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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Has expat life thrown you into identity crisis?

Essentially, identity is a question of who you are. Identity reflects your values that guide your choices in life. When you make choices consistent with your true self, you set yourself up for success and harmony in life.


This blogpost will explore the concept of identity and expat identity crisis, how identity relates to attachment, and why expats are often facing identity crises and loss of sense of self, as well as advice on how to handle these.



What is identity?

Originally, the term identity originates from the Latin “idem”, meaning “the same”. A person may hold several identities, such as:


  • child

  • partner

  • parent

  • friend

  • expat

  • employee

  • employer/boss/business owner

  • homemaker

  • job seeker

  • retired


but throughout all these, the core of a healthy self will remain recognisable and in tune with the person’s story and authenticity.



Identity, authenticity, and attachment

For survival, humans are innately wired to strive for belonging to groups of people; and rather than choosing their own values, people often internalise values of other people, e.g. their parents’ or commonly accepted cultural values. Depending on age, level of maturity and self-reflection, this adjustment often happens with lack of awareness.


Sometimes, choosing values different from those of the group comes with a risk of social exclusion and as such, can feel like a threat to exclusion - and essentially, survival! However, choosing values different to our own comes with the risk of compromising our integrity and can cause great distress and uncertainty to our life.


As such, if our values differ from those of the people whom we are attempting to belong with, we are faced with a constant field of tension between authenticity and attachment. For many expats, this is expressed as feeling like the odd one out, not belonging anywhere, and feeling split between their home country and their expat home(s).



Expat identity

Our identity, like our brains and nervous system, has ability for plasticity enabling us to adapt to new experiences and life circumstances - for expats, a most useful skill.


When taking up life in a foreign country, many feel a loss of identity when the need for belonging to a new group of people arises - and, as we are all social beings in need for social interaction to thrive, it always does. At some point, often after the initial honeymoon phase, we realise that what used to be a matter of certainty, no longer is. Norms and traditions as well as manners are different.


This is where expat identity crisis set in! As realising that we are different, we start questioning ourselves. Often, whilst adapting to our new environment, we realise that we no longer represent the values we brought from home. Our belief and value systems have been shaken up, and it can be a confusing and stressful matter dealing with the “not belonging anywhere” - not yet (if ever fully) to our new country and no longer (fully) to our home country.


Many expats haven’t got well developed ties to the local people, but have stronger ties to an ever-changing expat community consisting of, seemingly ever-changing, people from various cultures. At times, this can be invigorating, educational, and enlightening with life-long friendships in the making; but it can also feel overwhelmingly difficult to integrate into one’s identity leaving one feeling bereft, isolated, and depressed.


In an attempt to belong, it’s tempting to internalise the values of one’s host country or the local international community, but if these don’t align with one’s authentic self, there is a risk of developing an incoherent sense of identity leading to unfulfillment in life. At such times, identity crises can arise leading to lower self-worth - and a vicious downwards circle of psychological struggles is at risk of developing.


Adding to this, many companies invest large sums of money on sending families abroad, but forget to cater for the trailing spouse who may have given up a good job and income to follow their partner in their quest for working abroad. Due to lack of work permits, lack of language skills, one's education and work experience not being accepted in the host country, or lack of affordable and appropriate child care facilities, picking up work can be difficult, if not impossible.


For many expat spouses, the loss of going to work adds to the loss of identity. Our professional lives breed certain mindsets, we feel connected and develop a sense of belonging to our colleagues, our workplace and our field.


Our work both widens and narrows our perceptive of the world, and how we are is often strongly linked to what we do for a living. Also, it's often at work we utilise our strengths giving us positive energy. One too many spouses end up feeling isolated, lonely, depressed, and become resentful of the move because of lack of meaningful, stimulating, enriching, and developing aWctivities. This is a major factor in many expatriation contracts ending prematurely.



What to do when expat identity crisis and loss of self hit

Below, you will find a few tips for how to deal with the challenges of expat identity crisis:


  • First and foremost, as with all difficult phases of life, identify and acknowledge how you feel.

  • Accept that things are difficult and that you have a piece of personal development to do.

  • Explore your core values and beliefs.

  • Examine how these have been stirred since moving abroad: what has changed and why?

  • Be curious as to how your new environment and people are affecting you.

  • Find ways to integrate your old sense of self with the new that appeals to you.

  • Speak with other expats, repatriates, your partner, your friends and family.

  • Seek help if you feel this crisis isn't passing, if you feel at a loss of integrating your two worlds, or fall into depression or develop stress or anxiety.



Expat identity crisis. Loss of self. Life abroad
Expat identity crisis



First published April 2019, revised March 2024.

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