Your identity in expatriation: will it stay or will it go?

Some of you may remember this quote from the movie Fight Club (1999): “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. … “  The question then becomes: who are you?

Identity and its possible loss during expatriation is one of the most recurring issues expatriates bring up in coaching sessions.  And for everyone identity signifies something different: for some it’s the loss of a career they’ve experienced by moving with their spouse half way around the world; for others it’s the loss of financial independence due to a move; for yet others it’s the loss of belonging to a group of people they feel something in common with; and for others it’s the loss of their purpose/place/way/security… the list can go on and on.  So, what makes us who we are and how can we preserve that when in transition and surrounded by an environment that’s seemingly taking away our identity?

Answering the question of who we are will take a lot more than just one blog and so I am going to concentrate on the second part of the question above — how do we keep our identity and how do we feel good about ourselves wherever we may end up?  I think the key here is our relationship with ourselves.  All too often moves and transitions produce feelings of doubt in our own abilities; feelings of guilt, feelings of low self-esteem; and feelings of “not being good enough, smart enough, etc.”  No matter what we call these feelings, they are all about the same thing — we stop liking and set out to criticize ourselves.  What kind of relationship is that?  How much do we damage this most important relationship in our lives — the relationship of us with us?

And what good comes of it?

Certainly not much.  Instead, these regular criticisms and nagging create the recurrent feelings of “I am losing myself”, “I am no longer who I was before”, “my identity is slipping away” and so on and so forth.  The self-critical mode takes over and it’s no wonder that we feel that our identity is no more.

Ever felt that way?  What do you think?

People who read this post also enjoyed:

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Trailing and not Failing: How our Relationships can sustain us in Expatriation?

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Copyright © 2010 by Global Coach Center.
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13 responses to “Your identity in expatriation: will it stay or will it go?

  1. I’ve also experienced this on repatriation. One thing I discovered which helped was registering a blog, Twitter account and LinkedIn. They all require a short biography or summary of who you are. This really stumped me at first, but it was a valuable exercise which forced me to review my expat experience and find value in the things I had done. It took several attempts and ongoing tweaks and I’m still not 100% satisfied, but it certainly helped.

  2. I am an expatriate myself.

    I do not see the point of this question. You will be always you, that’s why it is called “identity”. It is not relevant whether it refers to a moral, a physical or ideological identity.

    If an expatriate loses their confidence or he/she feels out of place, why on earth did they emigrate in the fist place? Stay home, enjoy the warmth of your bed. But be advised not to complain though.

    When you are in Rome, do what the Romans do!

  3. Pingback: Identifying my Identity « The Smart Expat

  4. I have been living an expatriate life for almost five year now and yes, my identity has changed. I am a different “me” but I am quite grateful for this. It is very enriching and inspiring to experience a different culture.


  5. Mario, not everyone could make an informative decision — or even had a choice — when they left their home country.

    In my case, I was a young student full of desire to see the world and no realization of how deeply my identity was rooted in my native culture. So I understand very well what the author talks about. Unfortunately, there are only questions in the article — no answers…

  6. Who is it that has a fixed identity? And when was fixed? As a baby or a child? Surely identities are not fixed for life. You are constantly becoming the sum of your experience, which inevitably changes you.

    Some people seek out big changes like moving to another country or have them thrust upon them. Other people are disturbed by quite small changes in what seemed a quite stable life.

    How you react is who you are, your identity, and how can you lose it?

  7. globalcoachcenter

    Hi Anastacia,

    Funny that you should mention the lack of answers…:) This identity bit that I wrote is part of my interest in developing something for people who struggle with identity issues. I am almost done with developing it (it’s going to be a program) and would love it if you participate in testing it. Let me know.


  8. Expatriate asignment vs permanent migration, different aproach. For the temporary ; the rules of the game changes dramatically, changes in habit are superficial only to adpat to the enviorment and strive on the asignement. Support systems are vital ( spouse, family, native culture interactions). Whereas on migration, one is to take firm steps to create a sense of belonging to the new nation. Own House, Comunity Involment, Upbring of family, etc. While on the temporary asignment the sense of belonging is only shaken at times, of weakness, for the permanent aproach one needs to be willing and daring to become a new person, where nothing will ever be the same.

    My question is, How does the job market value this great ability to adapt to significant life changes?

  9. Hi,

    For me it was quite different…
    I had problems finding a job for me in my home-land (France): arrived in the ‘new’ land (Hong Kong) as spousal (without a visa!!!) I’ve found a job very quickly and I decided to continue my studies in order to be more “sellable” once back in MY country!
    Prices in HK are so competitifs for training and materials!!! It’s an opportunity!

  10. As you may have guessed from my earlier comments, I subscribe to a post-modernist/social constructionist view of identity.

    Curiously this makes coaching expats in this context much easier.

    This view of identity posits that we have no set, static identity, and that our make up evolves to suit the current context. What ever social milieu we find ourselves in we present a constructed identity – one of the issues is that those we interact with affirm or challenge that identity. (If I claim to be an expert in intercultural communications, people will either listen to my comments (affirm) or argue with me (challenge)). If we try to transport a static identity from one context to another (if I claim to be an ICC expert at a meeting of ICC experts for example) I will be challenged much more frequently.

    Expatriates are in a position where they are expecting to find difficulties and are expecting their constructed identities challenged. A challenge is not necessarily negative, as it helps you to create a sense of personal self-worth for that context. In a coaching environment we need to encourage expats (and others) to examine how their identity evolves.

    Trying to summarise several disserations worth in a short comment is complicated, but the essence is that any one (expat or not) who attempts to cling to a static identity is going to have difficulties, so we need to encourage people to accept flexible, evolving and negotiated identities. This doesn’t mean compromising on principles, but it does mean that we should be more aware that other people’s perceptions of us shape our own view of ourselves, and we have the power to strongly contribute to those perceptions

  11. When I was growing up, older and wiser people often told me that I was more “European” than “American.” I came to France seeking a new life and I found it. In the beginning, what did not jive was when I felt that I could only function by selling my “American” identity. I searched English-speaking jobs working with other expats, I sought a sense of community in expat groups, yet these things only made me feel more alienated. I went to design school in the USA and I asked myself, “Would you be doing this (job / activity) if you were still in the States?” And the answer was a resounding no.
    After the course of “integration” (working a design job that I enjoy, having only French friends, etc), there are of course those fleeting moments when I wonder if I am losing whatever grain of “American” that I had in me. Sometimes I feel like I am forgetting English, sometimes I feel guilty for being the blacksheep of my family, I think of all of my friends “back home” that I am progressively losing touch with (I don’t have the money to visit every year)… so yes, these thoughts provoke a bit of anxiety every now and then. To comfort myself I reevaluate the pros and the cons… and most often than not, the pros outweigh the cons; if they didn’t, well, I wouldn’t be here.

  12. globalcoachcenter

    Thanks for your comment, Sarah. I am curious if you ever thought of your choice as “values”-driven as opposed to pros and cons? Lots of time the values-based decision making feels more rewarding and more true to who we are and who we are becoming. Try it sometime when feeling the guilt you mention. Good luck!

  13. I found that rather than losing my identity, I’ve found myself. When I was in the US, I felt like ‘who I was’ was very much defined by my job, my friends, my family. Since moving to Peru 6 years ago, I’ve distanced my self from those things, and find I’m more the kind of person I always felt like on the inside, rather than the person I felt I had to be.

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