Navigating personal change as an expat: A guide to conquering challenges
When I packed up my life and moved abroad, I found myself feeling lost after an initial "honeymoon" phase. I was yearning to embrace German culture but something was holding me back. I knew something deeper was at play beyond culture shock. There was an internal voice that told me I'd never truly belong here.
It was then that I realised I was caught in the subtle battle of competing commitments, those hidden fears that can hold us back from fully immersing ourselves in the expat experience.
This struggle, I discovered, was not unique to me. Through my work with fellow expats, I encountered stories that were different but mirrored the same pattern of being held back by invisible barriers. Take, for example, a client who, burdened by guilt over uprooting his family, found solace in work and routines, unintentionally resisting the change he had initially sought.
Uncovering competing commitments in expat life
Competing commitments, as Dr Lisa Lahey and Dr Robert Kegan describe in their "Immunity to Change" theory, are the silent saboteurs of change. They are the doubts that cause hesitations when we attempt to step out of our comfort zones. For many expats, these commitments often centre around a fear of not belonging, of being too different, or of losing connections that once felt unbreakable.
In my journey and in the stories of those I’ve worked with, recognising these commitments became the first step toward transformation. It requires you to challenge what is beneath the surface - make a list of the possible doubts or fears that might be driving these beliefs, and then list your behaviours that show up as a result of these. For me, I feared losing ties with home. This fear, seemingly trivial, manifested in behaviours like avoiding new friendships and resisting local customs.
Moving beyond our comfort zones
Ah, the comfort zone - that cushy, cosy place where everything feels safe and warm. Research has shown that our brains thrive on routine and familiarity, seeking to conserve energy and minimise stress. It's one thing to identify the competing commitment, it's another thing to rewire our response. Stepping out of our comfort zone can trigger our brain's fear response, impacting our efforts to change and adapt. And so the fear brings us back to comfort.
One solution is to start with small steps outside your comfort zone. When I realised that I was unconsciously avoiding friendships, I found solace in gradual exposure. By attending social events and local gatherings at my own pace, I discovered that embracing change wasn't about sudden leaps but about steady, small steps.
The client who was feeling guilty for uprooting his family developed a long list of activities to support their wellbeing, including new family routines, clarifying role changes and shared goals. Introducing these activities slowly allowed time for the family to adjust to new rituals and try new things together. Gradual exposure to change helps your brain adapt, reducing the sense of threat and allowing you to embrace new experiences with ease. Combine this with the first step above, and your chances of change increase significantly.
The power of habits
Habits are like little automated helpers, simplifying our daily tasks. Researchers in change reveal that these habits are often based on deep-seated assumptions about ourselves and the world. Kegan and Lahey introduce the concept of the "Big Assumption", a fundamental belief that supports competing commitments. For example, if you're trying to meet new people but believe that you're inherently shy, that Big Assumption might hinder your progress.
So what can we do about it? Build resilience by acknowledging that slip-ups are natural. In my case, there were moments when I would avoid interactions as I was feeling shy. Even though I was attending the local meetup, I would occasionally hide in the corner. Instead of punishing myself for a missed moment, say for a missed introduction, I would dust myself off, and jump back into the habit the next time.
Another expat, struggling with the language barrier, had convinced themselves they were a slow learner. They were comparing themselves to others and so reinforcing this Big Assumption and taking away the progress and fun of learning. Slip-ups continued. It took a little time for them to challenge their assumption that they were a slow learner - resetting expectations, paying attention daily to progress, and noticing the comparison without judgement, were all strategies that eventually paid off. Remember, even if you stumble, you're still moving forward, and each step teaches you valuable lessons.
Celebrating every step
Change, as my journey and these client stories have taught me, is a collective experience. We all go through this. It's about acknowledging our fears, confronting our doubts, and taking one small step after another. It’s about celebrating the victories, no matter how minor they might seem, sharing our stories, and being gentle with ourselves during setbacks.
As you read these words, I encourage you to reflect on your own expat experience. What are the competing commitments that have been holding you back? What fears or doubts have been lingering beneath the surface? Acknowledge them, face them, and remember, you are not alone in this journey. You’re welcome to write in the comments below or reach out to me directly.
As we navigate new beginnings, let's support each other, celebrate every victory, and emerge stronger, wiser, and more united in our expat adventures.