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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Expat advice: Keep those rose-colored glasses handy

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If you read blogs from other expats or belong to any of their million forums and Facebook groups, then you will inevitably find a rant followed by a string of comments praising the author for “pulling back the curtain” and giving the rest of us a taste of what the culture/service/whatever is really like in their host country.

This week I read a post on another expat blog about the dismal state of customer service in Colombia. It started off that way at least, then quickly deteriorated into a diatribe concluding that the average Colombian-owned business will leave a person lied to and cheated. The comments that followed were as expected, meaning there was lots of applause for the author for chucking those rose-colored glasses out the window.

Venting seems harmless and maybe even a positive thing. It feels so good to get your frustrations out and be validated by your peers. But not so fast. I’m here today to tell you why this is such a slippery slope for expats.

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Six months later: Checking in from Madrid

Last year while on a trek through the Colombian jungle, Cody and I met another expat couple. As we sweltered, I told my new Romanian gal pal that we were soon leaving Bogotá for our second move abroad. The second time is the worst, she told me, because you know what’s coming.

I completely understand what she was telling me. Remembering my struggles in Bogotá left me with serious shivers of dread. And in the U.S. over the holidays, another part of me worried because I wasn’t chomping at the bit to return to Madrid (you can read about my feelings here and here).

But here I am, six months into my sophomore stint of expat life and feeling great. Was it supposed to be this easy? I’m kinda waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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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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Three reasons you need other expats

reasons you need other expats
Sometimes, you just need a friend with similar taste in footwear.

Last summer I wrote about how important it is to not get trapped inside the expat bubble. In our first months in Bogotá, I resisted getting too involved with other expats. I thought that making American friends meant I would not “experience” Colombia. Oh, the naiveté.

There is truth in that sentiment. You will short-change yourself if you spend all your time in Starbucks, never venturing past the main streets filled with familiar shops to try the mom-and-pop cafe. On the other hand, there are gaps that only someone on the “outside” can fill. Keep reading for three reasons every expat needs other expats.
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Expat advice for the short-term assignment

short term expat assignment

When I heard about the three-month time frame on Cody’s assignment in Madrid, I knew there would be a completely different set of challenges. But when searching for advice, I found zero blogs or articles discussing this particular type of experience and the accompanying spouse.  With assignments like these, it makes sense for the working partner to go it alone because people have families, homes, and all the other things that go along with roots. However, I had no home and an expiring Colombian visa, so I packed my bags and got ready for adventure.

Heading into our summer in Madrid, most of my worry centered on finding a balance between playing tourist, having some semblance of routine and maybe an acquaintance or two. If you read my post last week about emotional jet lag, then you know I didn’t find my feet as gracefully as expected.

Read on for my thoughts about where I did well and where I fell flat.

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Expat advice: The key to a happy expat life

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Just because your body is here, doesn’t mean your mind is…

The two years I’ve spent living abroad have been a crash course in the emotional ups and downs that come with uprooting your life and starting again somewhere new, all with the lurking expectation of doing it again in a couple of years. This week I was compiling all my little tips about how to have a happy life as an expat no matter what your circumstance when I realized my advice was rooted in the same practice: mindfulness.

Though originally a tenet of Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness—much like yoga—has become much more mainstream. In its essence mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present, which allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. If new age-y terms freak you out, just think of it as being in the moment or living in the here and now. If you’ve read articles about disconnecting from technology, staying in the moment with your kids, or listening to your body to avoid over-eating, then you’re familiar with mindfulness.

Because life abroad doesn’t come with a built-in support system, expats can benefit from using this tool to refocus their thoughts. Keep reading to see four particular areas where mindfulness has helped me manage expat life.

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The truth behind an expat’s social media.

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So you’re at work, tapping away at your keyboard and—taking a minute to let your mind wander—you innocently scroll through Instagram or FaceBook.

Ugh, again? There’s so-and-so, hiking some far-flung mountain, cheers-ing in front of a tropical sunset, or arms akimbo with some group of laughing weirdos. Cue rolling eyeballs and a silent promise to unfriend/unfollow/un-whatever at the next gratuitous display of glorious life-abroad fun.

Well, thank goodness you stumbled upon this article because there are so many myths to dispel when it comes to the ‘glamourous’ life we expats lead. You can make anything look good from the outside and when it comes down to it, expats are just as good as everyone else at curating a perfect life on social media.

Of course, white sand beaches look amazing from a cubicle, but let’s take a moment and pull back the curtain on a lifestyle that is so often idealized, to see that the grass isn’t always greener. Below are a few ideas at what’s happening behind the scenes of those perfectly cropped and captioned photos.

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Is expatting better than long-term travel?

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If you are related to us, a good friend or just happened to have dinner with Cody and I anywhere between 2008 and 2014, then you know it was a dream of ours to somehow live overseas.  As we talked through the ways to do this, it seemed like the best option would be to quit our jobs and travel for a year. When we stumbled into an international assignment it seemed like a great way to have the best of both worlds—the security of a job with the excitement of living overseas.

But in the moment, I wondered if we were settling for something short of our full-fledged dream. We were afraid to leave our jobs behind, so wasn’t what we were doing kind of a cop-out?

Now that we’re wrapping up our first assignment, I realize that long term travel and expat life are two completely different animals, each with their own set of benefits. Keep reading to see how I think we got the better end of the deal.

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