For the past 10 years I have been the director of Expat Counseling and Coaching Services, where I have worked with hundreds of expat clients and their families all over the world.
Of course the topic of transitions is key to any expat, as they are frequently in transition from one place to the next.What is less frequently addressed, and what I see as even more important than the physical transitions, are the psychological transitions involved in moving from one phase of the expat lifecycle to the next.
My work with my clients as well as my independent research has helped me to identify four tips to help navigate these waters, which I share with you here.
Tip # 1: The Situation
There are several factors that help define a positive expat situation. The first of these is how much input you’ve had into where and how you will be living. This is especially true for career expats and their families.
For most other groups of expats, like retirees, students, or people taking a year off to explore the world, they are in charge of deciding where and how they want to live, although this too can have some limits such as finances, healthcare and climate.
But let’s go back to the career expat and their families. The working spouse may have bid for several postings and got his least favorite one. Or if one spouse works for a multi-national corporation, she may be given a directive that in order to advance in her career she must take a given position, in a country that her spouse and children are less than enthusiastic about.
In a situation like this, where neither partner has had much of a say in the move, research tells this will be a difficult transition. But there is hope! If you’re in some version of this situation, it’s important to find some aspect of your life where you can take some ownership, and can effect change.
This might be becoming active in your child’s school, volunteering for an NGO doing work that’s meaningful to you, perhaps teaching English to children or adults. It could also involve learning the local language. There’s nothing like mastery to improve your outlook on life!
If you’re the working spouse, find some creative or innovative aspect of your work, if possible. Also reach out to colleagues who might be able to give you some tips on becoming a more satisfied seasoned expat.
Another aspect of the situation is timing. If you have young children it will be an easier transition than if your child is a high school senior. Other factors like a new baby or ageing or ill parents at home can make the transition difficult. To move forward, it’s important for you and your family to acknowledge your feelings, see what is realistically possible, and to look at how you can turn adversity around. More about this later.
Tip #2: Support
This has been identified as the single most important factor for expat spouses, and the reason given most frequently to employers for people returning home.
If you’re a non-working spouse, some of the activities mentioned above are important to check out. In most large international cities there are expat groups where you can meet and connect with other expats, form friendships, or at least have someone to have coffee with.
If you’re the working partner, try working out in a gym instead of at home, join a running group or a tennis league. It’s important to do something that’s really important to you, as your time is more limited.
Whatever you decide to engage in, just make sure it involves other people. There’s nothing like a shared passion to create a strong bond. Many lifelong friendships have been made in just this way.
Tip # 3: Your sense of self
This refers to your general outlook on life. It’s about the old adage of seeing the glass as half full or half empty. If you tend to see the glass as half full, you’ll be naturally drawn to the positive aspects of living abroad, which helps immensely in moving toward becoming a seasoned expat.
If you’re someone who tends to see the glass as half empty, it’s important to admit this to yourself, while at the same time not judging yourself for it. This attitude is probably something that was passed on to you by well-meaning parents, either by their behavior or the messages they gave you.
It’s only by becoming conscious of your negative beliefs that you’re able to change them. The first step is to see your belief as simply a belief, something that exists only in your mind, and then to separate the belief from what is actually true.
For example, you might be telling yourself that you’re living in an unfriendly country, other expats act like they have it all together, and nobody is going to want to be friends with you.
If you can recognize this is a simply a belief, you don’t have to act on it. If you think that it’s actually true, you’re not going to want to put yourself out there and test the waters, which is the only way to find out what’s really true! This takes some courage and perseverance at first, but it can be life-changing.
Tip # 4: Strategies for coping with difficult situations
As an expat newbie there will be many challenging situations. That’s a given. So you’re going to need strategies for handling them. First look at strategies that have worked for you in the past in times of difficulty. Some examples are seeking advice and asking for help, being willing to go more than halfway, using humor to deflect the situation, problem solving and decision making.
If you haven’t been particularly successful in the past, try thinking of new strategies, or talk to more seasoned expats and ask what’s worked for them.
These are just a few ideas for transitioning into the next stage of the expat lifecycle, which is acceptance, and being able to enjoy and grow from the experience. That’s probably the real reason you wanted to go abroad to begin with!