Emotional resilience in expat life: Transition & Change

This is the second 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.

Emotional resilience is generally defined as 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. I have come to believe that developing and enhancing our emotional resilience is important for everyone, but becomes absolutely essential to those living overseas.

In the first part of this series, I identified the emergence of six key issues affecting expats living in a highly mobile, genuinely cross-cultural world: identity, the five phases of expat transitions, the five stages of change model, emotional resilience, emotional and social intelligence, and optimism.

Previously we looked at the importance of identity to expats (who am I, where am I from, where is home?), identity development (integrating and resolving differences among how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others) and why they matter (dealing with the pain and loss of people, places and memories that matter).

Second in a five-part series, this article looks at expat transitions and the change model. These concepts are integral to understanding and developing emotional resilience, and lay the foundation for subsequent articles in the series.

The expat transition cycle

In their groundbreaking book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken applied the five phases of a general transition model to expats: involvement, leaving, transition, entry, and re-involvement.

The transition phases begin with our being settled and (we hope) integrated into one culture (involvement). We become aware of the need to leave. This may be the result of a change in employment such as a new government, military, or missionary posting, corporate restructuring or job reassignment.

Leaving a place can be self-initiated or thrust upon us; we may welcome the opportunity for change, or desperately desire to remain where we are. Regardless of the reasons why we are leaving, we begin to pull away physically and emotionally, as we prepare ourselves for transitioning to our new intended "home."

Entry into the new country / region presents its own forms of culture shock. We struggle to understand how our new culture operates (entry) at the same time we are processing the emotions of leaving our previous culture. Sometimes it can feel as though we are aliens in a new land. Eventually most of us integrate ourselves into the new culture (re-involvement), but sometimes at great emotional expense.

In her book The Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition, Tina Quick built on the framework of Pollock and Van Reken's five-phase transition cycle, focusing on Third Culture Kids' (TCKs - also now referred to as global nomads) experiences as they leave their current culture/country, transition to and enter into college life (often in yet another culture / country).

Just as Robin Pascoe had done previously in her recent book Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World, Tina Quick invited Barbara Schaetti, a Ph.D. and herself a second generation TCK / global nomad, to write an addendum in her book.

Schaetti had written in Pascoe's book about identity development, the search by TCKs / global nomads for congruence in who we are by integrating and resolving differences between who we see ourselves to be, who we thought we were, how others see us and who we would like to become.

In the "Final Reflections" section of Quick's book, Schaetti notes the maturation in the field of TCK / global nomad literature. But she also makes this very telling point: while Quick's book focuses on transition to university, it teaches and reinforces thinking about "transitions as a process, a life experience that can be purposefully managed." 

Schaetti maintains that in understanding the five-phase transition process when moving between cultures, you can "learn more broadly how to effectively engage all the transitions you encounter, throughout your life."

Each of us experiences the expat transition cycle phases in our own way, moving through or remaining in the various phases for different periods of time. But as we move from country to country, one culture to the next, we generally find ourselves in one of these five phases.

Think of this cycle as the where and when of the mobile, cross-cultural experience: where we are in the process of moving and living abroad, and when these phases occur as we transition from one place to another.

A model for dealing with change

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the seminal book On Death and Dying in which she outlined the five stages of grief in dealing with one's own mortality or the death of a loved one. These five stages are denial, anger, bartering, depression and acceptance.

Over time, it became clear that Kubler-Ross' grief stages were actually a change model; the stages could also be applied to personal change and emotional upheaval other than death and dying.

If maintaining a healthy sense of identity in a mobile, cross-cultural life is why we need emotional resilience, and the expat transition phases are the where and the when of our cross-cultural journey, think of the Kubler-Ross change model stages as the what we deal with as we go though the transition phases.

As with the expat transition cycle phases, not all of us experiences the change stages in exactly the same manner, order or for the same length of time. When faced with moving abroad (perhaps over and over again), some expats fixate on the denial, anger / irritation and bartering stages while others skim through them.

Virtually everyone feels some level of grief and sense of loss during the leaving, transition and entry phases. What is important for each of us is how long and to what extent these phases last. Becoming overwhelmed with these feelings may keep us stuck in the depression stage of the change model, precluding us from moving into the acceptance stage.

It is reaching the acceptance stage of our own personal change model experience, which allows us to leave the transition phase and emerge into the expat entry phase, and ultimately the re-involvement phase. It is in this re-involvement phase that we can begin to feel settled and a sense of belonging.

Previous in the series

Identity & the expat

Next in the series

 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...

Read more



Leave a comment