Emotional resilience in expat life: Identity & the expat

This is the first in a five-part series by Contributor Linda A. Janssen, who is working on a book about emotional resilience and its importance in expat life.

Much of the literature regarding the challenges and benefits of expat life has been written within the past two decades, with many of the books and articles published within the past 10 years. Eager to glean insights into the repercussions of living overseas, I have read many; each book or article I poured over eagerly led to others. Initially all of the information tended to seem confusing, overlapping, and occasionally repetitive.

Over time, I began to notice a pattern emerging of six key issues: identity, the five phases of expat transitions, the five stages of change model, emotional resilience, emotional and social intelligence, and optimism.

I am not a psychologist or therapist. However, I do see enormous value in pulling the various strands together into a more cohesive whole that addresses this question: "What does it all mean for expats, for me, for my family?"

I have come to believe that emotional resilience - the psychological ability to adapt to the significant challenges, misfortunes and set-backs life throws our way, while maintaining or returning to a positive view of oneself during and after such turmoil - is absolutely essential, not only for those living overseas, but for everyone.

First in a five-part series, this article looks at the first of the aforementioned key issues, identity. The other five key issues will be addressed in the second and third parts of the series. All six of these concepts are integral to understanding and developing emotional resilience, and lay the foundation for the last two articles.

Identity & The expat

It is not surprising that people living in cross-cultural situations grapple with questions of identity. In their groundbreaking book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, interculturalist David Pollock and adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) Ruth Van Reken focused on addressing what they considered the "foundational questions of identity: who am I, where am I from, where is home?" 

Pollock and Van Reken defined the Third Culture Kid (TCK) as "a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents' culture(s)." While TCKs may build relationships to all of the cultures in which they interact, they have full ownership in none. They are not from their parents' culture(s), nor from the host culture(s) they find themselves living in, but form a third intersection or interstitial Third Culture of  "shared commonalities with those living the internationally mobile lifestyle." 

Writing initially to the TCK, Pollock and Van Reken recognised that TCKs' backgrounds share many of the same aspects of the overarching group of cross-culturals of which they are a subset. They find themselves "trying to develop a sense of personal and cultural identity when the world around them mirrors back changing definitions of who they are." Van Reken specifically added chapters in their revised edition describing this "cultural hybridisation," thus opening up the discussion to include others in the cross-cultural camp.

In The Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition, Tina Quick builds upon the underpinnings of Pollock and Van Reken's work with TCKs and the cross-cultural experience. Quick recognises the importance and impact of the two-pronged basic reality that shapes the lives of TCKs (and indeed of many expats): we live in a genuinely cross-cultural yet highly mobile world.

Identity development
The importance of identity is a common theme in all of Robin Pascoe's expat books, from the initial Culture Shock! - Successful Living Abroad for Wives (and the follow-on for Parents) to A Broad Abroad: The Expat Wife's Guide to Living Abroad, and Homeward Bound: A Spouse's Guide to Repatriation.

In her book A Moveable Marriage: Relocate Your Relationship Without Breaking It, Pascoe discusses how everything that distinguishes you as a person (e.g., career, friends, extended family, religion, community) suddenly seems to disappear when you move abroad, particularly if you are the accompanying spouse or partner.

Indeed, identity plays such a central role in Pascoe's Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World that she includes an entire section by Barbara Schaetti on the importance of "identity development." Schaetti explains that for those living a globally nomadic life, identity development is the search for congruence (i.e., agreement) in our sense of who we are.

This means integrating and resolving differences among how we see ourselves now, who we once thought ourselves to be, who others perceive us to be and who we want to become. Most global nomads do successfully integrate their mobile childhoods into their adult identities, but some may become stuck along the way, suffering emotional pain and anguish.

Why identity matters

Why does this matter? If we do not have a clear sense of identity, of who we are, as we continually move from place to place, we may struggle with the emotional fallout from the disruption and loss of relationships and connections.

The high mobility aspect of expat life lends itself to unresolved feelings of loss and grief as we leave behind people, places and memories that matter. We mourn for our losses, and if we do not acknowledge and incorporate these feelings, our identity development may be affected. We risk feeling alienated, helpless, lost. The cross-cultural aspect aspect of the expat life similarly challenges our sense of self.

A sense of identity is crucial to one's mental and emotional health. Yet, the cross-cultural, highly mobile world many of us live in introduces challenges when we shift from one country / culture to another, forcing us into transition. When someone goes through a traumatic event or period of turmoil (such as when transitioning between / among cultures), lack of emotional resilience can contribute to feelings of helplessness and depression.

Conversely, enhancing our emotional resilience can help us navigate our way through the transitions and changes present in our expat lives. This is precisely why the transition cycle and change model discussed in the second part of this series are directly relevant to the expat experience.

Next in the series

 Transition & Change
 Emotional & Social intelligence and optimism
 Engendering ER in expats - Part 1
Engendering ER in expats - Part 2
 "Factors" for the emotionally resilient expat

Linda A. Janssen


Linda A. Janssen

Writer, author & expat living abroad and sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd. I chronicle making a new life in NL. Always finding the upside...

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