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The expat emotions roller-coaster


A specific range of emotional behavior is linked to a transfer or relocation. Each stage is associated with pertinent phases of the moving process. These phases are progressive and will change in time, but the fact that you are aware of them and recognize that this is natural and human nature, the more able you will find you can cope. Seasoned expats will admit to having a ‘emotional mood swing’ at sometime during relocation, regardless of whether moving to an undeveloped country or a cosmopolitan city, or how many times they have been subject to the transfer process.

1) Planning

When a decision a to move is agreed, much planning and inevitably frenzied research takes place seeking information about schooling, housing, areas to live, clubs, associations, jobs or career possibilities for partner, food availability etc.

This brings with it feelings of excitement, anticipation and possibly trepidation. Energy levels are high and it is natural to feel optimistic.

Expectations abound at this point and emotional needs are low in contrast to knowledge and guidance needs which are high.


2) Moving

When the reality kicks in and packers descend, this is often when chaos and confusion are evident in your surroundings, however you may be calm yourself. Whilst you may have planned your move to the ultimate detail, you are reliant on external (and ever changing) factors and patience is critical to allow your emotional state to remain less anxious. Taking control of the endless list of tasks needing to be done, both when leaving one location and arriving in another, (the latter when everything may be in another language), allows for emotions including:

Outwardly composed and as you are invariably expecting the chaos and the 'unexpected', but it is within your emotional capability to keep calm internally and thus abreast of the situation. So, at this point, your adrenalin and sense of anticipation deals with all that is happening around you and you remain in control emotionally.

After arrival in your new location and the initial ‘honeymoon’ period wears off, the situation may change. The first burst of excitement and high energy level is replaced by comparisons to ‘home’ (your previous location) - namely in response to the seemingly endless new bureaucracy and logistical procedures required. With these seemingly endless procedures, frustration begins creeping in and you start questioning 'why is this or that process necessary?' Often, there is a sense of anticlimax if the location initially fails to meet your perceived expectations. This feeling can either be lessened if your children and spouse are content, as you are able to take positive vibes from their enthusiasm, but periodically, their sense of well-being has a negative effect on you, as you feel frustration in your situation, compared to their situation, as, for example, they are getting into a 'comfort' routine round school or a spouse at work. This is often where you perceive your situation as being more difficult than that of their position.


3) Settling in period

Along with a possible sense of freedom often experienced here due to the removal of normal social or other obligations that you may normally be exposed to, these feelings can be negated, in contrast by other changes which you are exposed to such as loss of freedom for example if you suddenly don't have access to transport easily or shopping for basics which can be sometimes impossible in a different environment or vastly different to your previous experience.

This is the period where anger or mood swings (maybe suppressed) are likely, when you can see others already resident pursuing a well trodden path or routine and possibly unwittingly excluding new comers. Dual career families usually have to reassess family and social obligations at this point, because there becomes a large list of possible obligations and one person in the family invariably has the hardest time juggling all the pieces.

This is the most vulnerable period of a transfer which, at some stage everyone goes through some or all of the following emotions; confusion, loss of self esteem, nostalgia, isolation, depression (to various degrees).

Alongside this, there is evidence of feeling excluded, some people actually feel on the verge of paranoia here, when the existing community can express insensitivity without intention. The malaise which is quite normal here becomes apparent, when you require an enormous amount of energy for example just going to the post office, carrying out the most basic task or do the laundry and the seemingly endless need to put meals on the table.This cycle often prevents you from providing yourself with ‘downtime’, relaxation or appropriate exercise for your body needs and often your sleep pattern is disturbed. Alternatively the sometimes unconscious route is to take part in all activities and invitations put forward whereby you over-commit to the extent of being stretched in all directions and find yourself being unavailable sufficiently to your spouse and offspring, nor giving yourself any relative quality time.  Likewise, if your children (often teenagers) are uncertain or finding negativity in the move, you will find you act as a sponge for their behavior and liable to take longer to settle down.


4) Living

The morning when you wake up and feel motivation kicking in is the morning you have reached the living period and thus the emotions associated with this stage will become apparent.

A sense of empowerment is evident, when you are able to take exercise, socialize, chill out, work, have some ‘downtime’ or watch TV without a feeling of guilt.

A sense of achievement is derived when as an expat, you reach a milestone, maybe mastering some of the local language, or opening a bank account (basic in home country, often hugely complicated overseas), or feel acceptance within a community. Usually this is pertinent to finding a platform such as an association or a community like Paguro where there is such a wealth of expat success and experiences documented, it gives one a sense of belonging coupled with an “I can do it” attitude. The elation of being in this new environment brings with it an eagerness to explore, mix, volunteer, work and try new experiences and expectations and energy levels are again high.


The underlying pivot of all these emotions (whether we are aware of it or not at the time) is dictated by the ability to control ones life before, during and the immediate period following a transfer. Many aspects are beyond our control, which then dictates the stress level and ultimately drives the individual’s emotions.

Lessons learnt


So in conclusion, how do you best deal with emotions triggered by removal from your comfort zones, enforced distance from family and social network and your usual time zones?

Ultimately you have to recognize which factors you have some control over and which things are beyond your control and where (or not) you can express independence.  


Some of the factors that may seem obvious but are easily forgotten and which can significantly alleviate some of the stress surrounding a move are:


Communication - whilst you may not feel like being sociable, this is an important tool – talk both to other people and with your partner as it lessens the impact of any situation.


Set daily routine / targets / expectations which are realistic and achievable, if something doesn’t get done today – does it matter?


Even if against your normal behavior pattern, allow some element of compromise and build into your plans the ability to change a decision if and when needed.


Retain your independence without being aloof - this allows for important personal-energy conservation through the stages of moving listed above.


Learn to say 'No', without closing the door to other opportunities.


Allow time for exercise - this may not be time at the gym or an exercise class but a good walk, cycle or swim, enough to give you thinking / planning time and sufficient enough to raise your adrenalin levels.


Don't be reliant on drugs, alcohol or cigarettes as excess leads to habit forming which is then harder to break.


Avoid pity for oneself – compared to the experience you are having there is always someone around you more in need.

Be proactive in your planning; avoid reactive action as this may result in rash decisions and misunderstandings.


The best tool in helping to minimize excessive emotional effects is to retain your sense of humor and this includes the ability to laugh at oneself because it is easy and normal to makes a 'faux pas' during this entire process.


Above all, allow yourself to seek and find happiness and satisfaction, expatriation is a wonderful opportunity, embrace it!

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