For many expats their geographical location is more likely to be a ‘home for now’ than a home forever. And when that call comes to tell you the next move is imminent, proper endings, even when it was ‘home for now’ can be neglected or even forgotten in the rush to prepare.
For some expats, be they couples or singles, with or without children, the business of packing up and moving on is just part of everyday life. Questions like “how long will you stay” are usually waved away with an airy ‘two, three years, maybe four’. Few expats know in advance how long they will stay, as extensions are not unusual, nor sudden changes of plan.
Committing to the change
You have to be a special kind of person to be cut out for this way of life. Yet even if you are a true global veteran, you still experience the same pattern of commitment, letting go, readjusting and settling in. It’s part of the territory.
According to numerous bodies of research, there is a direct correlation between well-considered pre-location factors and adjustment success. The more firmly the decision is rooted in an individual’s own mind, the better s/he can withstand the ups and downs of readjusting and settling in. So you may want to ask yourself, either as partner or as an assignee; “is my decision being influenced by spousal, parental or social influences?” Do you really feel you are making a choice, or have you been told implicitly, ‘move, or else….’ And if you are bringing a family, however young the children may be, are they feeling that, even though they may not get to choose whether to move or not, they still have a say in how or when. Is their part in the school play really less important than the moving date? Can the new ‘old’ friend come and stay for a week at Christmas?
The more time you take to really commit to the decision, the less time will be lost at the other end in trying to match the reality to some ungrounded sense of ‘having done it to please’ some other. Pleasing for the sake of pleasing is not a sound motivation, not even in the happiest of relationships, be they corporate or passionate.
In psychology, the ‘Psyche’ is referred to when we speak about the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious. Just like we sometimes have a tendency to take our bodies for granted and use them as transport vehicles, we can also forget to pay attention to our inner lives, especially when we are stressed. So please, be nice to your Psyche.
When you move around the globe, your Psyche experiences loss, whether you like it or not. Think about it…. it’s been working so hard to adjust and adapt; to a new language, a new culture, new food, new ways of travelling, and now you’re about to plunge it into a whole new learning experience all over again. It will grieve for what it knew (even if it was the devil it knew), and feel exhausted at what’s coming up. So be nice to your psyche… give it warning that there is a new upheaval coming, and listen to its protests. And especially with children, who still wear their Psyches on their sleeves! Don’t let your discomfort about moving them, or yourselves, stand in the way of listening to their protests and their fears. Create rituals around saying goodbye to favourite places, favourite people. Eat surströmming for one last time… or not. Take time to dwell on the separation at hand, even if the removal men are camping on your driveway… it will let the Psyche know one process is ending and another is starting.
And yes, some of us are just not so good at endings. For years I would emotionally withdraw several days before my husband would go travelling, helping me to keep the goodbyes short and fast, no fuss. He wanted hugs and cuddles right up to the moment he would get on the train, topped off with waving from the platform… whereas I would prefer to set him down at the kerb side and drive away fast, filling the empty space with things to do and people to see. In a family, these different ways of saying goodbye, in this case, to the latest country of residence, need to be honoured and acknowledged, and somehow each must be allowed to say goodbye in their own way. And finally, leaving a country behind is a little like the death of parent. If you had a good relationship, the grieving process can be healthy and clear. If the relationship was bad, the grieving process is less direct, and it can be hard later to place feelings of loss when “I was so glad to get out of there”.
Readjusting and settling in.
Writer and author Julie Power, in her American/Aussie blog writes about the lot of the accompanying partners; “They waved their partners off to a new, often exciting, job; unpacked the bags and the boxes; settled their kids into new schools; then found the supermarket, the post office, a doctor, etc.; and arranged to get the phone, internet, TV installed and connected. After all that, they thought? “What the f..k do I do now?”
Expat guru Robin Pascoe, author of a Moveable Marriage and a Broad Abroad, says that accompanying partner is the most likely of the whole family to skip straight from arrival into the culture shock phase, by-passing the honeymoon phase entirely… So, if you’re an accompanying partner reading this, schedule time to explore your new environment with wonder, rather than with stress. By all means get the phone connected and the internet fixed in the morning, but then schedule an afternoon off, just wandering around town, gently easing your dear old Psyche into this new environment. Don’t be in such a rush… many new adjusters are… as if by settling in quickly we can get the yucky part over with… It’s the push of the Psyche to feel safe and familiar again, but no matter how efficient you are, it will take the time it takes. And it will go in stages. So take heart from one of our workshop participants, who, at least by my count, is a globetrotting veteran, with 7 international moves. “Relax, slow down, stop being hard on yourself, take time to smell the roses… and breathe, things will fall into place whether you’re pushing hard or not.”
And for the international assignee, who has yet another new work environment to get used to, another set of bosses, company directors, or financiers. There is a huge temptation to throw yourself straight in and work overtime to get a handle on things. But remember why you wanted to travel in the first place, to experience different countries and different cultures. And yet boardrooms are like airport lounges, one is pretty much the same as the other, and you might as well be anywhere. So share the adventure of being in a new town with others, your partner if you brought one, or other internationals who have also made it their ‘home for now’. You too could learn to stop and smell the roses, or the Rosé, as one workshop participant suggested.
When enough is enough
And finally, whether this is your second, third, or seventh relocation. Recognise when enough is enough; when your relationships are becoming flatter and more superficial, when stopping to smell the roses has turned to apathy. “What’s the point”, the Psyche says, “of all of this connecting, disconnecting, and connecting again….” Again, in the words of one of my workshop participants; “on the one hand it gets easier for every move. You know what to expect, you might be a bit more relaxed, give it a bit more time. But on the other hand, it gets harder too. Making new friends can feel more and more pointless. I feel I have bits of myself scattered all over the world. And while Facebook and e-mail contact is great, there are few people who really know me down to my core. And some of those that do expect me to stay the same.”
So take time to notice how you ARE feeling, not how you think you’re supposed to be feeling. Remember to honour that sensitive, intelligent and uniquely adjustable organ that we call the Psyche… and thank it for all its hard work. You truly wouldn’t know where you were without it.
Lysanne Sizoo is the mental health contributor for Your Living City, where this article appeared earlier.