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  • Henriette Johnsen

Wanted: Emotional resilience for expats!

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.


(Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as Holocaust survivor)



For those living a globally nomadic life, experiencing identity crisis becomes a search for congruence in our sense of who we are: This means integrating and resolving differences between


· Who we once were

· How we see ourselves now

· How others perceive us

· Who we want to become.


This is quite a quest to embark on whilst dealing with all the other challenges of expat life. One that requires emotional resilience.


So, what is emotional resilience? Like robustness, emotional resilience has become a buzz word; something we are all striving for, but many unsure of how to develop. This blog post is a follow up on a workshop on Expats and Identity I hosted in collaboration with International Community Odense and International Family Odense last month and will outline ways of developing emotional resilience in expat life.


Emotional resilience is our, in part innate and in part learnt, psychological ability to adapt to stressful situations, significant challenges and changes as well as general set-backs in life whilst maintaining or bouncing back from these with a positive mindset about life and oneself. It is our ability to consciously influence our response to any stimuli we encounter on our journey and to keep evolving through the pain and sufferings.


Being resilient does not remove life’s curve balls but allows you to deal with and accept problems as they arise, solve these and move on - in other words, you are able to roll with the punches.


Emotional resilience consists of three elements: A physiological element involving physical strength, energy and good health; a psychological element involving emotional awareness, self-esteem and self-confidence alongside one’s ability to think and reason; as well as a social element involving interpersonal relationships, communication and ability to adjust to groups without losing one’s individuality.

Emotional resilience is important for everyone, not just for expats. Regardless of one’s usual level of emotional resilience, many expats feel a growing lack of confidence in themselves, and an emerging feeling of inferiority is not uncommon either.


Going through the phases of expat life, setting up life in a new and foreign country, adapting to a new work culture, dealing with the demands of a new job or with being a homemaker, developing one’s identity, learning a new language whilst dealing with “normal” life stuff like everyone else is hugely demanding. At such times, developing and enhancing emotional resilience become key to one’s emotional wellbeing and success of one’s experience of expat life.


Thankfully, through awareness, knowledge and training, emotional resilience can be developed to keep you safe from emotional devastation in difficult and challenging situations.


How to build emotional resilience

Below are suggestions and recommendations for enhancing each of the three elements of your emotional resilience; the list is by no means exhaustive.


· Build self-awareness! Through self-awareness, we can develop a profound understanding of how our past experiences, current emotions and feelings contribute to our responses and actions.


· Develop a sense of agenda in life! Rather than perceiving oneself as a victim blaming the world for our struggles and relying on others for help, by becoming more attuned to ourselves, we can develop our capability in the world.


· Keep boundaries! Remember, there is a difference between you and the cause of the challenge you are faced with - know and keep boundaries.


· Use the never-mind-button”! Be aware of the challenges being within your scope/power for change or not. It is unproductive and cause for more stress to worry about things outside one’s power so learn to press the imaginary “never mind-button”.


· Keep realistic goals!


· Develop an internal locus of control! We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it and what direction our life shall take.


· Develop a multifaceted perspective! Learn to look at matters from a more positive view point. For instance, if your friend hasn’t called, it may be that she’s busy, taken to hospital or something else unrelated to what you may have said or done.


· Be aware of your emotional response! Pay close attention to your emotions and feelings in certain difficult situations; then, practise behaviour which is helpful to yourself at such times. It may be going for a walk, meditating or talking to a friend or partner or in the moment, just focusing on breathing and grounding yourself.


· Be aware of your psychological warning signs! Know that any feelings of hopelessness, vulnerability, lack of joy, depression, worry and anxiety are trying to tell you something about the life you lead. Only by paying close attention to these, can you find the right way forward for you. A therapist can help you if you feel stuck.


· Acknowledge and accept pain! Emotional pain is an uncomfortable, but normal part of life; acknowledgement and acceptance makes the pain less powerful and destructive. Always seek help if you’re feeling stuck.


· Be aware of your physical warning signs! Prolonged periods of fluctuations in appetite, headaches, tight muscles, uneasiness in your body, sleeplessness, pain and the like should always be addressed. Speak to your GP if you are worried; better safe, than sorry!


· Practise self-care and self-compassion! For many, this is difficult as we have not been raised to look after our own needs, but primarily those of others. Know that putting on your own oxygen mask first isn’t selfish, but necessary for you to be anything for others. Lots of good books are written on this subject and again, a good therapist can help you get in touch with yourself and start living more compassionately.


· Live well! Make sure you nurture yourself by exercising, eating properly, getting enough sleep and laughter, surround yourself with people you care about (this can be a challenge when new to a country), relax and pursue your hobbies, don’t have too much alcohol or other stimulants.


· Take time out! Not only for holidays, but daily. Meditation and mindfulness are old, but useful ways of healing and creating greater emotional resilience. There are apps and therapists to help you with these.


· Build a supportive network! Rather than befriending everyone you meet on your expat journey, allow yourself to be selective and be with people who will listen to and support you rather than attempt to “fix” your problems. Family, friends, a helpline, books, counsellors and therapists may be helpful to you in your quest to build greater self-awareness.


· Keep a diary! Keeping a journal of your thoughts may help you not only gain deeper self-awareness, but also park your thoughts so you don’t ruminate. For many people, writing things down is a way of processing difficult aspects of life; once out the other side again, it may also be interesting to read through your thoughts and emotions to fully grasps the depth of the grapples you managed to pull through. This will help enhance your sense of emotional resilience.


· Use humour! When used appropriately, laughter is a good medicine.


· Spirituality! Getting in touch with your spiritual side may help you gain deeper self-awareness.


· Is there a silver lining to the situation? If so, practise focusing on that.


· Relish in your previous accomplishments! In line with keeping a journal, by remembering and appreciating previous accomplishments, you will build greater awareness of your strengths and ability during difficult times. Just as it is easier to practise new skills at peaceful times, it is easier to remember accomplishments during peaceful times; this will help you maintain self-belief when the waters rise.


· What is your why? Remember your “why” to a certain situation, e.g. why did you become an expat? This will help you maintain a positive attitude and focus.


· Giving up! Whatever you do, don’t give up on your dreams. Adjust if you have to, but don’t give up!



The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.


Nelson Mandela







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