Moving abroad is one of the most exciting adventures of your life
It’s a unique opportunity to see the world from a new perspective and experience what most people only dream of.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to believe “expats have it all’. It’s difficult to imagine that there is anything to complain about.
The thing is, life is life. No matter where you are in the world, you will have good and not-so-good times. Moving to a foreign culture doesn’t change that and often makes navigating life more complicated.
Deciding to move abroad and facing the reality of the move can make you feel like you’ve lost yourself. This is entirely normal.
Moving as a partner comes with unique challenges
When you move as the accompanying partner, for love, your experience is very different. You become the stable pillar for the working spouse and the emotional anchor for your children at a time when they need it most.
Your family enters a structured environment full of social opportunities and activities. But you’ve left your identity behind. You have to rebuild everything on your own: your home, work, support and your own social network.
This can become overwhelming. If you don’t have kids, it can be even more difficult.
How you lose your identity in times of change
Your identity is often challenged during times of transition. This includes a move abroad but also when you experience burnout, change jobs or get a promotion.
For example, your identity changes if you’ve been working as an engineer and are promoted to a leadership role. In this new position, you’ll have to develop your leadership skills and leave some of your engineering expertise behind.
In your personal life, your identity may change when you become a new parent. It changes again when you re-enter the job market after parental leave or become an empty nester.
What is identity?
Identity is your unique combination of qualities and traits, beliefs, values, and experiences. It includes your sense of self, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion.
Your identity is not fixed. It evolves through personal growth and adapts to changing circumstances.
This means you have the opportunity to become a whole new you!
– Who am I? The different roles you play
Another way of looking at identity is through the roles you play in your everyday life. You have a function at work, at home, in social situations or when you volunteer.
In Western culture, one of the first things you ask when you meet someone new is, ‘What do you do?’. Our professional role plays a vital part in our identity. This is why losing a job can be so difficult.
Some parts are stronger than others. Other roles you could have are:
- mum or dad
- daughter or son
- wife or husband
- employee or business owner
– How your identity changes when moving countries
After moving abroad, some of your roles change or even disappear. You lose your position as a neighbour, friend or employee. A part of you is not there anymore, and it explains why you’re feeling down.
When talking to one of my clients, she realised she loved her job in her home country. It was a joint decision to move, but her perfect job was suddenly gone, and she missed it. This made her understand why she felt low and had lost her confidence.
The foreign culture also influences your new identity when you move abroad. The new ways of doing things can challenge your existing values and beliefs. You must decide how to deal with it and whether to change some of your behaviour.
Culture shock is unavoidable
When moving countries, you deal with the loss of identity and culture shock at the same time.
Whether you move within Europe or from one continent to another, you will still experience culture shock. Southern Europe is, for instance, more hierarchical than northern Europe.
Company culture can also change from country to country. In some countries, you’re expected to be proactive and take ownership. In other countries, you do what the boss says and don’t challenge that.
– The 5 stages of culture shock
Culture shock is a roller coaster of emotions. It comes in 5 stages.
Stage 1 is the honeymoon phase. Everything is new and exciting, and the only thing left to do is enjoy it!
Stage 2 is the cultural crisis. Reality hits, and you’re faced with the darkness of winter or the endless bureaucracy. You feel irritated by your surroundings and feel misunderstood. The key at this stage is to observe and learn.
Stage 3 is the low point. You feel homesick, lonely and annoyed. Take care of yourself when you feel like this. Find food, cultural events and other people who can help you feel more at home.
Stage 4 is acceptance, adjustment and integration. You feel happier, and your curiosity is back. You recognise the good aspects of your new culture, and it starts to feel like home. Enjoy and appreciate this stage!
Stage 5 is the final stage when you plan to move away from your new country. By now, you’re used to it and feel sad about leaving.
If you’re moving back to your home country, you’ll experience a re-entry shock. Your home country will feel foreign to you, and you’ll have to start the culture shock cycle from the start.
– Family and friends don’t understand you
Many expats disregard how much loss of identity and culture shock can impact them. You think you should feel happy and excited about your new adventure and don’t understand why you feel sad.
Your family and friends might think you’re in a comfortable position not having to work. So you worry about opening up to them and complaining about your situation.
Rebuilding your life from scratch – expat realities are not easy
You face different challenges when moving to another country.
Finding new friends can be difficult, especially if you don’t have children. Neighbours and co-workers might not look for new friends because they already have their circle of friends and their families.
As a woman, you can be seen differently in the new culture. How do you manage the new expectations – and what are they?
You might also have to adapt to a new communication style. The Dutch, for example, use a direct communication style, which can feel rude if you’re not used to it.
These are only a few examples. Adapting to a new home country takes work; feeling overwhelmed and low is expected. It’s no wonder you can feel like you’ve lost yourself.
How to reconstruct your identity in 3 simple steps
Finding yourself and rebuilding your new identity takes work.
To make it easier, I use the following 3 steps for myself and my clients:
1. Commit to change
The first step is to commit to making a change. To change, you must be willing to grow and take risks. The journey will not always be easy, and setbacks and obstacles are part of the process. But in the end, it’s so very rewarding.
2. Access your internal personal resources
No matter where you are in the world, you take your internal resources with you. Some might be stronger than others, and you might have to fine-tune one or two to help you build your new you.
These five resources are:
- Ability to let go: Letting yourself grieve and accepting that your circumstances can’t stay the same.
- Ability for self-knowledge: Learning about yourself and unlocking your potential.
- Ability to manage stress: Managing your internal stress and remaining in charge of yourself.
- Ability to access support: Accessing and accepting support. It will help you feel less lonely and more empowered.
- Ability to be open-minded: Looking at your situation from new perspectives. Being less judgemental and attached to your current beliefs.
Together with your commitment, using your internal resources will create positive changes in your life.
3. Use different strategies to help reconnect with yourself
The final step is to take action. The Wheel of Life can guide you in clarifying what you need to work on. By using practical tools, you start reconstructing your identity.
For instance, you can start journaling to connect with yourself. Or join a club to make new friends and create a support network.
Depending on your needs, you can use several strategies at the same time. Sometimes, they overlap and are connected to your internal resources.
My expat rollercoaster journey
I know the challenge of feeling fulfilled while constantly moving around the world.
After our third international move to London, I had 3 kids and felt something was missing. I wasn’t happy and realised I needed something to feel content.
I wanted a career that gave me intellectual stimulation and where I could use my language skills. I also wanted my own social network, not just my kids or my husband’s. And financial independence.
Despite the considerable cost and raised eyebrows (coaching wasn’t so well-known then!) I took my coaching qualifications. With my new career, I blossomed. It also had a positive impact on my relationships with my kids and my husband. I had found my harmony and flow.
Being on the expat rollercoaster for over two decades has helped me perfect the tools, techniques, and resources I use to help my clients.
Do you want support to rebuild your identity in a new country?
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Written by Marie Dewulf – Photo on Unsplash