under Heidegger and Husserl, who believed ‘The Self is only possible through the recognition of the other’ (p.5). Kapuściński believed self-hood was realised by communing with the other on an individual and global level comparing difficult childhoods and later life problems with historical events affecting societal relations. He believed multicultural communities offered a more positive otherness and quotes the philosopher Tischner, who adapts the Cartesian slogan to ‘I know that I am, because I know another is’ (2006, p.209). 

Hoffman and Said wrote seminal autobiographies about emigration. Said’s memoir (1999) details the melange of influences that created his hybrid identity. His statement: ‘the achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever’ sums up its rather depressing tone. Hoffman’s work (1998/1989) evokes her struggle towards assimilation after leaving Poland for the Americas. Fjellestad (1995, p.135) says Hoffman’s story challenges the ‘romantic illusion of unity and centre and of the costs and rewards, the joys and terrors, of being thrown into a post-modern world of constantly shifting boundaries and borderless possibilities’. In describing her relationship with a lover, Hoffman says ‘we explain ourselves like texts. We learn to read each other as one learns to decipher hieroglyphs’ and with a nod to Heidegger’s unheimlich, how after the stereotypes fall away, ‘he becomes familiar, only increasing the wonderment that the familiar should be so unfamiliar, the close so far away’ (p.190).

Hoffman describes her homesickness and nostalgia for post-war Krakow, saying ‘it throws a film over everything around me, and directs my vision onwards’ (p.115). Hoffman later describes herself as visibly ‘a member of a post-war international class’ without feeling it (p.170). During psycho-analysis, she completes her understanding of the English-speaking world, integrating her Polish and American selves following the trauma of culture shock.     



A constructionist paradigm seemed appropriate for uncovering multiple truths with its emphasis on reality being socially created rather than existing as an external singular entity (Hansen, 2004). According to Ponterotto (2005), constructionism uses a hermeneutical approach to draw out deeper meanings via reflection, particularly researcher interaction.

Ontologically, this relativistic position is subjective and influenced by individual experience and perceptions, and social environment. We accept, therefore, that results will differ if the study was interpreted by different researchers, as no single truth exists (Finlay, 2016) – the study's value drawing on the ‘thickness’ of descriptions (Ponterotto, 2005).

Epistemologically, the relationship between ‘knower and would-be-knower’ (Ponterotto, p.127), represented by participant and researcher in IPA is central. Constructionism states reality is socially created – so the dynamic is crucial. Similarly, in axiological terms, researcher values are inevitably enmeshed in the process so a personal and subjective rhetorical structure – such as IPA – that details the thoughts and feelings of both people seems appropriate (ibid).

A phenomenological method was chosen as it considers both cognitions and emotions – the embodied aspect often being overlooked in psychological theory (Smith el al, 2009). IPA was also favoured for its value in investigating identity and health issues. Furthermore, we did not plan to create theory. IPA also links interpretation with mainstream psychological thinking; to investigate cognitions and emotions where mainstream psychology treats them separately; and to look at deeper levels of reflection more than other qualitative approaches (Smith, 1996).   

The researchers’ time abroad inspired the study so we remain mindful of our influence as reflexive researchers. As bracketing is intrinsic to phenomenology, we followed Ashworth’s advice to set aside scientific theories, the truth or falsity of participants’ claims, and personal views and experiences (1996). Nonetheless, Giorgi admits: ‘Nothing can be accomplished without subjectivity so its elimination is not the solution’ (1994, p.205), while du Plock describes ‘the notion of the neutral objective researcher’ as ‘absurd’ (2016, p.16).


In keeping with IPA’s tendency to analyse small detailed purposive samples, we limited participation to four men from a relatively homogeneous demographic – the implications are discussed in the findings. Smith says: ‘IPA studies are conducted on a relatively small sample sizes, and the aim is to find a reasonably homogenous sample, so that, within the sample, we can examine convergence and divergence in some detail’ (2009, p.3). Furthermore, as the dissertation on which the paper is based was one of the author’s first IPA study, we quote Smith saying: ‘our advice to a newcomer to IPA is to try to obtain a group which is pretty homogeneous’ (p.50).

The target group were UK natives, who had lived full-time overseas for more than three years and spent over a year back in the UK to allow exploration of the ‘before and after’ periods of their experience. The field was narrowed to men between the ages of 40-45 to decrease sample variables although differences exist in time spent both overseas and back in the UK. All four are white, but colour was not a criteria. Social class was not part of the selection process while the interviews revealed significant differences in parental income, profession, and quality of upbringing.    




The Analysis

Our IPA analysis followed the five stages suggested by Smith, Flowers & Larkin (2009). Briefly, these are reading and re-reading transcripts; initial noting; developing emergent themes; connection across emergent themes; and discerning patterns across cases. Primarily, we analysed the transcripts from descriptive, linguistic and conceptual perspectives (ibid).
The master themes were identified after completing the interviews. Themes relevant only to one individual participant were discarded – some of these omissions are discussed in the conclusions. The master themes reflected patterns across the interviews – each distinguished by significant emotional or cognitive resonance. We were mindful of not lending greater weight to themes reflecting the literature review or our own experiences.

This process involved substantial re-reading of transcripts and reworking of the material. Ultimately, the emerging superordinate themes listed below reflected the chronology of the participants’ lives as revealed by the interviews although this was a natural outcome rather than planned. The first subordinate themes involved childhoods and motivation; the second, aspects of the experience abroad; and the third looked at re-assimilation into British society.




1.1) Escape from Childhood

The Grinbergs say travel can be an escape from home rather than heading towards a destination (1984). Daniel’s travelling seemed to need the complement of psychological ‘inner journeying’ (Madison, 2010) to escape the past. For Alan and Daniel, frequent movement between unsatisfying early environments combined with insecure parental attachments (Bowlby, 1960). Alan says of his home: ‘Emotionally and spiritually, there was quite a lot of discord’.

Home for Daniel appears less a place than a loving community. He says: ‘I rejected a part of the rural part of E- that we lived in because it represented such a difficult time’. When migration failed to discover what felt like a home, he seemed to experience aspects of the unheimlich (Heidegger, 1962/1927) and the uncanny (Freud, 1919).

All four subscribe to a ‘long-harboured desire’ for sustained adventure (Grinbergs, 1984, p.58). For Alan and Daniel specifically: ‘lack of containment and support may precipitate psychosis, perversion, delinquency, or drug use’ (p.127) when changing environments to heal childhood problems.

1.2) The Comfort of Strangers

Madison (2010) discusses how some – like Daniel – use travelling to re-connect and progress within the world to build up confidence. Daniel says: ‘I felt very strong about Latin American issues… I had a Latin American outlook’. Succeeding away perhaps offsets feeling failure at home. Madison also suggests some flee home to avoid feeling overwhelmed, and to achieve balance between contact and isolation, and how peer rejection can be projected onto places.
Kristeva talks about foreigners representing ‘the hidden face of our identity’ (1991, p.1) and how integrating them into our unconscious releases it from a repressed pathological state. Daniel and Alan may have felt unconsciously reassured by this. 

Meanwhile, if ‘physical space allows mental space’ (Madison, 2010, p.209), Alan embraced it saying he idealised his life overseas – a common reaction that can lead to hypomania in new arrivals – its corollary often being a later collapse (Grinbergs, 1984), which Alan’s experiences also reflect when ‘stripped almost overnight of the people… [he] spent a lot of amazing times with’.  

Perhaps the common link is the desire to self-actualise (Maslow, 1954) coupled with their rejection of a constraining tribal loyalty. All four were attracted to the exotic – perhaps their own spiritual mystery, and identity, was better matched with their chosen destination than their first homes (Madison, 2010).

1.3) The International Man

Barry and Malcolm’s international perspective is reflected by their being-at-home in more than one place as if they transcended home and foreign culture rather than being subsumed by either. Barry says: ‘I always try to see myself as an international person… I like freedom’.
Alan and Daniel perhaps took longer to achieve this due to their initial rejection of home. Madison describes how ‘dual belonging’ (2010, p.103) can resolve the tension between a strong self-identity and sense of belonging.

Alan’s national identity is less obvious as his peers share interests rather than cultures or places saying ‘British culture became a culture shock to me because I had lived a European life’. Or as Madison (2010) suggests, perhaps Alan avoids isolation by grouping with internationalists equally unattached to home countries. 

Daniel’s fragile attachment to Britain seems linked to his lack of belonging to family and early homes – an assumption Madison (2010) also identifies.


2.1) University of Life

Madison says intellectual studies – such as those later displayed by Daniel and Malcolm – are examples of ‘journeying inwards’ (2010, p.105), while early failure is identified by Alan’s admission that ‘a lot of us could have done better academically than we did’ when faced with the choice of ‘going surfing for the weekend or sitting around doing your pure maths homework’. Freud said the sublimation of studying, a mature version of displacing the libido, was ‘what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilised life’ (1930, p.79).

Daniel didn’t pursue medicine to regulate his libido, but his long-simmering intellectual frustration seems usefully channelled into study! For him ‘studying medicine is as thrilling and as much an adventure as travelling’.

Madison (2010) sees compassion for the underdog – demonstrated by all four – as a complement to a personal fight for independence, while Hoffman (1998) talks of exiles creatively reviewing life’s mysteries from abroad – perhaps enhanced by the extra time and space often available.          

2.2) Lust for Life

All were drawn to what Heidegger might describe as authentic experiences (1962/1927) and prioritising adventure over financial security (Madison, 2010). Barry says: ‘I had this something in me, which I had picked up in America, this sort of lust for life’. Daniel says: ‘there were no bounds to what I did’, while Malcolm ‘revelled in complete freedom’.
Madison’s words could apply to all four: ‘To not be free is to not be alive. In leaving I am embracing my freedom and independence through movement’ (2010, p.270). When he says ‘I have a felt direction more than a felt goal; it is a journey with no set destination, slowly I entertain that the journey is the destination’ (ibid), it particularly reflects the paths of Alan and Daniel. 

Balint (1959) might highlight the interviewees’ philobatic nature – due to their movement towards new and exciting experiences, but we feel this is balanced by their stated ocnophilic attachments to people and places, home and abroad.

2.3) The Heroic Test

The participants often described their journeys using mythological language.
With Daniel, we perceived parallels between his life stages, and the trials of the archetypal mythological hero, namely: a peripatetic childhood; uncertain ancestry beyond his adopted parents; restless ‘drifting’; his desire for ‘transformation’; a passage through ‘madness’; a ‘magical’ chosen land; and his role as teacher, and later doctor, allowing him to be ‘a part of society, actually fulfilling a useful role professionally and personally’. He sought a ‘transformative’ experience that would make him: ‘a different, more independent, more exciting, more worldly person’. Of his chosen professions, Jung’s ‘wounded healer’ (1951) suggests itself, as does the shaman who harnesses skills that set him apart. ‘It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero’, says Campbell, ‘but precisely the reverse’ (p.391).

The ‘purification of the self’ after an individual undertakes ‘the perilous journey… into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth’ could reflect Daniel’s positive transformation following a ‘manic psychosis’. Campbell describes ‘the process of dissolving, transcending, or transmuting the infantile images of our personal past’ (p.101). This chimes with Daniel’s improved interaction with the world. Daniel’s travelling ambitions also reminded me of the pleasure-seeking Peer Gynt (Ibsen, 1964/1876), whose eponymous protagonist pursues hedonistic impulses unreflectively. The ‘decadence’ of Daniel’s pleasure-seeking, however, led to disillusionment, and later, a life ‘more fulfilling than the experiences I had there’.

Malcolm’s Panglossian optimism reminded us of the protagonist Karl in Kafka’s Amerika (1996/1927). Nonetheless, he survives well, treating triumph and disaster with equal equanimity and dreams of his family ‘returning like conquering heroes’. He was also reminiscent of the footloose writers, Lee and Leigh Fermor. Leigh Fermor (1977/1947) flipped cheerfully between barns and castle turrets in his peregrinations, while Malcolm was equally at home in an anarchist squat as a millionaire’s chateau.

Barry’s attitude fits the role of Master of the Two Worlds (Campbell, 2004/1949) exercising ‘freedom to pass back and forth across the world division’ (p.229) and refers to his ‘calling’ to London and the ‘magical’ American world.


3.1) A Life more Ordinary

Page claims ‘re-entry shock is as powerful as culture shock’ (1990, p.181) and how denying these difficulties often results in disillusionment. Brislin (ibid) says re-adjusting to home is often hardest for those who integrated well overseas. Alan returns to a provincial ‘desert’ where ‘pretty much everyone had left’. The reverse condition, Postponed Depression Syndrome (Grinbergs, 1984), could be applied to Alan for his difficulties abroad after initially immersing himself successfully.

Madison (2010, p.178) identifies how returning migrants often feel ‘exotic’, but his emphasis is on visiting rather than permanent resettlement. He also suggests migrants may feel superior to those left behind, if also envious of their material gains. My interviewees tended to feel or be seen as exotic when abroad. This is reminiscent of Hoffman feeling an ‘exotic stranger’ in the US and ‘excited by my own otherness, which surrounds me like a bright, somewhat inflated bubble’ (1998, p.179). The interviews suggest the novelty of homecoming was short-lived perhaps representing a fallen-ness from a more authentic existence abroad (Heidegger, 1962/1927). Daniel laments: ‘I identified as being somebody who had lived abroad in a dangerous place that impressed people, and once that was taken away I just felt like another schmuck’.

For Daniel and Alan, return was heralded by the ‘dying’ of foreign worlds. The Grinbergs (1984) noted how returning exiles fall prey to doubt even when the homecoming is cherished. They quote the expressions coined by a Spanish journalist: ‘to be in the throes of de-exile’ and ‘the wound of return’ (Torres, 1983), and cite one returnee who said ‘I don’t feel I belong in either place’ (p.184).

Regarding Alan, the perceived negative reaction of the homeworld with his ‘long hair [and] ridiculous suntan’ was perhaps reminiscent of the reception Turkish workers reported after working in Germany when mocked as Alamanyali or German-like (Mandel, 2008).

3.2) Paradise Lost

The burning of this bridge to the dwelling place of others left Alan and Daniel caught between two worlds – a common situation identified by Madison (2010).

This sense of failure perhaps deepened early psychological fissures. Metaphorically, they return empty-handed rather than triumphantly bearing the hard-won ‘elixir’ (Campbell, 2004/1949). Daniel described his dissolution abroad almost like a personal expulsion from Eden claiming the loss of ‘a whole dimension of my character’, while Malcolm says: ‘I've left a bit of my heart in France’. The Grinbergs (1984) suggest migration can release latent pathology – something applicable to Daniel’s experiences on his outward and return journeys.

Of work, Alan was ‘sick and tired of just making money and working my balls off for other people’ at ‘what’s supposed to be a grown-up age’ and that ‘the veneer was starting to peel away’. This is similar to migrants feeling infantilised abroad where their qualifications and experience have little value (Grinbergs, 1984).

3.3) Life through a new Lens

For Daniel and Alan, something of Freud’s uncanny (1919) is glimpsed in their re-acquaintance with former worlds, previously taken for granted, while Heidegger’s unheimlich can be observed in their sense of not being-at-home (1962/1927) – even if this represents a continuation of their unsatisfying relationship with Britain.

Madison (2010) discusses how many migrants need to believe home has not changed to preserve their roots. Daniel, however, was disturbed by the lack of perceived change – referring to his dislike of ‘the millennia old inequalities’.

Alan’s wary response to the digital age echoes Heidegger’s warning that technological ‘progress’ –  epitomised by a skyline redolent with television aerials – reduces the world to a state of homelessness by ushering the public into our private homes (1961). Malcolm, however, positively reflected that ‘I've made myself over there and turned into someone who can actually operate over here’.


We initially expected the interviews to produce themes exclusively related to the experience of being and returning from overseas. However, issues concerned with the upbringing and background of the participants proved to be significant influences on motives for living overseas, and the quality of the overseas’ experience and resettlement.

Summary of Master themes

Under (1) Finding Home Abroad, the subordinate theme (1a) Escape from Childhood divided the participants into two camps: those running from unsatisfying home environments versus those whose secure base let them happily wander further afield. Thriving in unfamiliar territory was explored in (1b) The Comfort of Strangers; while (1c) The International Man discussed the evolution of their worldly identities.   

Within (2) Kings of the Wild Frontier, we examined a tendency to reject formal education in favour of life experience in (2a) University of Life; the embracing of adventure and hedonism in (2b) Lust for Life; while (2c) The Heroic Quest reflected the interpretation – consciously or otherwise – of identity in mythical metaphors.

(3) End of the Dream dealt with post-migration experience. (3a) Paradise Lost focussed on the repercussions of closing the chapter on a meaningful period of life; while (3b) A Life more Ordinary highlighted the anti-climax of returning to an old world after expanding one’s horizons in a new one. Finally, (3c) Life through a new Lens explored how each constructed a new existence in the UK after assimilating experiences abroad.


This study of voluntary migration aims to help those leaving, those left behind – and therapists – better understand its purpose and value.

Therapeutically, we identified the value of immersing oneself in the whole subjective story of the voluntary migrant. For example, Daniel and Alan reported far more emotional turmoil than their co-participants as their migration encompassed much more than their time abroad. Answering the call to adventure was perhaps one of a series of trials and life-changing experiences that helped establish their identity. The crucible of travel, if sometimes perilous, forged their authentic selves. Their experiences, spanning many years, were perhaps not dissimilar to the process of insightful therapy. Meanwhile, the study underlined how the relatively charmed upbringings of Malcolm and Barry contributed to a fulfilling overseas venture.

Cooper Marcus said ‘when we start to seek a broader home in another place, it is likely that the soul is demanding recognition’ (1995, p.252). The drive for unplanned open-ended travel often seems motivated by such intangible mystical forces. For Daniel and Alan, self-actualisation took place on the long and winding road rather than a conventional straight path.

While respecting individual choice, a therapist might usefully explore the underlying issues ­– such as the sense of belonging – that motivate such ventures. This may more directly initiate the healing process than years spent wandering away from the home world. Exploring the personal meanings of home may facilitate it. Journeying inwardly through study, self-improvement, or social activism – as demonstrated by Daniel – may be satisfying alternatives.
Returnees devaluing their experience may benefit from being reminded of the insights they have gained, which may be lost if they are pre-occupied by what they feel they have lost through absence. Otherwise, in its ignorance of their experiences, the home world is likely to reinforce this negative feeling. Furthermore, if the original home feels diminished, perhaps it is because the boundaries that enclosed it have shifted. The dizzying possibilities that now emerge may be viewed fearfully, but can also be re-viewed as symptoms of a more meaningful and authentic existence (Heidegger, 1962/1927).

The Grinbergs say ‘One never goes back, one always goes toward’ (1984, p.216). Those more changed than their home world may benefit from seeking a new more flexible environment for their expanded consciousness. Rapport and Dawson suggest migration can be a ‘creative act’ (1998, p.209) and ‘in displacement lies a route to personal empowerment’ (2003, p.51), something which all the participants grew from in different degrees.

If the wisdom gleaned abroad is made central to one’s new life, it builds on this valuable knowledge rather than wastefully bracketing if off like some invalid reality. Some may relish their experiences as little more than fireside tales, but voluntary migrants who enthusiastically embraced the other may wisely build on these foundations e.g. by using language skills, cultural knowledge or seizing entrepreneurial opportunities. Therapists can foreground these skills lest they be forgotten. 

Myriad practical factors influence the outcomes of voluntary migration such as age, gender, status, social and cultural support – along with the destination and provenance of the traveller (Brislin, 1990). Also important are access to home; ethnicity, religion, race; education, and work skills (ibid). Making potential voluntary migrants aware of how these variables may affect them could later earn them rich dividends.

But ultimately, to many voluntary migrants, fine-tuning the variables perhaps cheats the challenge of heeding the call, which for good or worse, must be braved. For both the supportive therapist of the voluntary migrant, and the often uncomprehending friends and family, this irrational but irrepressible motivation is perhaps the most important factor to accept and understand.


Some significant issues suggested by the literature were not investigated as they were not prioritised by the participants. They include loss, which was tangible during Alan’s interview, and writers such as Hoffman (1998), concerning paths not taken. Another is the isolation felt by strangers in a strange land – largely not experienced by our participants; likewise, struggles with integration which my interviewees dealt with largely well. Culture shock was articulated by Alan, but in reference to his return rather than departure.

Space considerations forced me to abandon some interesting – but less supported – themes. These included enhanced economic and social status abroad, the experiences of partners and family, or even the frustration of one’s life-changing stories being met with indifference back home. Others emerged after the interviews, relatively unexplored, such as the impact on identity of learning foreign languages; nocturnal dream worlds; re-inventing oneself in an alien environment; or psychosomatic symptoms attached to emotional trauma. Space considerations also required us to remove many participant quotes; non-psychological, but relevant literature from the review; further detail on methodology etc. which were present in the original dissertation.  

A further study could extend the age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and participant numbers. For example, the themes of Heroic Quest and Lust for Life – well supported by the participants – seem rather stereotypically male. Conversely, a single case study might reveal much by probing deeper into the psyche of one individual. As our participants were similarly-aged white men from a rich Western nation, the results are clearly skewed – we would like to see what is retained with different variables particularly when more participants further iron out the idiosyncratic differences. Even within this narrow demographic, we realise the criteria might benefit from further tightening such as the differences in the places visited, time spent there, and the age of the travellers.

The symptoms discussed, if not the causes, may be reflected by political and economic migrants and those studying or posted overseas. For them, universities and company resettlement programmes may help as do reception centres for refugees, but these options may be randomly available and mere Band-Aids for deeper individual wounds. Future migration studies may benefit from greater emphasis on the individual rather than generalised mass movements (Rapport & Dawson, 1998).


Overall, the participants with a more secure base had fewer problems abroad and in resettling. For the participants whose upbringing was more difficult being abroad might have represented an escape, but it did not necessarily compensate positively for this lack – indeed their issues were often highlighted and amplified abroad. Nonetheless, the conscious act of leaving seems to represent an attempt to overcome this adversity, which allowed them to ultimately understand, accept and grow from it. We also feel that the project benefitted from the positive experiences reported in understanding the factors behind a rewarding voluntary migration.
IPA’s value in investigating issues such as belonging and identity was also highlighted – the interviews largely underpinned these evolving themes. For example, Barry’s childhood home was a happy, nurturing place. It didn’t change, but he did, and the world of cosmopolitan cities became his natural milieu. His harmonious and accessible dual world, which home has become is now varied enough to contain his needs. For Alan, home revolved around shared activities with like-minded companions. His presence in the family home was more of an intrusion than a belonging so it is unsurprising he has grown up adaptable, independent, and unsentimental about childhood. Malcolm’s young adult home was a moveable feast founded on a liberal and nurturing home base, which allowed him to fearlessly seek new adventures elsewhere without needing to escape it. Being abroad gave Daniel the freedom to live fully and create the essence denied by early deprivation, but his travelling experiences were insufficient to make him feel he belonged. His home is now founded on a mutually loving and supportive family – what he lacked as a child.

Traditionally, we believe the lack of psychological literature on voluntary migration reflects a belief that it represents a pathological deviation from the ‘normality’ of settled life. While globalisation increasingly encourages temporary and semi-permanent freedom of movement, we feel an acceptance of migration as an on-going ‘alternative human history’ (Madison, 2010, p.222) will redress this now out-dated bias towards a sedentary life.

Given the freedom to undertake these voyages, the participants all felt compelled to leave one home, to discover another. If they had not done so, we suspect their destinies would feel unfulfilled.


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Author biography:
Gareth Mason is a UKCP psychotherapist working privately and within the NHS. He spent over 20 years working as a journalist in Britain and overseas. He is a graduate from Regent’s University's MA and Advanced Diploma programmes. Denise Lelitro is a lecturer in psychoanalytic studies at Regent’s University and has a private practice in North London.