Brexit took many by surprise, including long-term UK-based New Zealander Louise Chunn. The mind behind welldoing.org voices the feelings of frustration and disappointment felt by many Kiwis who now see themselves as personae non gratae in a country that isn't their own.
I don’t know about you, but ever since the Brexit referendum I have been wondering about my place in the world. I mean that both literally and metaphorically.
Although I was born and raised in Auckland, I live in London and have done so since 1982. I have three British-born children, a British husband, even a British passport, along with my (currently out-of-date) New Zealand one.
I am, as far as one can be sure of anything, here to stay. But since June 23, 2016, that sense of permanence has come with more than a hint of uncertainty. I know I’m not the only New Zealander living in the UK to suddenly feel an outsider.
Obviously, as ex-pats, there will always be elements of that wherever you settle, but living in London they have been subtle, barely perceptible most of the time. New Zealand culture is not so very different from that of the UK. It’s decades since New Zealanders looked upon Britain as ‘the motherland’. These days, British roots are not nearly as common among New Zealanders because people are drawn to New Zealand from so many other countries, and not just these small islands off the European mainland.
Plenty of things still mark us Kiwis out as different. Our accents, our flip-flop wearing, our confectionery-habits, our sports-supporting behaviour to name a few. Generally however there’s long been a feeling that British people just love having us around, all part of the “one-world” melting pot that one senses in the bigger British cities such as London or Manchester. We work hard, we’re fun, we’re no trouble at all. Aren’t we?
I am the founder of a site that matches people with therapists, welldoing.org. Many of our members write content for the site and, in advance of Brexit, one of our European therapists who had lived in London for many years wrote about the fear she was seeing among her clients and was even starting to feel herself. Many of them were people who, on a psychological level, were already vulnerable, and often this is due to the outsider syndrome. It usually starts in childhood: maybe you were the odd one out in your family, because you acted or looked different; maybe your parents are divorced in a community where it is rare; or they speak another language. When stressful circumstances arise, outsiders very often feel things much more deeply than those who’ve always felt part of the group.
While it was understandable for anxious people to be stressed by the increasingly fractious Brexit campaigning, after the vote, the pain seemed universal. welldoing.org’s therapists told us that for weeks everyone wanted to talk about it. It unsettled all sorts of people – many British people felt angry and ashamed of their countrymen, or had fallen out with family or friends. But those most profoundly affected were immigrants themselves. Therapists heard it again and again: “I thought they liked me here ...”
New Zealand is not in Europe, so we’re not affected. But that doesn’t mean we won’t feel something of this discomfort. If the majority of the country made this decision, it’s hard to keep telling ourselves that non-British-born people are really so very welcome here. Yes, we may look and sound and eat and play in many of the same ways as British-born people, but populist movements are often based on tribal thinking that look for any differences. They exclude if necessary.
It can be comforting to remember that sometimes the outsider syndrome can work to your advantage. According to Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, there are three clear benefits to being an outsider: you’ll be more vigilant; you’ll make sure you understand what’s going on; and you’ll be flexible. In his Psychology Today article on the subject, he almost makes it sound like it will work in your favour, though I have to say, I preferred the way I felt before June 23, 2016.
Louise Chunn, Welldoing.org
Louise Chunn is the founder of welldoing.org, a find-a-therapist directory with content devoted to self-development, mental health and wellbeing. She is a previous editor of Psychologies, Good Housekeeping and In Style, and was also editor of the Guardian's Women's pages.