ABC of expat woman's life: I - Identity in transition

26 November 2012, by

Whether you like it or not, moving abroad will have a big impact on your identity. Would you like to understand why? Read the following article and find out how you can be in control of this transition.

Our identity is comprised of different elements that shape who we are. The ones closest to the core of our being are internal ones like our gender, values, and beliefs. The external ones have to do with our place in our society and refer to our roles and relationships, the community we live in etc.

When I first came to the Netherlands 8 years ago, the first thing I started to say when introducing myself was "My name is Dorota and I am Polish." I would have never said it before living in Poland, but now I felt the need to stress this part of my identity.

If you grab a big piece of paper and write in the middle of it "I am" what words come to mind first?

Now, when you look at your list what do you see? Which parts of your identity are present? And if you had made such a list back when you were still living in your home country, would it be different? I bet it would.

Let’s face it. Moving abroad has major impact on how you view yourself. You will create new roles for yourself and also your internal values might change.

I often see with my coaching clients that moving abroad causes this shift in values. For example, when you are far away from your family you slowly start to realise the importance of your family ties.

We are then like fish out of the water; while in the water certain things are as obvious as breathing, but when we lose it we realise how important they are in our lives. Some of the values are culture-dependent, and you might notice that your new culture has a different set of values.

If there are many changes in the above-mentioned identity elements, we might feel disorientated with who we are. Am I still me? Am I still the same person that I used to be?

expat woman
Photo by Flickr user calamity_photography

As a result you might also experience a temporary loss of self-confidence. So what to do about that? Below some tips to help you go through the process:

It is a process and therefore temporary. It will pass and you will feel confident again.

You are not the only one facing such a situation. Meet with other internationals going through the same process. Share your experiences with others.

You have an active role in how long it is going to last. Think of yourself as "in charge" of your own process. Be pro-active rather than reactive.

Take a stock of what has changed in your identity and think if there are any elements (roles, relationships etc.) that you want to take up to replace the old ones.

Think of becoming your "new self" as an adventure that will allow you to grow as a person, make plans and take action.

Start a journal to stay in contact with yourself.

What tips would you like to share with your international friends?

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Comments arranged by date (Total 3 comments)  
November 26 2012, 11:35AM

Great article! I love how you stress that identities are something fluid and always change. This is especially the case when you move abroad, but also when something changes: you get a new job, you lose your old job, you become a wife, a mother. And these situations can also lead to identity crisis, just like moving abroad. Except when you move abroad you're confronted with a new language, different customs, different traditions- and it is absolutely challenging to suddenly deal with people who think differently. Your tips are great, and I would also add that even though you're in another conutry, you still have other means to connect with others, for example through your job/ gender/interests, etc.

November 26 2012, 03:03PM

Hi Olga,

Thanks for your comment. I full agree with you that also other big events in our lives can have a great impact on our identity. Staying connected with meaningful others in our lives can definitely help us go through that process.

December 14 2012, 11:46AM

I see you arrived at my letter - 'I' :) Love the freshness of your newest article - deep analysis, great tips! My latest expatriation experience and identity growth are so well captured in your first three tips, and here are my two cents. While the transition process is temporary, one can't dictate how fast it would go - be pro-active, but let it take its time. Meeting other expats - the ones that are on the same page as you would give you the comfort that you are not alone; the more seasoned ones - they may open your eyes to what opportunities you might be missing.

About the Author
Dorota Klop-Sowinska

I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am a certified coach / counselor at Dutch...



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