Developing a moveable identity

by Carolyn Whitehouse

From the outside expatriate life can seem like a modern-day fairy tale. Weekends spend exploring foreign and exotic lands, living in large comfortable houses or apartments and being released from the chores of cleaning, can seem like paradise. If you look closer though, the reality of expatriate life and relocating to a new country every few years is filled with uncertainty, self-doubt and vulnerability.

Interacting with a new culture or reintegrating into your home culture involves taking on new roles, building new relationships quickly and managing a whole range of emotions from tears to anger, fear to excitement and sometimes all of them in the space of a day. Building a new identity in a new location can be a daunting task but it’s a skill that if mastered will enable you to make friends easily, become more self-assured and create a confident personal identity from which to navigate a constantly changing life, no matter where you are.

Who are you? 

How would you describe yourself? Are you young or old? Female or male? When questioned most people struggle to describe themselves. Some define themselves through their roles “I am an engineer”, “I am a mother”. Others describe how they feel about themselves through their relationships with other people, perhaps saying “I am a good friend”. How we define ourselves, our “self”, involves four key elements:

  • The way we see ourselves 
  • The way others see us 
  • The roles we occupy
  • Our relationships with significant others

In Bryson and Hoge’s book “A Portable Identity” they suggest visually drawing your “self”, in order to understand the balance of your roles and relationships. Are all your roles and relationships heavily work focused? Do you have a limited social network outside of work? How close or distant are these relationships? 

Moving on 

Taking the time to complete this picture of your “self” before you relocate can provide valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities available to you in your new destination. Reflecting on your roles and relationships will help you identify what challenges you face in your new home? How will the culture of your new home be different from where you are now and from your “home” culture? Will there be differences in how people are valued? What is the etiquette around making new friends? What will stay the same? Doing research into the culture of your new home and then reflecting on the similarities and differences will help you identify any new challenges that you may want to be prepared for once you arrive.

Being prepared for the new “norms” of your new home will allow you to develop strategies for managing them ahead of time. If for example, the city you are moving to has serious traffic problems, then making the decision to have your work, school and home close together will save a lot of frustration and possibly another move.

How will you maintain your close relationships with family back in your home country? Do you need to visit more often? What barriers will there be in maintaining the roles you currently have? Will you be able to work? Is your profession available? Will you need to retrain or perhaps up-skill yourself with a new language? What values are important to you? How will you ensure that you maintain those values in your new home? What issues might that raise for your children and for you as a parent? Thinking this topic through ahead of time helps to maintain the stability and security of your family even though your external environment is changing

Does this relocation offer you the chance to discover a new culture and places? Could the culture teach you new ways of perceiving your being? What exciting new adventures can you have with your children? Looking for the positive experiences which you can have in your new home can keep you buoyant when the excitement of a new location is wearing thin, whilst advanced planning for activities and days out can give you motivation to leave the unpacking and go explore! 

What additional support will you need without the social network you have enjoyed up until now? Which charities, schools or community organisations do you need to access to find new friends? Where will you find your favourite pastime? Do you need to develop a new hobby? Reflecting and planning for your relocation before you move will ensure that you make the most of the time in your new home so that at the end of your assignment you will leave with incredible memories rather than a suitcase full of regrets. 

A new you 

As well as reflecting on the challenges and opportunities in your new roles and relationships, use your “self” diagram to reflect on who you want to be in your new home. Knowing who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs can help you mentally prepare for the changes to come and give you a personal development plan, so you make the most of the opportunity to build a more secure, open and confident “self”. 

On your marks 

Do you want to be more confident or have more friends? Sports personalities, coaches and performance psychologists know that mentally preparing beforehand for a race, speech or test improves a person’s performance on the day and the same is true for anything you want to change about yourself. Your subconscious cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined, so using your imagination to “test drive” yourself in your new environment enables you to start the process of developing a “new you”. The great thing about doing this before you relocate is that your new friends or colleagues won’t know the “old” you, they will just see the confident person you are now.

Try this exercise to get the motivation to change. Close your eyes and sit comfortably in a chair, imagine a typical day where you are now. Imagine yourself getting up in the morning and going through your day. Notice how you feel at different times in your day. Are you excited and happy to get out of bed? Do you look forward to meeting new people? Do you get curious or angry when things don’t happen the way you want them to? How do you feel at the end of your day? Now open your eyes and reflect on what you’ve noticed about yourself and how you feel.  Write down anything you would like to change.

Now close your eyes again and this time imagine yourself in your new location. See, hear, taste, smell and touch as many new sensations as you can from your new home. Imagine yourself going through the same day but this time feeling and acting in the way that you want to. If you want more confidence, imagine yourself approaching new people with a big friendly smile, feel the confidence and relaxation in your body, see your new friends smiling at you as they listen to your confident introduction. Whatever it is that you want to change in your new home, imagine yourself doing it and really feel those emotions in your body. Repeat this as many times as you can every day until you relocate.  

Relocating with families is a stressful experience but the more you can anticipate and prepare for what is to come the more confident you will feel, knowing that whatever comes your way, you can handle it!

Carolyn Whitehouse (MSc, MBPsS) is a Coaching Psychologist based in Pattaya, Thailand. Any further questions or comments regarding this article can be sent to [email protected] 

Reference: Bryson,D.R. & Hoge, C.M. (2003) A Portable Identity: Park Publications, TX 78627  

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