Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist, featuring an interview with Wendy Kendall, Registered Occupational Psychologist
Living abroad is the dream for many of us who love to travel. If we are high on the openness to experience dimension of personality, the prospect of immersing ourselves in a new culture will likely be appealing to us. In this article I’m going to talk you through the benefits and challenges of moving abroad, and how to thrive when making the big move.
The benefits of moving abroad
There has been some good evidence that living abroad is associated with developing a clearer sense of self (Adam et al., 2018). This may be because moving abroad can be a challenge to our sense of self, and that this can actually be a good thing: This process allows us to rebuild our sense of self in a positive way. See the next sections for more on this.
The research also tells us that the length of time spent living abroad is actually more important for our self-concept than the number of countries we may live in. Put another way, it is better to live in one new country for a longer period of time than to move across many countries for short periods (Adam et al., 2018).
There is also some evidence that living in more than one culture can increase creativity and contribute to increased innovation at work (Tadmor et al., 2012). This is an impressive finding. For more on the link between travel and creativity see our previous article here.
The challenges of moving abroad
Wendy was clear that there are three main challenges when moving abroad:
“The first one is identity, so our sense of who we are, what is our place in the world, and how do we fit in. This is absolutely disrupted when we move abroad. That can be a wonderful opportunity if you fancy remaking yourself or reinventing yourself. But on the other side, some people really experience that as a loss of belonging, a loss of a sense of who they are.
I remember when I first moved to France in 2003, I had gone from having a team of 5 psychologists working for me, admin staff, I had my own salary. I spoke French but obviously I speak it like a second language speaker and so I remember just pushing around the kids in the trolley, they were really little at the time; and just an experience of ‘No one knows who I am’. It was almost like people were making allowances for me being a bit stupid, and speaking in a strong and slow voice. So that’s an example of how our sense of who we are gets really disrupted.”
When we are settled in our lives it is easy to underestimate the importance of our identity; it is not usually something we notice until some kind of big transition like moving abroad. These transitions can lead to anxiety and uncertainty, which can get n the way of us making the most of our situation.
“Secondly, our routines get affected. So another example from my personal experience. We moved to the countryside, and every day the supermarkets were closed from 12pm until 3pm. Normally if we needed anything, after the kids had done breakfast I’d nip to the shops around midday. I couldn’t get organised to get in the shops. It was the smallest things sometimes; the everyday challenges and having the change our lives to accommodate that.”
In line with this, a systematic review by Doka et al., (2018) identified changes in day-to-day routines and cultural differences as a huge source of stress when moving abroad.
“The third challenge is how relationships change, especially with family back home. Suddenly you don’t nip up to see your family in the evening. There are also changes to your partner relationships, and how you interact with your children.
The research in this area tells us that it is important to remember that often the person with the job has a network around them through their employment. The partner on the other hand can end up feeling very isolated. This leads to two problems; the isolation and a disconnect between the two partners experiences.”
In a recent systematic review, relationships were found to be an important predictor of how well people adjust (Doka et al., 2018). Being able to maintain and develop positive relationships is a huge factor in people being able to thrive when they move abroad.
How to thrive when moving abroad
Wendy had some helpful thoughts on what can help people to thrive:
“The first one is strengths use. So getting familiar with strengths and finding examples of your strengths in action in a new place. Strengths are things that helps us to feel more competent and to deal with life. They also feel very authentic to us when we use them. That can counter the loss of identity that we may experience when moving to a new place. So when we are using our strengths we may feel like “I’m still me, and I’m still able to use some of my strengths even though I may need to use them in a slightly different way because I’m in a different environment”.
The second strategy is meaning making together. Having conversations with your family or friends around what the move abroad means to you, and what you are doing here. How does it impact you? For example, with my children when they started going to French school. I asked them “how does it feel to go to French school? What’s it like? What’s different to school in the UK?”. Having those conversations that help you to connect what went before to where you are now. Making sense of the story of how you got to where you are.
The third is connection to place. I remember when we first moved here to France it was a really hot summer. We ended up staying in this little rented house. It wasn’t until we found this little lake where we spent the rest of the summer. Just that sense of being connected to a place and discovering the places that you love to go. It really nurtures a sense of vitality.
Lastly, remember that when you relocate, it is part of the process to reintegrate yourself in to new community. Try to be intentional about this and to use the support networks that exist. Avoid throwing yourself into your work and neglecting your home life and relationships, as this can be detrimental to adjustment.”
Summary and tips
In summary bring this all together, here are some tops tips to thrive when moving abroad:
Recognise and use your strengths
Make sure you find ways of using your strengths, and look for ways of using your existing strengths within the new environment. Strengths can us to maintain our sense of identity and to bridge the gap between our old life and our new situation.
Make sense of your own journey
Find a way to make sense of your own journey and to write your new story. You might do this by talking things through with a trusted friend of family member.
You might also find it helpful to journal to help yourself with meaning-making. You can use the following questions for prompts:
· Who am I becoming?
· How am I showing up?
· What connections am I making between people and places?
· What am I grateful for?
Connecting to a place
Identify somewhere in your new environment that you love to spend time in. Somewhere where you feel that you are in ‘exactly the right place’. Try and spend time there regularly and do something that enjoy of find relaxing, for example reading, having a picnic or drinking a cup of coffee.
Make it your mission to build your new support network
Integrating into a new place doesn’t happen automatically so it is important to remember to seek out connections with other people and to build a support network. Find a local group, activity or charity where you can meet other people. Reach out to organisations that might help you settle and to relocate. The effort you put in will be totally worth it.
Wendy Kendall is a Registered Occupational Psychologist with decades of experience working with companies across different industries to support their staff in the transition to working abroad. She now leads her own practice providing Private Practice Support for Psychologists & Therapists (inspiringpsych.com).
Adam, H., Obodaru, O., Lu, J. G., Maddux, W., & Galinsky, A. (2018). How living abroad helps you develop a clearer sense of self. Harvard Business Review.
Doki, S., Sasahara, S., & Matsuzaki, I. (2018). Stress of working abroad: a systematic review. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 91, 767-784.
Tadmor, C. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Maddux, W. W. (2012). Getting the most out of living abroad: Biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 520–542.