A Psychotherapist's Guide to Expat Transitions

As a licensed psychotherapist and an expat many times over, I feel  qualified to write a psychotherapist’s guide to expat transitions and expat moves.

In addition to a geographical move, an expat transition can be anything from a new job, your child entering a new school, death of a far-away parent, kids going off to college, or repatriating to your home country.

Research suggests that expats experience almost 70% more transitions than their stay-at-home counterparts.

To help make the most of these transitions and come through them in a better place than you were before, I’d like to talk about the 4-S System of transitions (1). The 4 S’s refer to the situation, self, support and strategies.

  1. The Situation:

By the situation, I’m referring primarily to how much input you had regarding the situation you’re transitioning into.  If you’re an expat spouse or employee, and you’ve been assigned a geographic move without much input, you’re likely to feel resentful, and consequently less happy about the move, particularly if it’s not on your top 5 list of places to be in the world.

You may feel disempowered which could cause a downward spiral.  If this is the case, it’s important to find something in your host country that helps you to feel empowered. If you’re an employee, it could be taking on a project that gives you juice. If you’re a non-working spouse, find something of real consequence to do. It could be teaching English to local children, taking a painting class, or anything that kindles your passion.

  1. The Self:

Another point in the psychological guide to expat transitions involves the self, and particularly your basic tendency toward either optimism or pessimism. In other words, do you tend to see the proverbial glass as half full or half empty?

Most of us aren’t 100% one way or the other, but have areas of our lives where we’re more and less optimistic. If you recognize in yourself a tendency toward pessimism, there are some things you can do.

Try to recognize when you’re seeing something in a negative light, then ask yourself what is actually true about this situation? Many times during a transition, if you’re thinking about the future, you don’t actually know what will happen, which is itself a far cry from a negative point of view.

Being with the unknown can bring up fear, but we as human don’t get to know the future. It’s therefore a good idea to make friends with the unknown and experience whatever this brings up, as opposed to negative imaginings.

  1. Support:

Just as the 3 rules of real estate are location, location and location, the 3 rules for expats are support, support and support.

It’s unfortunate that often during major transitions, expats can experience a lack of support when they need it most.

It’s important during these times to reach out and get support from either the people around you, or if that’s not yet possible, to stay in touch with friends and family at home through Skype and Face Time.

Attempting to go it alone, or thinking that you don’t need help, is at best unwise and can make the transition all the more difficult. If there’s no one around to give you emotional support, consider seeking professional help, either in your host country or online.

#4 Strategies:

You might want to think about the coping strategies that have worked well for you in the past. Some examples are seeking advice from people who know more than you do, researching or getting information online, reaching out, getting involved, and taking time for self care.

If you’ve not been particularly successful with coping strategies in the past, this is a good time to invent some new ones. Take some quiet time alone, go inside and ask yourself what you need right now. Give yourself some time to see what you come up with. When something rings true, you’ll know. Then follow through with a small action step.

By paying attention to the 4 S’s during times of transition, you may surprise yourself by coming through to the other side of a transition in a better place than when you started.

(1) Counseling Adults in Transition, Goodman, Jane, Schlossberg, Nancy, and Anderson, Mary. Springer Publishing Company, 4th Edition, 2006.




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