Expatriation is a major life transition

Everyone, without exception, experiences a large number of transitions throughout their lives. For expatriates, this is all the truer!

Expatriation doesn’t just mean a change of environment; it also, and above all, implies a major life transition that forces us to put an end to what came before, to adapt and reinvent ourselves.

To get to grips with these major life transitions, it’s important to understand the difference between a change and a transition; to realize that these transitions require a lot of energy and patience, and that they all go through the same phases and the same resistance. 

Here are three ways to help you understand what is in this major life transition. 

#1: Change is fast, transition is slow.

Change and transition are two very different things, yet intimately linked. Change is what we see, the tip of the iceberg; whereas transition is what happens inside us, the submerged mass of the iceberg.

Change is external. It’s situational: a promotion, an expatriation, a new job, having a child. It is often rapid and concrete.

A transition is internal. It’s psychological: the process by which a person internalizes a new situation. It takes time to integrate the change.

If, for example, a move is physically completed in a few days, the transition to a new life will take several months.

Knowing that a change involves a transition, and that they take place at different paces, helps us to better understand the importance of taking our time.

#2: Our brain resists change

Our brain resists change because it prefers the comfort of a known situation (even if negative) to the discomfort of an uncertain situation (even if positive). This is why it dislikes change and seeks to protect us by resisting it. This is what neuroscience calls homeostasis: the natural tendency to want to keep things as they are. It’s a protective mechanism for all living beings in the face of environmental change. It’s very useful and can even save our lives when applied at the physiological level. On the other hand, this reaction can become a real obstacle for change, if this protective mechanism is applied at the psychological and emotional level.

Knowing that our brain resists change helps us understand why change is often so difficult. It allows us to normalize our situation, and to know that even if change is positive and desired, our brain will resist it for a time.

#3: The three essential phases of a transition

William Bridges, author of the book “Life Transitions”, explains that there are three phases to a transition. Knowing these phases helps us better understand and accept what’s going on inside us… and, once again, to normalize our situation and our feelings.

  • Phase 1 – An ending: It begins with an ending. It’s time to close a chapter, to put an end to the previous situation, to let go and accept to leave behind our old way of doing things and our previous identity! Even when change is chosen and positive, it’s hard to let go of what came before. Understanding that this begins with letting go is an indispensable key to enabling us to begin this transition.
  • Phase 2 – A neutral zone: This is an in-between, where we’ve put an end to what came before, but are not yet in our new reality. It’s a very uncomfortable and often difficult period because it’s full of uncertainty and vagueness. But it’s a necessary passage. It takes time and a lot of patience. During this phase, we no longer know exactly who we are and where may be our rightful place. We’ve left behind what we had, yet we’re not yet where we want to be. We’ve already closed a chapter, but not yet opened the next. This period is the core of the transition process. Although this phase is uncomfortable, it’s often a great opportunity to open ourselves up to new things: this a place full of opportunities.
  • Phase 3 – A new beginning: Here we are, the change is underway and we’re starting to move forward. We’re moving away from uncertainty and starting something new. It’s a period filled with new energy, with new discoveries, understandings, learning, values, behaviors… and a new identity. We know who we are and what we want. We’re moving in the direction we’ve chosen. It’s time to celebrate this final transition!

William Bridges uses a wonderful metaphor to illustrate these three phases. He compares them to the seasons. The 1st phase corresponds to autumn: a cycle comes to an end. The 2nd phase corresponds to winter: everything slows down, freezes over, nothing grows – it’s a time of rest, wait and preparation. And finally, the 3rd phase corresponds to spring: that’s it, everything grows again, buds and flowers! It’s a time of renewal and blossoming!

A transition is a process in which we disconnect from our old world and reconnect with our new one. Throughout the process, it’s useful to remember that a transition begins with an end and ends with a beginning! The middle phase, the neutral zone, is full of uncertainty, but also of opportunities!


These three elements contain valuable information to help us normalize our situation, value patience and better apprehend the big changes in our lives.

For these periods of change, I suggest to my clients that they give themselves a good dose of self-compassion! Whatever the change, it involves a transition that requires a lot of letting go and goes through a long phase of uncertainty. It requires a lot of energy and patience. To make the most of them, I suggest they make it a priority to integrate into their daily routine moments and activities that allow them to recharge their batteries!  

What do you do to take care of yourself during the big changes in your life? Do you give yourself enough compassion and understanding for these moments of transition? What are your plans for recharging your batteries?

Your comments and questions are always welcome. 

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