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Existential Migrants are those who feel compelled to leave their hometown for existential, psychological reasons. They don’t do it for economic reasons but something deep in their souls.
‘Existential migrants’ are people who break away from their hometown and family of origin because it is not just a yearning, but a calling. From a young age, boys and girls with a broad mind and an open heart show a keen sense of observation, an interest in cultural differences and a hunger for adventure. They have difficulty finding companions that meet them at their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels. They learn to seek refuge and resonance through books, music, and the arts. As they grow older, they realize they have no choice but to look beyond their immediate surroundings. In the search for connections that reach far and deep, they are compelled to live expansively, absorb knowledge rigorously, and expose themselves to cultures and people from across time and space. In other words, they are a traveller at heart— both in terms of their mind and in actual geographical footprint.
This phenomenon has been studied. Existential migration is a term coined by Greg Madison (2006) in Existential Analysis. it describes people who choose to leave their homeland for existential reasons, rather than because of economic or practical factors. This idea also challenges us to rethink the meaning of ‘home’- as interaction, or a psycho-spiritual space, rather than a geographical location.
Rigid and conformist social standards can be abrasive and coercive for all but are especially challenging for the innately intense and sensitive, who, on many levels— physical, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual, just do not fit into normative stereotypes and expectations. Sensitive, intense and gifted ones are more likely to become existential migrants.
However, when the existential migrants decide to break away from their family or cultural heritage, perhaps by disobeying their parents’ prescribed plan, walking away from family members who guilt-trip and manipulate, or going against society’s dogma, often they are – explicitly or implicitly- led to believe that they are doing something that is unjustified, disrespectful, or even immoral. Having internalized judgments from various sources, the existential migrants carry a sense of guilt all the way through into adulthood. It turns into toxic shame and shows up as harsh self-criticism, chronic anxiety, low self-esteem, and the consistent feeling that they have done something wrong. They may even hold themselves back from career success and loving relationships because they feel they do not deserve them.
Existential Migrants: The Shame of Breaking Away
The pressure to conform to a particular way of being, looking and behaving is paramount in conformist cultures. In collectivist cultures where group harmony is prioritized over individual expression, people are pressured to do all they can to maintain the status quo, or the outer harmony, even at the price of personal autonomy, voice, or needs.
In these cultures, the need to break away often clashes with the traditional expectation of filial piety. Especially inherent in most Asian cultures (and many non- Asian Collectivist cultures) , filial piety can be broadly defined as being loyal and obedient to one’s parents. The Chinese word for this is Xiao-xun, literally meaning being respectful (xiao) and compliance (xun).
A belief that permeates these cultures is: ‘Having children is an investment in your future.’ There is an expectation for the younger generation to reciprocate what their parents have done for them, often by not just living up to their standards, but also physically, pragmatically and financially giving back. This translates to giving money, staying at home, or at least living nearby, to take care of one’s ageing parents. This pressure is more profound for daughters because implicitly, they are expected to assume a ‘caretaker’ role. The cultural code is that men’s work justifies all sacrifices, while guilt permeates the consciousness of women who break free to forge their own paths.
Therefore, the existential migrants, the rebels, and the independent souls who leave home attract ridicule from not just their own family, but also the extended family and society as a whole. It is not unusual for strangers (the ‘aunties and uncles’) to offer unsolicited advice or comments about the existential migrant’s life choices. Facing judgment and implicit criticism from all fronts, they may believe that they are doing something ‘wrong,’ or bringing disgrace upon the family. No matter how far they go in life, they believe that they have disappointed or hurt their parents, and carry the heavy burden of guilt that holds them back from living their fullest life.
Existential Migrants: Are You a Non-Conformist In a Conformist Society?
– From a young age, you had a sense of knowing that went beyond your immediate surroundings. You were curious about the endless possibilities lying beyond where you were. You had a desire to move out, to explore the world, to have adventures, or to break out of the social and cultural confines of your hometown.
– You have multiple interests and are always hungry for intellectually rigorous, sensually intense and culturally extensive experiences.
– The imposed standards on appearance, dating, and marriage make no sense to you; and no matter how hard you try, you struggle to comply.
– You are introspective and sensitive by nature and are more aware of social and psychological dynamics than those around you. For example, during family or community gatherings, despite the facade of joyous unity and normalcy, you notice the tension, hierarchical pressure, hidden comparisons, and envy, and stifled resentment amongst relatives.
– You have always felt older than those around you. As a child, books, music or arts were your closest friends. You travel in your mind by reading, watching movies, or researching on the internet to negate your sense of being trapped.
– You have always been an independent thinker and -as much as you can- take action according to your judgment; even when that goes against school rules, family instructions or social norms.
– You always wondered about existential issues such as the meaning of life, even when you were pressured to be driven by money, status, and social recognition.
– You were discouraged by adults in your life- teachers or parents- to stop ‘dreaming,’ or to cut out the abstract and philosophical questions to focus on the pragmatic.
– You have a strong sense of justice. Issues in the world bother you deeply, and you feel emotionally overwhelmed when you witness suffering. You struggle to find people who share your concerns, as most generally seem apathetic towards global issues.
– You have been puzzled by others’ obliviousness to the inner world of psychology and imagination, and their contentment with only the material world.
– You have vivid and exciting career aspirations and dreams, some of which transcend gender stereotypes.
– Despite the pressure to focus on a single academic or vocational discipline, you feel pulled in many directions.
– You strive to find answers, rather than what has been handed to you.
– You feel the double bind of on the one hand being pushed to be ambitious, achieve academically and launch a career, while at the same time being told ‘not to compete, to try to be humble and subdued.
– You have ‘Fear of Success Syndrome’: If you are a woman, perhaps you believe that your peers may reject you or become sexually unattracted if you are too competent or successful.
– You have a Perfection Complex: Believing that you must be perfect in everything you do in all aspects of your life.
– You have ‘Imposter Syndrome’: Having low self-esteem despite outward achievement, attributing your success to outside factors, such as luck. You are unable to take compliments and feel undeserving of your success and abundance.
Existential Migrants: Have You Been Put Into A ‘Sick Role’?
It is not uncommon for existential migrants to fall into the role of scapegoat. In some families, pointing the finger at one person as the cause of all evil is an unconscious strategy used by some members to evade their emotional pain and suffering. More commonly than most people believe, scapegoating is something that happens in many groups. The word originates from an ancient tribal practice, where a goat would be chosen to represent the group’s collective sins. By casting the animal out, the tribe members symbolically cleanse themselves of any sins they carry.
Accidents do not assign the scapegoat role. It is most likely to fall on the bright, perceptive, and hyper-empathic ones because, like apples that have fallen far from the tree, they have traits that others do not understand or identify with.
Once scapegoated, the existential migrant son or daughter is then assigned a ‘sick’ identity. Theorists of Systemic Family Therapy use the term ‘Identified Patient’ (Minuchin et al., 1975) to describe this role. From the time Freud considered ‘hysteria’ an exclusively female disease, women have been more likely than men to be scapegoated as mentally frail, emotionally unstable, paranoid and impulsive. While the ‘identified patient’ acts out, others in the family are not required to take ownership of their anger and resentment. Having a ‘mentally ill’’, ‘rageful,’ ‘unruly,’ or problematic child in the family allows all the other members to think of themselves as being more emotionally healthy and stable than they are. For example, the siblings might let the scapegoated child express their anger towards a controlling mother through rebellion, while they continue to play ‘the good ones,’ ‘the reasonable ones.’
The existential migrant scapegoated family member might have grown up with passing comments such as ‘you have always been the crazy one’, ’everyone else is fine, you always come up with problems’, ‘you have no idea how hard it is to parent someone like you, ‘you are ungrateful for what you have been given’… etc. Once the pattern is set, the family typically goes to great lengths to keep the dynamic that way – the scapegoat must remain the scapegoat – otherwise, the others would be forced to face their own vulnerabilities. What this means is that when the scapegoat tries to walk away from this toxic dynamic, they may be met with subtle or not-so-subtle emotional revenge, manipulation or blackmail.
The irony is, mental health issues are highly stigmatized in most conformist cultures, and having someone with a mental illness is perceived to bring disgrace to the family. Thus, the scapegoated one is trapped in an impossible paradox: they are assigned to be the one who carries ’mental problems,’ but not allowed to or have no way of seeking support.
“ I have space within me for a second, timeless, larger life’
Ways Some Existential Migrants Remain Psychologically Trapped
After decades of faithfully serving cultural values, practices, beliefs, prohibitions, and expectations, you might have lost contact with your instinctive truths. The existential migrant could live the most productive life on the surface— approved by family and culture, and have achieved most vocational goals, yet feel trapped and congested on the inside. Perhaps you think you need ‘permission’ to emerge as who you are, to desire what you want, or to run your life the way you like. There are two ways we remain trapped by the pressure to perform and conform: Either by ‘surrendering’ to it or by fiercely rebelling against it.
As children, we naturally seek re-assurance by adapting to the values, beliefs, orders and expectations of our nearest surroundings. To adapt to our family’s demands, we have to internalize their values as if they are our own. Then, at some point, we might become wholly identified with them and forget about our inner nature, which is our most spontaneous, intense and passionate self. Perhaps as a child, our experience of love has been conditional— compliance and obedience were the prices we had to pay for love. As our young wild souls were tyrannized by the threat of punishment, abandonment, or annihilation, they had to go underground. We learned to hide our ambition, drive and individual voice. Then, one day we realize that not choosing is also a choice; for allowing ourselves to go along with the cultural script only creates a sense of false safety that would eventually erupt- as confusion, depression, boredom or an existential crisis.
Another way we react to being oppressed is to overcompensate; maybe by saying to ourselves:
“I am nothing like my parents,” “ I will never live their lives.” Our urge to run the other way can even turn into internalized racism: “I cannot hang out with my kind— they are all so shallow,” “I am not going to be a cliche”; or other kinds of internalized oppression, such as feeling powerless, carrying excessive guilt, or being overly-competitive with other women. However, by exerting all our energy into rebellion, we remain trapped. We thought we had escaped ‘that,’ but we became trapped by ‘not that.’ In the end, we are still not following the authentic spirit that comes from within. In other words, “Can you wear a raincoat when it is raining, even when your ‘internalized’ parent’ told you to?”
Unburdening from the ‘Breaking Away Shame’
Dropping the burden of ’breakaway shame’ is one of the most challenging tasks on our path, but it is essential if we are to free ourselves from the past and grow into our true selves.
Let’s experiment with a contemplative exercise.
There might be a broader perspective that is beyond what we had been led to believe, about who we are, and how we come into existence.
The religious ones amongst us have always known that we are ultimately ‘children of God’;
Some call it the universal source of energy that springs us into being God; others call it Brahman, Cosmic Consciousness, or the Universe.
But we do not have to be religious to be spiritual and to break free from our limited perception.
Perhaps we could even drop the idea that there is one omnipotent, superior being beyond the cosmos, who created and controls the universe, and consider how, like everything else, we are part of nature.
Imagine that the tiny seedling that was you did not come from the physical bodies of your biological father or mother- but from nature itself. We are a part of the ‘ten thousand things’— a Chinese expression used to refer to the indefinite multitude of all forms and beings in existence. Like any animal in the wild or any flower in a forest, we come into being as part of an organic process called life.
Now, consider how nature works: It produces but does not possess. Nutrients from the soil, sunshine, rainfall are freely given, without needing a return. Your true source has no preconceived ideas that dictate what you should do, whom you should listen to where you should live. It loves and respects you unconditionally, and you are allowed to live naturally and spontaneously.
Nature would not want an oak tree to become a pine tree, or a rose to be a sunflower. Therefore, whatever path you choose, however you act, you are as glorious and as valid as your neighbour’s daughter. Nature does not care about how much money you make, how fast or slow you grow, or how many material things you hoard. It honours every single piece of your path and wants you to expand into the fullest, most authentic you. Mother Earth knows that you are entirely innocent, that you do not owe anyone anything, and your existence requires no justification.
In stillness, contemplate the above, and see if you can slowly and gently loosen some of the entrapment of cultural conditioning and internalized guilt.
Let’s also observe the following poem from Kahlil Gibran. Framed as his advice to parents; he shares profound insights into the nature of a parent-child relationship:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet, they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Dear intense and gifted grown-ups,
Perhaps at some point in your life, you have learned that to be safe, you have to hide and shrink into a tiny little cage.
In this tiny little cage, you have stifled your feelings, blunted your ambitions, and silenced your voice.
Perhaps adults in your life have condemned you for saying too much, asking too much, feeling too much.
Perhaps you were told by your teacher to be still, be quiet so as to not disturb anything, or to outshine anyone.
Perhaps you have been threatened by your competitive siblings, and it was never okay to just be yourself.
Perhaps others in your life have discharged or projected their psychic shadows onto you, accusing you of the very negative traits that they denied in themselves.
Perhaps your family has assigned a sick role to you, so you become the carrier of all woes.
Perhaps you were so burdened by having to be the little grown-up, the confident, the counselor of everyone around you that you have forgotten how to play, to be, or to express yourself spontaneously.
Even as we physically and geographically move out of our childhood environment, we continue to live in a metaphorical prison in our mind. The ways this holds us back can be so insidious that we do not even recognize them.
On the surface, it may look like it has all come from you. It shows up as self-sabotage, intense self-criticism, or imposter syndrome — the feeling that you are a fraud despite worldly recognition.
It also shows up as an unconscious upper limit problem: Perhaps just when you are about to play big, be successful, something terrible will mysteriously happen — somehow you get in an accident, break your leg, over-drink, lash out, get sick.
Dear intense and gifted grown-ups,
you no longer have to play small to be safe.
Look around you, look carefully and lucidly at your current reality.
Feel how firmly your feet are rooted to the ground and the tremendous resilience in your roots.
It is now safe to stand up for yourself and to stand in your full glory.
If anyone passive-aggressively attacks you, gaslights you, or manipulates the situation, you can see it so clearly that you are immune to such maneuvers.
If anyone puts you down, spreads rumors about you, you can trust that your true self and integrity will eventually shine through the smokescreen.
If anyone questions, “Who do you think you are?” you say, “A humble soul who dares to be real.”
The false authorities of your past no longer have power over you.
You are free from the tyranny of toxic envy or competition.
The threat of abandonment or rejection no longer haunts you.
You no longer have to play the black-sheep role they gave you.
You no longer need to use false humility, self-denigration, your inner critic, self-sabotage, to protect yourself from your light.
Look around you, most of us are too busy enjoying the love, kindness, creativity you have to offer than to judge you.
The world is ready to celebrate your beauty, your success, your glory.
This article is written by Imi Lo.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.