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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Identity - how has expat life affected yours?

Essentially, identity is a question of who you are. Identity reflects your values which guide your choices in life; and when you make choices consistent with your true self, you set yourself up for success and harmony in life. When you discover and develop your personal potential and choose a purpose in life compatible with your talent and skill, you’ll find you are intrinsically motivated to better yourself.

Originally, the term identity originates from the Latin “idem”, meaning “the same”. A person may hold several identities: a child, a partner, a parent, a friend and for example employee, employer/boss, homemaker, job seeker or retired, but throughout all these, the core of a healthy self will remain recognisable and in tune with the person’s story and authenticity.

For survival, humans are 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. 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 our survival. However, choosing values different to our own comes with the risk of compromising one’s integrity and can cause great distress and uncertainty about one’s life.

Our identity, like our brains, has ability for plasticity making us able to adapt to new experiences and life circumstances. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that post-modern humans, unlike their ancestors, continue to develop their sense of identity and are indeed themselves responsible for doing so as norms and traditions have suffered a collapse.

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 it does, because we are all social beings in need for social interaction to thrive. At a certain point, often after the initial honeymoon phase, we realise that what used to be a matter of course no longer is. Norms and traditions as well as manners are different. Realising this, we start questioning ourselves; and often, whilst adapting to our new environment, we realise that we no longer represent the values we brought from home.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 working permits, lack of language skills or 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 activities. This is a major factor in many expatriation contracts ending prematurely.

How expat life has affected your identity and how to integrate your expat status into your authentic sense of self is one of the themes, we will be working with on the personal empowerment course for expat trailing spouses.

World fingerprint - How has expat life altered your identity?


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