Turning an expat identity crisis into an identity shift

Turning an expat identity crisis into an identity shift

Picture this: You've just embarked on your overseas adventure, brimming with excitement and anticipation. Yet, as the novelty begins to wear off, you realise that the familiar parts of your identity seem to be slipping away. Suddenly, you're confronted with a sobering question: who am I in this new world? This is a real expat struggle.

Why does a move abroad so often trigger an identity crisis?

So much changes with a move abroad - the language, the culture, the job, the bureaucracy, relationships, and old and new friendships. When so many things are shifting all at once, it's no wonder that many people living abroad struggle with what is often described as an identity crisis.

As a result, tensions may arise within our personal relationships that may not have surfaced previously. The pressure to integrate into a new work environment or carve out a niche in a foreign career can be overwhelming and challenge what we feel is our role in a broader social context.

Settling into unfamiliar communities, language challenges, and grappling with culture shock only compound the sense of disorientation. The grief accompanying this disconnection is twofold - mourning not just the loss of familiar faces, places, and routines, but the erosion of the essence of who we once were.

How to navigate an identity crisis

So, how do we navigate an identity crisis and emerge stronger on the other side? 

Take time to pause

I remember that when I first moved abroad everything felt overwhelming. However, I would downplay my ease, saying to myself, "I should be happy with my new life abroad!" I found myself constantly rushing from one thing to another, never stopping to catch my breath. It wasn't until I took a moment to sit down and write that I realised just how much had changed since arriving. It was sobering but also somehow relieving. 

Taking that time to reflect helped me to name the crisis, locate what was missing, and navigate my identity challenges more effectively. Whatever helps you pause and reflect on the facets of your identity crisis may help you take that first step. 

Reconnect with what you value

Despite finding a meaningful career with fantastic prospects after moving from Spain to Germany, my client Maria still experienced an identity crisis. We had previously worked together to secure a fulfilling role, but adjusting to a different work culture and the unexpected pull of home created angst. Maria’s identity was attached strongly to her community. 

Self-identity often stems from core values, passions, interests, and strengths - it is what remains constant through transitions and provides certainty in times of uncertainty. For Maria, this meant acknowledging the importance of belonging. 

Through our sessions, she learned to prioritise career flexibility, allowing her to maintain connections with her Spanish roots. By joining a local dance group and permitting herself trips back home for significant events, Maria embraced her values and made intentional choices that aligned with them. This approach led her to a deeper sense of fulfilment in her expat journey.

Embrace a broader perspective

When I decided to move to Europe from Australia, I knew it was an opportunity to expand my worldview. Growing up, I felt a little insulated from the rest of the world. So living in Europe has been an eye-opening experience. Observing the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, for example, and how they have had direct impacts on new friends and their families, has heightened my awareness of global issues and strengthened my sense of belonging to a global community. 

Expanding my identity to include global citizenship has been a helpful reflection for me. For other expats, embracing broader perspectives might involve reflecting on moments that have challenged their values and beliefs. It may help to consider moments when your expat journey has shifted your perspective and / or contributed to your personal growth. 

Permission to grieve and heal

Lastly, the good news for all expats - the longer you stay, the easier it becomes - it gets easier with time. There were times when I seriously considered packing my bags and heading home because the loss of both identity and the loss of "home" was so painful. Giving yourself time and permission to grieve will help relieve the perceived pressure. Loss of identity due to our new surroundings is often part and parcel of the expat experience.   

Turn your identity crisis into an opportunity for growth

These are just some of the ways expats can navigate an identity crisis and come out stronger on the other side. Remember, you are not alone in this experience, and with the right support and mindset, you can turn the crisis into an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.

Bradley Baker


Bradley Baker

As a certified Coaching Psychology specialist and change expert, Bradley empowers global professionals to thrive in their careers and personal lives. With a deep understanding of human behavior and years...

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