When you become an expat, suddenly you are away from all you know and everything you used to be. But it’s in the reconstruction of your identity that you can discover your authenticity. This article is for anyone who has moved overseas and felt lost from loss, only for it to set you on a path of self-discovery.
Stifling howls of laughter at my three year old daughter endearingly howling Let It Go from Disney’s Frozen I couldn’t help but relate the song to the expat journey.
Just in case you have been hiding away on a cold icy mountain, the story of Frozen and signature song ‘Let it Go’ goes like this: two princess sisters; one (Elsa) has a special power to freeze things with her fingers. Following an accidental misuse of her powers when they are kids she’s forced to hide herself and her icy fingers away. Until one night in front of the whole town she rows with her sister and exposes her hidden power. She freezes the town by mistake, runs away to a big icy hill, unleashes her powers and sings Let It Go.
On the mountain away from it all, she can finally be herself without judgement or fear. She’s freezing, but it’s worth it because she’s free to finger freeze whatever she feels like! She’s liberated. And the cold never bothered her anyway.
After hearing the song somewhere in the region of seven hundred times, I started to think how taking off from everything you know can take you closer to knowing yourself.
Because being an expat produces profound questions of your identity. Overnight everything you used to be (career, family, friends, home, possessions) is gone suddenly.
But it’s in the dissecting of your self-definition that can lead to new decisions about who you want to be.
There are a few things that can trigger this avalanche of self-discovery;
No-one knows you
A strong sense of self is somewhat reliant on alignment between your ‘self’ belief and how you believe you’re perceived. So it’s virtually impossible not to have some of your identity defined by the people around you. But when no-one knows you, there are no long-held perceptions or misconceptions of how you ought to be. Which can give the freedom to portray perhaps previously prevented parts of your personality.
Losing constant connection with family can leave you feeling occasionally lost. Especially if an integral part of your identity. However, flying far from home can give you freedom to find your feet. Away from the beliefs you bear, position you play or expectations you exert; distance can dissect the difference between traditional roles you play and a truth that can only be ascertained from total independency.
Long-held forever friends give you a strong sense of safety, security and stability. However, when long-term dynamics don’t differ you’re probably not perceptive of parts you play. Overseas, cultivating new connections catapults you from your comfort zone. And while striving to find your new social identity can instill some insecurity, navigating unaccustomed conducts creates a consciousness of your character. So you may uncover concealed qualities you may not have before shared, or have even been aware.
It’s not uncommon for a career loss to cripple. Not surprising as many glean their self-esteem from work. And while for expats a relocation arrangement is a likely step up, for travellers or partners it’s a possible step down. Either way, there’s likely to be vast variation. But it’s change that challenges your choices. And you may discover a passion you need to nurture, no matter the nature.
Home and possessions
While it’s often not difficult to detach from houses and possessions, quite often they are an internal expression. So when you leave behind your things and place, you can at first feel a little out of place. But we can hold on to things for too long. So starting again can mean you apply some invigoration and inspiration to your external manifestations.
Doing things differently
Stuck in the same city can see you in a subconscious cycle of activity. You may rarely ruminate if life’s a real reflection of what you’d really like to be. Yet in the early expat days of exploration and excitement you’ll likely try new things and may uncover neglected pursuits. Or ones you never knew. And with some self-identification based on the things we do, just doing things once can induce a different self-view.
At home, emerged in everyday culture, you experience a sense of belonging. But navigating the nuances of a new nation can leave you feeling like an outsider. New social etiquettes, expectations, demeanours, and perceptions; you can misunderstand and be misunderstood. However, experiencing a new society can make you more forward thinking as new ways challenge your traditional traits.
Spending time alone is an expat-inevitability. Even with constant company, with your inner circle on the opposite side of the globe, there’s a lack of unconditional back up. But it’s during these periods you can look within and become comfortable in your own skin. And while an equal balance of interaction and introspection is important, solo situations give you space for self-reflection.
Everyone who emigrates immediately earns the expat identity. And with this you adopt identity enhancing associated traits and perceptions; courageous, adventurous and independent. When we identify with traits we tend to repeat more of the same. So you will likely be encouraged to do braver and bolder things again.
Of course you don’t have to be an expat to question your identity. Losing things no matter your location can often take away a part of you.
But when you’re an expat you can lose several segments simultaneously. And since a strong sense of self provides security and stability, this can take you into a void of vulnerability.
Yet the flipside of the coin is the freedom to live life with a different currency.
Because overseas, away from familiar roles and what you think others think you should be, you become conscious of the construction of your identity.You discover what lies at your core.
And as you rebuild your reality, you’ll strive to feel whole so seek out situations that stimulate your soul.
Above all, you’ll recognise that it’s maintaining balance and detachment that keeps your identity secure.
Because the winds will change again as they always do, and your exterior will break away. But while you may crack, you won’t collapse. Your foundation won’t sway.
You will let go.
You’ll have learned to live life authentically.
And finally, you’re free.
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- A couple of good articles on what it means to live life authentically http://www.howtolive.com/live-authentically/#.VhGuCfmqpHw. http://psychcentral.com/lib/ways-of-living-an-authentic-life/
- Expats, as anyone, can also go the other way and live even less authentically as they try to fill the void they feel with things (people, activities, general busyness) that aren’t a true reflection of their personality. Of course we’re all guilty of doing this sometimes.