Expatriates experiencing emotional distress and a call for globally oriented psychotherapy receive an increased focus in the research agendas. That one may better understand how expatriates may be helped in times of distress, the insight in their actual psychotherapy experience may serve as a valuable avenue. The aim of this qualitative study was to illuminate the lived experience of psychotherapy and the meaning that expatriates attributed to these experiences within their expatriate context. Semi-structured interviews were utilized for the data collection and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was employed for data analysis. The following themes emerged from the expatriates’ narratives about their psychotherapy experience: “The recognition of the expatriate complexity,” “Personal growth vs Dependency,” “Endurance vs Change,” “The globally minded therapist,” and “Language makes or breaks.” The overall common psychotherapy experience was expatriates’ considerable need to get the recognition of their expatriate complexity in a global context. Findings are discussed in relation to the existing expatriate and multicultural counselling literature taking into account the importance of cultural aspects in mental health treatment. The current study presents a unique and important contribution in the field of expatriate mental health as it highlights the psychotherapy experience that can be valuable for professionals in various settings offering psychological support.


Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, Expatriates, Psychotherapy Experience, Emotional Distress, Global Work Experience

Author Bio(s)

Mojca Filipič Sterle is a research scholar at Ghent University, Belgium, and University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. She is pursuing her double PhD degree in Psychology and in Couple and Family Therapy. Her papers have been published in international journals. Her research interests are challenges and resources of expatriate adjustment. She is particularly interested in the specifics of psychotherapy interventions for expatriates. She also works in her clinical practice as a couple and family therapist in Brussels, Belgium. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: mojca.filipicsterle@ugent.be.

Lesley Verhofstadt is an associate professor of family psychology at Ghent University, Belgium. As one of the principal investigators of the Ghent University Family Lab she conducts and supervises research on couple and family (dis)functioning. She teaches courses on Couple & Family Studies, Couple & Family Therapy, and Counselling Skills, and works as a staff member and trainer within the Postgraduate Training Program in Couple, Family, and Systemic Psychotherapy at Ghent University.

Pam Bell is a psychologist and psychotherapist. She has a research background and special interest in civilian war trauma, including a doctoral thesis on female survivors of extreme violence. Currently she has a private practice in Brussels, Belgium that maintains a focus on working with trauma survivors particularly in the humanitarian aid field, and in addition, an extensive experience with the expat community.

Jan De Mol is currently an associate professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium. He teaches clinical psychology, psychotherapy, and qualitative research methods. He has worked for more than 20 years in a child psychiatric hospital as clinical child and adolescent psychologist and family therapist. Next to his job at the university he has still a clinical practice as family and couple therapist. He is also family and couple therapy trainer linked at Ghent University, Belgium.

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