Internal Emigration & Online Therapy By Anastasia Piatakhina Giré on 8/8/19 - 2:16 PM

“I was born in the wrong place,” one of my online clients told me. She is someone with fidgety feet and a knotty relationship with her homeland. Growing up she had felt out of place in her native town, tucked in the middle of Pennsylvania. I keep hearing different versions of this harsh statement, from clients from various cultures and social backgrounds.

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The feeling of not fitting in, not belonging to their original environment, is shared by many emigrant writers. Edward Said’s account of this experience is probably the most quintessential: “There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters. Whether this was because I constantly misread my part or because of some deep flaw in my being I could not tell for most of my early life. Sometimes I was intransigent and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be neatly devoid of any character at all, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of always being out of place¹.

Said’s experience of being deeply flawed, his constant uncertainty and confusion about his own worth, are all indicators of various degrees of feeling shame related at least in part to his sense of not fitting in.

Joe Burgo, a psychotherapist and the author of a recent book Shame, insists that: “Unreciprocated affection or interest will always stir emotions from the shame family. As part of our genetic inheritance, we want to connect with a loved one who will love us in return; when our longing is disappointed, when we fail to connect, we inevitably experience shame, however we name the feeling². The motherland, which does not love us back, is similar to a parent that fails to meet our expectations of love. Both unfortunate situations naturally result in feeling that something is deeply wrong with us.

One of the ways we can cope with such circumstances is by leaving our original place altogether. For some, the decision to emigrate, often a difficult one, is unconsciously driven by the need to avoid shame provoked by the discordance between who we are and who we are expected to be in order to fit in. In many cases, the choice to leave home is the best survival strategy. The most obvious examples are queer individuals from countries that pathologize and punish homosexuality: they flee their homes in order to be able to freely live their lives in the way that feels right to them.

But such physical escape is not always possible. Individuals who grow up feeling that they do not fit in countries that they cannot leave for various reasons (e.g., an iron curtain of any kind, family situation, physical handicap, economic dependence) feel trapped and disempowered in the face of such an unresolvable conflict. Not being able to escape the place that is rejecting them only reinforces the feeling of shame triggered by a constant experience being different and not fitting in, and of being excluded.

When emigrating outwards is impossible, the only way of fleeing such reality is inwards. My own Russian culture offers abundant examples of such a psychological strategy for subsisting in an unfriendly reality. Soviet history gave us not only the concept of internal immigration, as mentioned by Angus Roxburgh in a recent Guardian article on life in the 70’s, but also a rich cultural heritage, which thrived “underground” despite the intermittently tyrannical regime. Many artists—Shostakovich being probably the most striking example—lived a paradoxical experience of inner freedom in the middle of an oppressive outer reality.

Russian emigrant writers give us a powerful lesson of resilience in dealing with hostile but inescapable realities. Through their art, they created inner bubbles of freedom, and often had to evolve in parallel realities like Joseph Brodsky who, decades before emigrating, introduced the notion of an “indifferent homeland” in his early work inspired by the quintessential poet in exile, Ovid.

Emigrant writers such as Brodsky or Nabokov’s use of a foreign language for writing is emblematic and has deeper meaning: they claim a new freedom from constraints imposed by their culture. Committing to a chosen second language, despite the difficulties and losses that this choice implies, is a powerful affirmation of individual freedom. This second language, according to Kellman, becomes the tongue of the parallel inner world and a language of freedom.

The same is true for some of my clients living in the state of internal exile. They often reach out to a therapist who speaks English even though it is not their mother tongue. This choice certainly complicates their therapeutic journey, but also allows it some unexpected depth and richness.

When I meet with clients who evolved under an authoritarian regime (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Putin’s Russia, China), I recognize the strength of this coping strategy. Our sessions happen online through videoconferencing systems, as the clients are often unable to find a suitable support in their home countries. The regimes they live under have no love lost for therapy, which aims at empowering the individual; they usually opt for a kind of punitive psychiatry, which was so well developed in the Soviet Russia. Its aim was, in Brodsky’s words, “to slow you down, to stop you, so that you can do absolutely nothing...”

Evolving in self-created bubbles of parallel realities drives us even further away from those who share this harsh external reality with us. This further isolation can only deepen the shame that we already feel about being deeply flawed and not fitting-in. Those who are restricted to these self-created inner worlds often display some recurrent symptoms: depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and constant self-doubt.

Online therapy can offer these inward emigrants a third space, located outside of their unfriendly environment, on the outskirts of their inner reality. In these two conflicting worlds, they are alone, but in the virtual space of therapy, they find a friendly person in front of them, open and curious to learn about their worlds. The online reality shared with their therapist eventually becomes a safe space to reflect on the painful discordance of their inner and outer worlds.

Communication media that online therapy actively uses for its own scope often play an important role in dealing with life in unfriendly inescapable surroundings. Many of my clients living in the state of internal emigration turn to social media on the internet to find like-minded peers and feel less alienated and less ashamed.

There is an intriguing parallel between the voices of the free radio that had offered an opening towards the other side of the curtain during the Soviet times, and the social media of today. The latter is more interactive by nature. During the Soviet times, one was only able to listen and feel connected by a stranger’s voice talking in one’s own language from the other side of the divisive wall, whilst modern technologies offer the possibility for a dialogue, often in English used as the lingua franca.

I have witnessed many situations in which such an outlet kept individuals sane: Saudi women who connect with each other in the ethereal space of freedom; a gay man from Siberia finding connection with those like him and acquiring some form of validation of his own experience; a queer young woman in Putin’s Russia working for a liberal news online platform and through her work connecting with those whose thinking she can share.

Online therapy with a transcultural therapist, who evolved on the other side of the wall, in a different and often freer reality, becomes an ultimate opening for individuals who experience their external realities as oppressive. In some lucky cases it can shake up the juxtaposition of the two incompatible realities the individual is locked in and offer something else—a less lonely space in which they can experiment with fitting in, belonging and imagining other, less lonely and shame-filled, and freer possibilities.


(1) Said, E.W. (1999). Out of place: A memoir. New York: Knopf.

(2) Burgo, J. (2018). Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem New York: St Martins Pres. 

File under: Musings and Reflections, Online Therapy