Expat reality can sting - discovering yourself in a foreign world
A move abroad when your partner is offered a promotion can augur an exciting stage in your life. However, more often than not, the reality of a strange world stings.
In your home country, you were surrounded by friends and supported by your family; you had a job with all its rights and obligations. Your name was on the property deed and you (co-)serviced the mortgage, you had a bank account and paid for your own clothes. You existed in and outside the home; you had a clear identity, independent and equal to your partner.
In your new country, you find yourself at home without any friends to call on. Your family is overseas. You can no longer work, or perhaps struggle to find a job. Overnight, the move to another country with your spouse has converted you into a less-than-equal partner - a dependent.
Your partner broadens their world with new colleagues and friends, deepens their self-esteem, and engages with the challenges of a new job in a different environment. They are able to open a new bank account while your jobless status shuts down any possibility of financial independence. They go to work every morning; your days may be spent drifting aimlessly through the galleries and parks of your new city to kill time until you have to go home; or perhaps you spend your days trawling the internet - here at least you may be visible. Does it compensate for this new shrunken world you live in?
The transition from a life of work, friends, and family to a new and undefined existence can be an unsettling and lonely process. It may leave you in mourning for who you once were and the life you once had.
But who was that person, and what was that old identity and self-esteem based on? Was it all built around a job and a corporate identity, or perhaps an active social (or family) life? Who was that person? After all, we are never entirely the same as a parent, a manager at work, or our partner. In each of these situations, we may emphasise slightly different aspects of ourselves than when we are with friends.
Where once you knew who you were and what you stood for, you suddenly struggle to recognise yourself - it is as if the lake has run dry or all the trees are gone from the landscape of your life. This 'lack-of' can leave you feeling insecure and uncertain, and ill at ease with yourself. You want the old you back, but that person is gone. Ourselves are not fixed entities; they are in constant flux - every day and every hour we change a little in response to the experiences and encounters we have. We are a creative process, always meeting the world and others, reacting, shifting, adapting, and changing. This is a flexible and never-ending process; we are always learning, open to new meaning and possibilities.
It will take time to discover who you are when you are not working and living in a new culture. Try not to become frozen by anxiety or confined by depression. Rather than regretting the past, that other life, could you rethink this moment when you are alive? Can you take a step back and consider what still works for you, and what attitudes and habits may be limiting you? What old patterns are stopping you from striking out? Is it possible the gain a new perspective on your landscape? Can you see that the dry lake or the lack of trees also provide you with the freedom to fill it as you wish?
All this is easier said than done. It is normal to feel anxiety when your world is thrown upside down or to want to hide away in a cloud of depression. It will help if you can accept that you may feel unsettled for some time by the changes. You will benefit if you can believe that different paths will be revealed and new experiences created. Discovering that your no-income dependency has gifted you more time and freedom and a chance to alter your relationship with yourself and others, may help you create new meaning and purpose, as lives led side-by-side previously grow more intertwined in future.
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About Ondine Smulders
I am a multilingual UKCP-psychotherapist based in London. I have lived in Belgium, France, Mexico, the US and Greece; London is my home. Given my own expat status and third culture upbringing, I have a particular interest in working with these issues including rootlessness, belonging, freedom, identity, home and Brexit anxiety.… Read more
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