Changing identities abroad

Many people experience the changing of their identities abroad. This can be a challenge or an adventure, depending on how invested you are in being you

danger falling into a canyonHave you noticed that the way you introduce yourself to others has changed since you moved abroad? Before you might have said; “Hi, I’m Jane, I came here with Angela, one of my work colleagues.” Or you might have used your professional identity as an ice breaker. But now it often is, “Hi, I’m Lysanne, I’m Dutch and I’ve been here sixteen years.”



A multitude of identities

We have the ability to pick and choose amongst a range of inner business cards to match the right one to the environment we’re in. Amongst parents we may talk about our child(ren), while someone without children would feel quite uncomfortable or even bored. Yet if they want to fit in, they will produce a story about a nephew or niece. Amongst fellow professionals we might present with our job identity first, and so amongst other foreigners we present with where we’re from and how long we’re staying.

The need to find an ‘in’ with the group you are trying to connect to is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and we are variously skilled at reading the code.

At home we’re one of the gang

Our core family is the first ‘group’ that we ever belong to, and so the way we adjust our sense of self is very much dictated by how welcome we feel. The totality of our self is usually very welcome and warmly received, but the specifics characteristics that make me, me, and you, you are received selectively. We are skilled at reading the unspoken code and quickly begin to realise that this part of me gets brownie points, while that part of me does not.

For example; Emma* is by nature a very quiet person, quite shy, and not really a great social animal. But she was born into a loud, rumbustious, and socially gregarious family. Then one of two things might happen; in one scenario her shyness is recognised as part of her and she is allowed to be the quieter one of the gang, without being judged, while learning from the outgoing nature of the others. In the more likely scenario, no one really notices her shyness for what it is and her parents push her into being less reticent and fearful, and more outgoing. Over time Emma develops a loud and gregarious self that can hold its own within her family structure. In the meantime, her natural shy and reticent self has gone underground.

A combination of adapted and true selves

By the time we go to school we have become a bundle of selves that are both genuine and adapted to the environment. And the process continues, reinforcing and sometimes weakening this increasingly adaptive structure. Sometimes teachers see ‘behind’ the already growing façade of a child and set about nurturing aspect of a truer self. But there are also plenty of stories where adapted selves are built on and extended, just like a house, until the new exterior totally masks the true building within. This happens all the time. It is the price we pay as humans for being not just conscious, but self-conscious. We are constantly investing psychological energy into maintaining, adjusting, and rarely challenging this outer scaffolding that may hide the beauty of the dwelling underneath.

International adult life – out of your comfort zone

So, as adults we get the choice to remain well within our comfort zone, or to push the boundaries. Quietly living our lives within the comfort zone of our recognised façade is what many people consider a good life. And who are we to question that. Although as a therapist I rejoice at the amazement people experience when they realise that there is so much more to them than they thought. But sometimes we push the boundaries actively, as most expatriates know.

Moving abroad means that suddenly that wonderful scaffolding, that façade that so meets the needs of your core family and your core culture, is not reflected back to you in the way that it was at home. The first reaction is often annoyance at the bad behaviour of this ‘other’, and then we begin to doubt our selves. We remember the choice we once made; if you can’t beat them, join them, a choice the psyche remembers from those very early days in the bosom of our families. On the one hand, by ‘joining’ them, by culturally adjusting, you become safe, you belong. On the other, in doing so you may either win back a lost part of your self, or lose yourself even more. This inner dilemma is partly what constitutes the cultural identity crisis that almost all expats go through at some point.

Working with it creatively

Let’s go back to the example of Emma. She was pushed into developing a socially engaging loud mouth self. Just so she could belong to her family. Emma, now a young mother living in Sweden has joined the local mamma-group. There she is, with her little baby girl, surrounded by friendly but also rather reticent Swedish women. Try as she might, Emma can’t draw them out or get them to engage in loud gregarious observations on the pitfalls of motherhood. They nod politely, say ‘Ååå’ and continue talking about less dangerous subjects. Emma feels she is ‘too much’ and yet wants so badly to belong. Her ‘normal’ way of being is being rejected rather than accepted and she is confused.

Thankfully she is in a position to explore the parts of her self that she had pushed back stage. Eventually, Emma allows her shyness to come to fore, and begins to enjoy being with people who are equally happy to sit in silence. As time has passes, she will have access to a quiet, as well as a social aspect of herself. Her foreign move has enriched her and given her the chance to choose, moment by moment, to use the skills her façade has taught her, or to enjoy sitting quietly and observe the world from a quieter place within. But the opposite can happen to. You may feel that in order to adjust you have to go against something that feels deeply meaningful to your sense of self, perhaps socially, or spiritually, or in a different way. Sorting out one from the other is not always easy.

So here’s a challenge: name something you criticise/fear/judge/reject most in the new culture you find yourself in and then sit with it for a while and see if there might be a nugget of what you resent that actually is something you have repressed in yourself?


*Emma’s story is made up.

This article was first published on the Your Living City website.

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