Expatriation: 3 keys to dealing well with uncertainty

At the beginning of the year, many expatriates know they’ll soon be leaving!

Some are moving on to the next expatriation, others are preparing for a return to their country of origin, and lucky are those who already know their future destination… because in January, many are sure of only one thing: a departure to a yet unknown destination! 

These phases generate a lot of questions and worries.

Here are three keys to managing these uncertainties.

I recently rediscovered a text I wrote a few years ago, when we knew that my husband’s mission would end in three months, but we still had no idea of our next destination. Here’s an excerpt: “What’s next? We’re waiting for a decision that’s not forthcoming. Days go by, weeks go by, nothing comes up. And above all, nothing depends on us! Are we going to live in Asia, Africa, Europe, or America? What language will we speak? What kind of climate? Will there be suitable schools for our children’s education? Will they be able to pursue their hobbies and passions? Will there be acceptable health care? What about safety? Will I get a work permit? Will it be easy to rebuild a new network? When and for how long will we leave? So many questions and no answers. So many unknowns! We’re just a few months away from departure and we can’t plan anything, not even our summer vacations, because they will depend on the move. The children would like to be able to plan ahead, but I don’t have any answers for them. I want, I need… to know!”

I’m sharing this text because it reminds me how difficult these moments of transition were for me at the time. Today, thanks to my training in positive psychology and resilience, I’m equipped with the tools I need to manage them better. I’d like to share with you three keys that help me enormously in these moments of uncertainty.

Key #1: Reduce stress by being kind to yourself.

We rarely take the time to recognize how difficult these moments of uncertainty are for us. Yet this simple acknowledgement already brings us comfort and reduces our stress. Our society emphasizes the importance of being kind to those going through difficult times… but not necessarily when it comes to ourselves. And yet, I can assure you that being kind to us is an undeniable asset for, among other things, better managing transitions.

As Dr. Kirstin Neff explains, being kind to ourselves includes not only stopping judging ourselves, but also actively comforting ourselves, as we would a friend. It means allowing ourselves to find these changes difficult by also asking ourselves how we can take care of ourselves in these stressful moments. This kindness has the power to calm our thoughts, fears, and worries.

Being kind to ourselves allows us to release a hormone called oxytocin, the love hormone. Research has shown that oxytocin greatly increases our feelings of trust, calm, security, generosity, and connection, and reduces our fears, anxiety and stress-related cortisol levels.

How can you be kind to yourself? Just imagine what you’d advise your best friend in the same situation! You’d probably tell him that it’s difficult, that it’s normal for him to feel stressed, and that it’s important for him to take care of himself! Then ask yourself how you can take care of yourself and recharge your batteries. Is it by giving yourself enough sleep, encouraging activities that make you feel good, playing sport, taking the time to read a good book or regularly sharing a coffee with your friends?

Be kind to yourself by giving yourself the same attention and compassion you would give to your friends. This will enable you to approach and live through these transitions with greater calm and serenity.

Key #2: Calm our worries with three tips.

When our brain worries, it projects itself into the future and imagines the worst possible scenarios. It does this with good intentions, to protect us from possible dangers. However, most of these scenarios will never come true. It’s also important to remember that, although our thoughts are projected into the future, our brains remain in the present! 

When we imagine disaster scenarios, our brain believes they’re really happening now, alerting our emotions and our bodies… which leads to anxiety, stress, palpitations, physical tension, and sweating. It’s important to calm our worries to avoid continually experiencing negative emotions and physical tension. Three tips to help you calm your worries:

  • Our worries need a “container”, a place to express themselves, but one that is limited in time. To do this, simply choose a time of day when you can give free rein to your worries. For example, every day at 1.00 p.m. for 15 minutes. The simple fact of identifying a precise, time-limited moment allows us to push our worries back to that chosen moment and enjoy the present moment for the rest of the day, without always projecting and worrying about the future. Sound crazy? Give it a try! It works for many of us!
  • Knowing that, whatever happens, you’ll manage. As Dr. Susan Jeffers explains, the root of our fears is… our fear of not being able to handle what’s about to happen to us! And yet, if we’re here today, it’s because we’ve always managed to handle whatever life threw at us. Whatever happens, you’ll handle it! As soon as your worries surface, repeat this phrase to yourself: “Whatever happens, you’ll handle it!”
  • Writing to relieve pressure. Research by James Pennebaker and his colleagues has shown that writing is an excellent way of releasing, organizing, and calming our emotions and thoughts. Putting down on paper what we’re feeling has a real therapeutic effect, increasing our well-being and reducing stress.

Key #3: Know who you are and what you want

Whether or not we know what lies ahead, the most effective way of living serenely through major changes is to know who we are and what we want. 

Throughout our lives, our identity changes. It is transformed by our experiences. As an expatriation is a major life change, it profoundly transforms us. There is often a before and after expatriation! Clarifying and understanding who we are today is essential. It means giving ourselves the means to know how to take good care of ourselves, to know our needs, our desires, our limits, what stresses us, what makes us feel good and gives us energy. Knowing ourselves well gives us all the keys we need to bounce back with agility from our major life transitions.

As expatriates, we sometimes tend to see our expatriations as parentheses, when they should be part of a larger project. Whatever changes we experience, if our life and career goals are clear, we’ll always know how to make the most of them, transforming them into positive, enriching experiences. Knowing what we really want gives us direction, and enables us to make the right choices, with confidence and without hesitation, for a successful expatriation or return to our home country.

When we know who we are and what we want, we remain in control of the changes in our lives, whatever they may be. 

Try these three keys, and feel free to share what works best for you.

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