When we become an expat, we are suddenly away from all we know and everything we used to be. But it’s in the reconstruction of our identity that we can discover our authenticity. This article is for anyone who has moved overseas and felt lost from loss, only to be set onto 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.
For those that may have also spent the last few years 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 us closer to knowing ourselves.
Because being an expat produces profound questions of identity. Overnight everything we used to be (career, family, friends, home, possessions) is gone suddenly.
But it’s in the dissecting of our self-definition that can lead to new decisions about who we 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 our ‘self’ belief and how we believe we’re perceived. So it’s virtually impossible not to have some of our identity defined by the people around us. But when no-one knows us, there are no long-held perceptions or misconceptions of how we ought to be. This can give the freedom to portray perhaps previously prevented parts of our personality.
Losing constant connection with family can leave us feeling occasionally lost. Especially if an integral part of our identity. However, flying far from home can give the freedom to find our feet. Away from the beliefs we bore, positions we played or expectations we exerted; the distance can help us dissect the difference between our traditional roles and a truth that can only be ascertained from total independency.
Long-held forever friends give us a strong sense of safety, security and stability. However, when long-term dynamics don’t differ we’re probably not perceptive of parts we play. Overseas, cultivating new connections catapults us from our comfort zone. And, while striving to find a new social identity can instill some insecurity, navigating unaccustomed conducts creates a consciousness of our character and can uncover concealed qualities we may not have previously shared, or have even been aware of.
It’s not uncommon for a career loss to cripple. Not surprising as many of us glean our self-esteem from work. And while for expats a relocation arrangement is a likely step up, for travellers or partners it’s a probable step down. Either way, there’s likely a vast variation. But it’s change that challenges our choices, which can lead to a discovery of a passion we 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 we leave behind our things and place, we can at first feel a little out of place. But we can hold on to things for too long. So starting again can mean the application and some invigoration and inspiration to our external manifestations.
Doing things differently
Stuck in the same city can see us in a subconscious cycle of activity. We may rarely have ruminated if life was a real reflection of what we’d have liked. In the early expat days of expat exploration and excitement we’ll likely try new things and may uncover neglected pursuits. Or ones we 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, we experience a sense of belonging. But navigating the nuances of a new nation can leave us feeling like an outsider. New social etiquettes, expectations, demeanours, and perceptions; we can misunderstand and be misunderstood. However, experiencing a new society can make us more forward thinking as new ways challenge our traditional traits.
Spending time alone is an expat-inevitability. Even with constant company, with our inner circle on the opposite side of the globe, there’s a lack of unconditional back up. But it’s during these periods we can look within and become comfortable in our own skin. And while an equal balance of interaction and introspection is important, solo situations give us space for self-reflection.
Everyone who emigrates immediately earns the expat identity. And with this we 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 we are likely to be encouraged to do braver and bolder things again.
Of course it’s not just us expats who question our identities. Losing things no matter our location can often take away a part of us. But as an expat we lose several segments simultaneously. And since a strong sense of self provides security and stability, this can take us into a void of vulnerability.
Yet the flipside of the coin is the freedom to live life on a different currency.
Because overseas, away from familiar roles and what we think others think we should be, we become conscious of the construction of our identities.And as we rebuild our reality, we strive to feel whole, so seek out situations that stimulate our soul. It’s during this process we can discover what lies at our core. And it can also lead to a recognition that it’s only through maintaining balance and detachment that keeps our identity secure.
Because the winds will change again as they always do, and our exterior will break away. But while we may crack, we won’t collapse; our foundation won’t sway.
We’ll let it go
Because we know, wherever we now go, we will live life authentically.
And finally, we’re free.