Global mobility and emotions: how does it feel to be an expat?

27 November 2017

Most articles written about global mobility talk about practicalities. How do you organise things? What are the costs and processes?  What are the rules, regulations, rights, and wrongs of global mobility?

But there is also a non-rational dimension to consider. How does it feel to be an expat? For most people, an assignment is a huge, life-changing, perception-altering, character-forming experience that will take you through a range of emotions. Here are a few thoughts from expats and experts alike on what to expect:

Sentimentality

One of the most emotional moments is saying goodbye. Even before departure, expats may find packing up household goods somewhat emotional since, by starting a new chapter in your life, you are leaving the old one behind. Expat David Sabey blogged about the tough decisions he and his family had to make. Do we really need those things? Do the children still need their toys?

The act of sifting through one’s belongings – often for the first time in years – is a reminder that life is moving on. Happily, this apprehension is typically outweighed by…

Excitement

When you realise the assignment is going to happen, it is hugely exciting. You may have great expectations, and are likely to focus on the positives first. You may know, for example, that the temperatures in your new host country can reach 40ºC, but you would rather think about glorious sunshine than sweaty discomfort.

Trepidation

Will you find good accommodation? Will your children find good schools? Will you be able to deal with the language, the culture, the laws? As the excitement ebbs, it is typically replaced by anxiety. The hard reality of a trip into the unknown can be worrying.

The solution, of course, is preparation, whether this is supported by the global mobility department in your company, or done on your own. An excellent way to get control of those nerves and enjoy the lead up to departure is to use a checklist, like this one.

But you can never be completely prepared. Erin, an expat blogger who moved from the USA to Austria notes that even after months of the most diligent preparation, they were still unprepared for the emotions that they experienced.

Empowerment

Being an expat can do wonders for your self-esteem. Expats often find themselves elevated not only to a new job but to a slightly exalted social position. You are one of the few instead of one of the many and are appreciated as such.

You are also on a steep learning curve – and that means that sooner or later you are going to reap the benefit. Many expats recount how a difficult few months were followed by a strong sense of empowerment. Typically, this is prompted by the achievement of certain milestones, such as understanding the local language or establishing new friendships. Lauren, an expat in China, referred to a sense of invincibility as she became adept at finding her way around Nanjing.

Loneliness

Being a stranger in a strange place brings the risk of isolation. After the novelty wears off, expats often realise that real life remains tough, despite the perceived exoticism of their new home. In extreme cases, this can lead to high levels of anxiety and depression.

But it’s not just bonds with friends and the local community that are suddenly removed. Many expats – particularly ‘trailing spouses’ – may find themselves isolated while their partner is busy. Their domestic relationships change and they find that life is suddenly quite solitary.

Freedom

While a move abroad does deprive you of your established support network, there is flip side: freedom. Spanish blogger and ex-pat Angie wrote about 17 ways in which relocating changed her life and the recurrent theme is how she feels ready to try anything that she might not have done in her ‘old’ life.

Many expats talk of the sense of liberation. The routine that many of us slip into has been removed altogether – and with it, the constraints and conventions that may previously have held you back.

Stress

Life as an expat can be stressful – certainly at first. Yet it seems that expats don’t always help themselves. According to Mirish Patel, an expat health specialist with Aetna International, the fiercely-independent nature of many expats can make matters worse. “Expats like to think of themselves as being self-reliant,” explains Patel. “They don’t like to be a burden on anyone, which can exacerbate mental health conditions.”

Ironically, efforts to maintain contact with family and friends back home can create stress as well. Karin Sieger, a psychotherapist writing for the Huffington Post, notes for example that disruption of sleep patterns caused by communicating across time zones can be an unexpectedly significant cause of stress.

Help with the highs and lows?

Life is always a succession of highs and lows. But for those who relocate to another country, the peaks and troughs may be more pronounced. Recognition of this fact has led to a rise in the number of specialist expat counsellors, and anyone relocating should make themselves familiar with such resources. They could help you deal with stress, loneliness or depression – and make sure that, during your time abroad, the highs outweigh the lows. 

Pictures by Brooke Cagle, Pete Wright and Japheth Mast

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