Emotional resilience in expat life: Factors for the emotionally resilient expat

Emotional resilience in expat life: Factors for the emotionally resilient expat

This is the last 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.

In the first article 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.

As expats (the who in this equation) we face turmoil and upheaval resulting from the cross-cultural, mobile life in which we find ourselves. Identity development (congruence) is the important reason why we need emotional resilience.

Emotional and social intelligence skills and optimism are tools contributing to our emotional resilience: they help us with how we handle what we experience as we are going through the Kubler-Ross change model and which stage we are in, and when and where we happen to be in our expat transition phases.

So what are we to make of all of this? I have detected an underlying core of recurring themes that seem to point the way toward a healthier, more positive expat experience. I have captured these themes in the mnemonic device "factors." This is not meant to be glib or simplistic; rather, it helps remind me to focus on what is most important among all the information and data.

Factors for the emotionally resilient expat


Family is paramount. It does not matter whether we were a tight-knit or dysfunctional family when we began our expat journey, whether we are single, in a relationship or the parents of two, three or seven children. Everyone is part of a family unit, whether through blood or marriage or friendship.

In every case, we are looking to each other for stability, a sense of home and of belonging, and love. If the primary relationship suffers, it is likely the relationship between parent and child will also suffer. Family members need to know that they are cared for, valued and loved.

The sad fact is that some expat marriages strain, just as many non-expat marriages do. It is even more critical that we, as expat spouses, to do our utmost to maintain a strong, healthy relationship. If divorce is in the cards, both parties must make every effort to remain a viable, centring presence in the lives of our children. It is that important; the stakes are that high.


Awareness of the challenges (and opportunities) inherent in the expat experience. It helps to have an understanding of each of the concepts discussed in this series, and the relevance of and linkage among them in building emotional resilience. It is particularly important that we are aware of our emotions, and learn to employ self-calming techniques to quiet negative self-beliefs and decrease personal distress when our emotions threaten to overwhelm us.

Awareness also includes accurately sending and picking up on the signals of ourselves and others, especially if we or someone we care about is disoriented, unhappy or otherwise exhibiting difficulty with transitions.


Communication is crucial: it must be constant and continual. Listen, talk, write, share experiences, be together. Fostering communication helps maintain and strengthen our familial connections. 

We then have a better sense of where each member is in terms of identity congruence, emotional resilience and optimism (as well as both the expat transition process phases and change model stages), and can act accordingly. Through communication we can employ empathy, understanding how others are feeling.

 Transitions are to be respected

Pollock and Van Reken's RAFT (reconciliation, affirmation, farewells, think destination) is a good a place to start to ensure that we "leave well to enter well" and deal with our losses of people, places and things, regardless of whether we are the ones leaving or left behind.

These RAFT actions can help us navigate ourselves and our family members through the expat transition process and the change model with optimism, emotional resilience, emotional / social intelligence and identity intact.

› Optimism

Optimism, and the corresponding emotional resilience and emotional and social intelligence, can be learned, developed, strengthened. All are important contributors to our sense of identity; they also impact our dealing with the change model and moving through transitions. Optimism is future-oriented, and helps us discover hope, maintain perspective and incorporate humour in our daily lives.


Rituals help establish and reaffirm our sense of self (identity), and can be used to boost communication, optimism and emotional resilience. Rituals not only remind us where we came from, they also reflect where we have been along the way, resulting in who we are today. They are a form of shared memories and help to create and maintain bonds; by acknowledging their importance, we honour ourselves and our experiences.

 Something bigger than ourselves

It is my personal opinion that we human beings need (and fare better when we have) belief in a higher being or that which brings order to our universe. It may be religious faith, karma, fate or the sense that we were put on this earth for a purpose. Whatever you choose for your belief system, it helps give our lives structure and meaning, and I believe we benefit from it. It helps us find meaning in life, set goals, take action and express gratitude.

Finally, I would reiterate that if you or a family member seems particularly stuck in a transition phase or change model stage, or exhibits signs of depression or helplessness, please seek assistance. Placing the well-being of yourself or your family above all else is a sign of emotional strength, maturity and ultimately, resilience.

Previous in the series

Identity & the expat
 Emotional & Social intelligence and optimism
 Engendering ER in expats - Part 1
Engendering ER in expats - Part 2

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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