A Therapists Perspective on the Ex-Pat Journey
Nicola McCaffrey

A Therapists Perspective on the Ex-Pat Journey

ARE THERE RECOGNISABLE PATTERNS THAT YOU HAVE NOTICED IN YOUR PRACTICE WITH REGARDS TO HOW EXPATS ADAPT TO A LIFE ABROAD?
22.December 2021 Nicola McCaffrey

Absolutely!

The experience of expatriation begins before a person leaves to live abroad usually starting with great excitement and positive expectations. Once the decision is made, the considerations and implications at an individual and family level begin to be thought about. This "pre-departure" stage is accompanied by a myriad questions and uncertainties. It is common for tension and conflict can arise in this stage. It is therefore important to be attentive to each person's reaction to the project of moving, as well as to the losses that it will imply (friends, jobs, proximity of family members…) and to each person's capacity to deal with them or her reaction.


Once the expatriate family arrives in their new country, the expatriate life cycle follows a well-known pattern with understood and largely predictable stages. Expats often report that the at the stage of leaving home and crossing the physical and cultural threshold of a foreign land lasts about 6 months and is characterised by strangeness, difficulties, ups and downs, by the feelings of uncertainty (questioning their own identity, their values, and their understanding of everyday life), a sense of uneasy responsibility for uprooting their family with no guarantee that every family member will adjust to the new culture, and by intense, accelerated learning. In most cases, people develop new bearings that are acceptable and satisfying, and which allow them to maintain a balance and flourish in the new country.


The culture shock stage is the most delicate stage psychologically. It begins around three months after settling in a new country. When expatriates first arrive, they are in the "honeymoon", actively settling in and euphoric about their new discoveries and adventures. Once this stage is over the differences in life before and life as it is now become harder to live with. Each person realises what their everyday life will be like and starts missing familiar things. At this stage, people typically feel exhausted, lose confidence in themselves, and begin having doubts about the move. Symptoms of anxiety may appear (sleeping problems, concentration problems, irritability). These manifestations can range from a mild psychological discomfort that will subside as the person adapts, to a more severe syptoms.


When, or if, they return home, expatriates continue to move through the cycle. Expatriation allows for different, new, extraordinary experiences. Coming back to a common, everyday life in one's country and company is far from easy. These experiences abroad are not always listened to, recognised, understood nor appreciated by those one is reunited with. Generally though the expat experience is typically reported as being proud one, of succeeding through difficult work challenges, making it ‘on their own,’ feeling ‘special,’ and taking pride in their ability to acculturate and adapt to change.


HOW WOULD YOU SAY “CULTURE SHOCK” PLAYS A ROLE IN THE EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING OF EXPATRIATES?

We have learned through research and experience that it plays a significant role, perhaps the most significant. The symptoms that we associate with culture shock include feelings of helplessness/frustration/anger, anxiety from loss of social interaction; regression indoors; frequent doctor visits; low mood. Culture shock will be a part of any expatriate’s experience to some extent. It is not necessarily an emotional destination but rather a multi-phase process with highs and lows. The low points are generally when people seek therapy having little or no awareness of the preventative measures that can be taken to ease their adjustment.How can a family prepare itself to cope with the psychological impact of an overseas move?

When one spends too much time travelling, one must eventually become a stranger to one’s own country
— René Descartes


Expatriation demands major changes in family roles and living circumstances. Research shows that the extent to which a family has been prepared for the move directly affects the experience that follows thus families that have received pre-departure cross-cultural and language training often fair the best in the move. The "preparation part" should also not overlook the importance of all family members role within in the move. One of the best things an expatriating family can do before their move is to make time to have open, honest and vulnerable conversations as the move approaches. A family that is diligent about sharing their fears, hopes, and expectations prior to the move is more likely to do so once abroad which will foster a healthier environment in which to share their struggles as well as their joys. Additionally, working to address challenging or unhealthy family dynamics that were present even before the prospect of the move is crucial as these will be aggravated once abroad. Even with the most thorough, formal and informal, pre-departure training, in my experience families cannot avoid experiencing some degree of adjustment stress shortly after the relocation. How quickly it emerges, its intensity and duration vary, but it does appear to be unavoidable in even the best of circumstances.


WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR A FAMILY WHEN MOVING ABROAD?

The challenges that face a family who are moving abroad are many! Lack of preparation, overcoming cultural differences, grasping the art of a new language, and being understood are shown to be amongst the biggest stressors for familiar when they expatriate. Other challenges also include changes to physical health (i.e., weight gain), physical stress, feelings of loneliness, struggling to maintain a sense of stability and comfort within the family unit, as well as attempting to make new friends and to keep in touch with old ones.


DO YOU FIND THAT THERE IS A “BREAKING-POINT” SO TO SPEAK WHEN AN EXPATRIATE ACTIVELY SEEKS OUT THERAPY?

Not necessarily a “breaking-point,” although this can sometimes be the case: Frequently the motivation to seek therapy comes in-part from the frustration and loneliness of being isolated or struggling with cultural assimilation. Whatever the issues that lead to a expat seeking therapy, most often people do not have a social network of friends or family nearby in whom they can confide and access to their usual coping mechanisms are often not immediately available to them when they move.


WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON EMOTIONAL CHALLENGES THAT PEOPLE MAY FACE WHEN THE MOVE IS FINALLY MADE?

In the context of the previous question, the challenges I see most of my expat clients struggling with were usually present on some level prior to the move. Rarely do we see people presenting for therapy with an issue that was completely foreign to them prior to expatriating. An expatriate client who presents for therapy describing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety is likely to have grappled with both to some extent back home.


WHAT MAKES THE EMOTIONAL CHALLENGES OF EXPATRIATES DIFFERENT FROM THOSE OF INDIVIDUALS/FAMILIES WHO REMAIN IN THEIR HOME COUNTRY?

The challenges themselves are not particularly different. Any family can find itself facing, for example, behavioural problems with children or periods of disconnection between partners. The difference seems to be in how these issues manifest and in the support systems around the family that help the through these challenges.


WHAT PREVENTATIVE MEASURES CAN BE TAKEN TO EASE THE FAMILY’S ADJUSTMENT?

There are a great number of preventative measures that the expat family can engage in, on an individual and family level. It is important however to bear in mind that culture shock and time to adjust are an invitiablityof the process of living abroad and there is therefore nothing we can do to fully insulate ourselves from this difficult and uncomfortable experience. Personal/psychological resources such as open-mindedness, emotional stability, high level of social initiative, together with family resources such as flexibility, adaptability, and cohesion act as resources for expatriates over the course of the transition. Turning to more social-level resources, including maintaining contact with the extended family, friends and former colleagues helps family members to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reaching to other people when in need of emotional support and asking for help with the everyday engagements also alleviates distress with expatriates. Social support networks play an important role in the adjustment process. Establishing social contacts with local nationals and other expatriates, getting familiar with local culture and languages are necessary and important for the whole family – although expatriates, partners and children may use different ways to integrate socially. For children, good integration at their school is crucial, for partners support from host country nationals, and for expatriates and partners organisational support and company assistance are important.


IT SEEMS A REASONABLE SUMMATION THAT RELOCATION FROM COUNTRIES THAT ARE "SIMILAR” FOR EXAMPLE FROM THE UK TO NORWAY, WOULD NOT BE AS GREAT A CULTURAL LEAP IN COMPARISON TO EXPATRIATING TO “DIFFERENT” COUNTRIES FOR EXAMPLE, FROM THAILAND TO NORWAY. DO YOU FIND THAT TO BE THE CASE?

This is a huge commonly-held misconception. Although living in a country much further around the globe from one’s home country is indeed incredibly challenging, a life away from home will always be an adjustment. Navigating the bureaucracy of a new country, for example, will always be a challenge even if the bureaucracy conducts business in your native language. Differences in weather, language, local customs, holidays, work ethic, and so forth can be incredibly difficult to adapt to. The bottom line for any expatriate will always be that they are away from home.


IS THE STRESS ON "TRAILING SPOUSES" AS SIGNIFICANT AS THE STRESS ON THE WORKING SPOUSE?

Yes, just as significant and sometimes even to a greater extent. In fact the research in this area indicates that the most frequently reported reason for the family to return to their home country prematurely was a partner who struggled to adapt to the new country and culture. The trailing spouse is often, at least for a time, unemployed following the relocation. This is a particularly difficult adjustment for those who have always been employed and for whom work has been a cornerstone of their identity, as they often find themselves without purpose and meaning in their everyday. The trailing spouse is likely to have feelings of isolation and dependence. Expatriate partners have to link up more with the local culture as compared to the expatriate employee or their children. They are also typically more preoccupied with finding ways to organise family life, learning the culture and language of the host country, and finding a job. Therefore, the adjustment challenges for partners are not only considered as different, but potentially greater. In addition, relocation companies and employers tend to be most present prior to and during the move and not necessarily invested in the spouses, or families, well-being thereafter.


AS AN EXPAT I HAVE HEARD ABOUT THIRD CULTURE KIDS (TCKS) BUT WHAT DOES THIS REALLY MEAN?

Pollock and Van Reken (2009) introduced the following description of a TCK: “A Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her development years outside the parent’s culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.” TCKs share more common experience to other TCKs than to their peers who grew up in their home or host cultures.


WHAT SPECIFIC CHALLENGES TO CHILDREN FACE WHEN EXPATRIATING?

Expatriation demands major changes in family roles and living circumstances. Depending on their own age, children have to face additional challenges and these may have significant effects on the moving family as a whole. Children and adolescents are mostly concerned by fitting into new schools and making new friends and not so much by learning the local language and creating social networks outside school. One of the unique difficulties they may experience is that in their host culture they may stand out because of different look and usually they act differently than host country nationals. Other challenges that children face include uncertainty in their new role, struggling with a sense of belonging, and disruption of identity formation or identity loss. Interesting however the very experience of living in different countries and cultures also provides TCKs with skills to handle change, to be more open and accepting to different cultures and to successfully handle these differences.

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