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Who am I? Who do I want to be?

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A common issue reported by those who move internationally for professional or personal reasons is that often, by leaving behind a country, they feel they have left behind a part of themselves.

This is especially true if the decision to move abroad is necessary in order to follow a partner or loved one. Most often it is women who follow their husbands on an international move, not the other way around.

From having their own career, a support network, friends and a well established comfort zone, they suddenly end up having to start again from zero. This can have a profound impact on their wellbeing and life satisfaction and may make it difficult to enjoy the many different benefits that international mobility has. Common symptoms are feelings of sadness and loss, the impression that the new culture is just too different to adjust to, a lack of energy and drive to engage in local activities, a feeling of loneliness and maybe even pure regret about the decision to move abroad. Sometimes, the only solution seems to just go back home, the sooner the better. But there are other ways of dealing with this situation.

For a start, it is helpful to take a look at the underlying identity issue in a very practical way. The question “Who am I?” does not so much need to be answered in a philosophical way, but at a very down-to-earth level. Often the answer lies in identifying “Who do I want to be”. First of all, this implies knowing what was exactly lost. How did your life look like before the move? What were the activities, relationships and responsibilities that defined your daily schedule? How did you feel back then?

Often, this exercise leads to realizing, that the seemingly wonderful adventure of moving to a new country required quite a price to pay. Some people are aware of this beforehand and are consequently not overly excited about the upcoming challenge in the first place. Others are caught by this reality completely off guard. If you anticipated that the new expat phase of your life would be a near-perfect experience, the unavoidable losses that you suffer by moving might have hit you even worse. You simply did not anticipate that leaving your comfort zone would be so hard.

It is interesting to discover, that our identity is made up of many different parts, and that there are some we value more than others. Ask yourself, which parts of your “old life” you miss most now and which are the ones that you feel strongest about today. You might realize that the fact of not having a professional career at the moment is not the main issue. Maybe missing your friends and social network weighs much more. Or it might be the exact opposite. Another realization might be that, although you have not lost all parts of your identity, your priorities have shifted a lot. You might still be involved with your kids’ activities, but feel something is missing, because now you value much more connecting with other expat families. Maybe you feel stuck because you just don’t know how to do that. Making the commitment to finding the activities that reflect your new priorities is one of the biggest and most important steps in building your new identity.

Another important task is to lay out an action plan that helps you create helpful habits. When energy is low, habits provide the necessary structure that ensures that you keep moving in the desired direction. Having a support team or friend who knows what you are working on and champions your efforts is another great resource to lean on.

Make sure that willpower is not your only source of motivation. Sometimes it is easier to stay on track by focusing on the small bits and pieces of our current situation that are already there, and provide a basic sense of wellbeing. In a state of uncomfortable culture shock, anxiety or sadness, our capacity to think creatively is basically non-existent. And the task of rebuilding a new identity is an inherently creative act. Therefore we need positive emotions to broaden our view of the world and enable us to make new and different connections. If you don’t think you have enough of them, start here. Remember that joy is just one of many positive emotions. Serenity, love, interest, pride, awe, excitement, satisfaction …there are many ways to start feeling better about yourself, by shifting your attention to the positive moments that you experience each day, as small as they might be.

Commit now to an action that will enable you to feel a boost of positive emotions today. It’s a reward and a resource for being on the path towards your new sense of identity.

You still don’t know what to do? You want some help in this journey of discovery? Would to like to join a group of other women in your same situation? Check out the resources available for expat women here in Madrid.  

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