Having confidence in your changing expat identity

expat identity

What do you do? has become the question I dread most when meeting people abroad. Because work and roles are, for the most part, how we first identify ourselves to others.

Unfortunately, we “trailing spouses” are all too familiar with the way that every aspect of our identities are put into a cup and shaken like Yahtzee dice with each move abroad. Everything settles down again but most likely things don’t go back together the same way. And whether by choice or by circumstance, work is often times a piece that no longer has a place.

I haven’t “worked” since I followed my husband to Colombia in 2014. While I may not have had the traditional 9 to 5, I did learn a second language, start blogging and freelance writing, and work with several NGOs on incredible projects. Finding a job isn’t the issue—I like things this way. But still, I can’t seem to let go of the money part.

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Moving past the “settled-in” slump

trailing spouse syndrome

In my previous post, I wanted to acknowledge the emptiness and loss of focus that comes with rebuilding your life every few years. Experts call this lull trailing spouse syndrome and it usually comes to kick you in the shins around the time you’re patting yourself on the back for another successful move.

Yes, you must pause and let yourself feel those feelings. At the same time, it’s important not to linger here. Unfortunately, any trailing spouse will tell you that it’s also far too easy to lose your momentum and somehow end up simply existing in this place.

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon this New York Times article with a statistic that stopped me in my tracks.

Yvonne McNulty, a Singapore-based consultant who studies mobility issues, said the biggest issue for spouses was loss of identity. “What I found in my research is that almost all spouses face an identity crisis but only about 10 to 15 percent did something about it, by becoming authors, getting an M.B.A. or starting businesses,” she said. Most “felt they were victims, with no control.”

Uplifting stuff, huh? It’s disheartening to hear how many of us get stuck here and feel powerless as to how to find our way back. Only making it harder to find your way is that there’s no single path to steadying your shaken identity.

But these words above also hold the answer—the ones who got back on their feet were the ones who did something about it.

The lesson I’ve learned repeatedly the past three years is that this momentum starts in my mind. Like psyching yourself up before a big event, here’s what I do to keep myself moving towards getting my feet on the ground again.
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