How Expats Bounce Back from Adversity


The Road to Resilience Can Be Healthy for Expats

Resilience is coined as the ability to bounce back after experiencing difficult life conditions. And the road to resilience can be healthy for expats.  As we all know, the life of an expat can be fraught with difficulties. If we have learned to successfully negotiate difficult situations in childhood and adolescence, we are apt to fare well as expat adults.

Ironically, attending and graduating from the “school of hard knocks” plays a key role in how a person learns to become resilient. Studies show that many kids who grew up under difficult living conditions seem to demonstrate a richer depth of resilience in adulthood. This bodes extremely well for expat children, or Third Culture Kids, who have changed schools, made and lost friends and adapted to new cultures numerous times.

Resilient people tend to have experienced many challenges in the course of their development and have come out the other side. They have traveled the rocky road of life and have managed to either keep their balance or pick themselves up when they have tripped and fallen.

In Sierra Leone, after a civil war which left most citizens in dire straits, when someone was asked how they were, the common response was, “I fall down, I pick myself up,” thereby demonstrating resilience in even the worst of circumstances.
This skill set of “picking oneself up” works best when it is internalized early in life. As expat parents, we are continuously offering our third culture kids opportunities from which they can learn to become resilient adults.

Ultimately, resilience is best described as an evolved and inwardly dynamic quality. If an individual has a mechanism for accessing their inner strength, they can connect to dynamics such as faith in themselves, courage and hope for the future. They are able to tap into the resilience that quietly rests in the recesses of the mind until needed, and then become proactive during times of difficulty. We all know people like this, many of whom are seasoned expats.

Six Tips for Building Resiliency Skills:

    • Clarify your values.

Hard times offer an opportunity to clarify our values and tune into what is really most important in our lives. Resilient people know the difference between a disappointment and a tragedy. They learn to ask themselves “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” If you’re contemplating a move to a foreign country and are worried about the myriad of details that can go wrong, ask yourself, “What is really most important to me during this time?” You may realize that it’s the well-being of your spouse and children, that they will be with you during this time, and that you’re providing for them in the best way possible. And the details that you’ve been worried about will pale in comparison.

    • Build and maintain a network of caring people.

This is of course, a dilemma for expats, who during times of transition frequently don’t have their usual support network nearby. Nonetheless, there are a few people in most of our lives who rise above the level of a typical fair-weather friend. When we’ve first moved to a new location, we may need to rely on friends and family who are not nearby to be our source of support. Good friends help each other through tough times, no matter where they live. Nurture these relationships and be grateful for Skype!

    •  Practice mindfulness.

Resilient people can find their “center” and stay balanced during turbulent times. A resilient person is someone who finds a useful way to understand even the most difficult obstacle. Dealing with a painful event mindfully can help make us stronger. We can learn to see “the big picture” that is often obscured when we get mired in details. Suffering can help us develop compassion for others.

One way to begin to practice mindfulness is to focus your attention on your belly; breathing in, the belly expands, breathing out it contracts. In, expands, out, contracts. Practice this for a few breaths, then add counting, one count for each complete breath (inhale and exhale). Try counting 10 breaths and see if you feel more relaxed.

Another centering exercise that can bring us back into our bodies is to start with the toes and tense and relax muscle groups all the way up to the head. You can tense and relax the muscles in your feet, claves, thighs, etc. Then lie or sit for a few minutes in relaxation. Nothing ever seems as dismal in this state as it might have seemed before.

    • Develop your sense of humor.

Resilient people can find the comedy frequently inherent in the worst of circumstances, instead of getting caught up in the drama. When all else fails, resilient people can laugh at themselves. When we experience sadness or grief or loss, there is the pure feeling of it. Then there is the story about it that goes round and round in our minds. This story line whips us up into more and more intense feelings and is unnecessary. Learn to distinguish between true feelings and what we are telling ourselves about the feelings, which is the drama we’re creating.

    •  Give others some slack.

Resilient people set realistic expectations of themselves and others. They understand from their own experience, that people aren’t always their best selves when stressed, hurt, or dealing with trauma. They tend not to personalize’ the feelings of others, and in a disagreement want to work with the other person to make things right again.

    • Make a plan.

Finally, resilient people aren’t upset by change. In fact, healthy expats have learned how to use change to spring into action. Change becomes their impetus to create a plan. Resilient people proactively gather information, brainstorm their options and commit to a combination of possibilities that will help their situation to improve. They are open to thinking outside of the box. If you want a role model for resiliency, look at an expat who has had several different postings. He or she can serve as an inspiration for how to bounce back from adversity, and carry on with life for the betterment of herself and others.

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