Why being proactive is important for the accompanying expat partner
You need to make sure you’re not living as a shadow in somebody else’s life. Live your own life; one that feels right to you.
As an expat partner, the emphasis is on you being proactive. Why? Because all the people you’re (hopefully) meeting will probably already have established lives. They aren’t waiting for you to slot into their lives, so you must be the proactive one; to go out there and make friends and create your life.
You simply can’t just rely on other people to make the effort, including your partner, to be the ones to ensure your happiness.
In this episode, I want to take a look at ways you can reclaim your identity and making your expat life your own; to enjoy where you are and, basically, to make the best of it!
Many accompanying expat partners say that as soon as they take complete ownership for their own happiness and stop relying on each other that they really start to be happy.
Your life starts when you make it happen.
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com.
Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat. I'm Carole and I want to continue where we left off over the last couple of weeks and sharing a little bit more on how being an expat partner can affect the way that you live your life. In this episode, I want to talk a bit more about how you can be a bit more proactive and how this will benefit your life.
So in last week's episode, we looked at your identity and how expat life can seem to somehow strip your own identity away. Expat life can actually result in you feeling like you're losing your identity as an accompanying expat partner. This is down to mainly leaving your career, your friends and family in order to support the working partner. It's not always as easy as you may think to simply waltz into a new job overseas, whether that's due to language requirements, because some countries insist on absolute fluency to fill a role. Or it may be education requirements, and you may need a degree level of education for almost every kind of job in some countries. Or maybe visa restrictions are stopping you from employing because many countries have an 'employ locals first' rule.
Whatever reason, it's kind of difficult for some people to step into the job that they expected to step into when they moved abroad, however wonderful their existing CV is. You're not alone in making this assumption, by the way. So many people make the same mistake and most find their way through, either by adjusting their ambitions, by studying further, or by setting up their own businesses overseas.
So please don't feel disheartened. Just keep on keeping on. You can lose sight of yourself simply due to living overseas, where each and every day can invoke a sense of isolation, anxiety and simply make you feel as if you were a child. Which isn't a good thing when you are actually being a grown up at last. When I say it makes you feel as if you're a child it's because you don't instantly know how to do very straightforward things, such as catching a bus or even reading the signs without a struggle.
Add to this a certain level of dependency on others, financial or otherwise, particularly with your once equal partner, and your self-confidence can disappear quite rapidly. As an expat partner, you may feel you've put your life on hold as you support your partner's career. And while they trot off to work on arrival with all the colleague camaraderie and new stimulating challenges that entails, you're left in your new home dealing with your new life, which can seem a little dull if you're used to stepping out to work every day.
To start with, it's all brand new and exciting. Wow. I'm actually living here. How lucky am I? Well hold that thought because you really are. But after a few weeks of normal life with extra challenges, it can become hard work. Here is a very random selection of typical challenges many expat partners encounter and must deal with on their own.
So, as I say, perhaps you can't get a job because your visa won't allow it. Or you discover that your child's school finishes at lunchtime some days and you hadn't known or expected that. So therefore you can't get a job as you have to be available after school for your child.
Even more basic things such as you want to make a favourite cake, but you can't find the ingredients in your new country. You kind of assumed all countries have self raising flour, heh, they don't. So now you have to find out what baking powder is called in that language. Then look for some and then make changes to all your existing recipes. It's a small thing, but it's one of those extra challenges that adds up after a while.
Or your child has a birthday soon, but you don't know what the local customs are. You don't know where you can have a party. And do you really want to have it in your new home? And besides, they've only been in school a couple of weeks. How do you know who to invite and how do you invite them anyway when you don't know any of them? And of course, then we're back to baking cake confusions again. Sorry, I'm cake minded at the moment. Daughter's birthday coming up!
The buses unexpectedly had a timetable change, so you miss the bus and your lack of language skills now make it hard to work out when the next one is. Plus, you need to get in touch with the people you were due to meet and now you don't know what's happening and life is just all such a pain. Or perhaps you have a niggly health issues that's a hundred times harder to diagnose and cure in a different health system or a different language.
As I say, it's the small day to day life, things that can really get on top of you after a while, especially when they all pile up at once. Day to day expat life can be a frustrating grind with no support. You have to deal with it all on your own, at least to start with. Your partner is busy in their new job and all the focus is on you having to make the effort every single day. It's hard for some people to find and make new friends. And if you do find it easy to meet new people, are you comfortable to offload your frustrations on them within days of meeting. Or do you feel you have to keep on your happy face?
In this episode? I want to take a look at ways you can reclaim your identity and make your expat life your own; to enjoy where you are and to basically make the best of it. I want to look at why being proactive is so important for the accompanying expat partner. You need to make sure you're not living as a shadow in somebody else's life. You need to live your own life, one that feels right for you.
As an expat partner the emphasis is on you being proactive. Why? Well, because all the people you're hopefully meeting will probably already have established lives. This might be hard to hear, but they aren't all waiting for you to slot into their lives. So you must be the proactive one. You have to be the one to go out there, to find people and to make friends and to create your own life. I know this can be hard, especially as you're new to that country and that life. But believe me, as an expat partner who's been in your position, being proactive will give you the rewards of personal fulfilment, personal satisfaction, like nothing else. You simply cannot rely on other people to make the effort.
And that includes your partner, by the way. They can't be the ones to ensure your happiness. You have to do it for yourself.
Imagine yourself as a yacht on the ocean. If you don't take ownership of your life, your yacht and steer it in the direction you want, then the wind will take you all over the place. Yes, you're going with the flow almost literally if you're in a yacht and that may sound cool and laid back and all that, but it isn't actually going to make your life change.
You may lose all sense of purpose and even end up completely lost, or at the very least, you'll end up doing things you don't particularly want to do. So the most important message to you is this; don't let life happen to you. Steer your boat, steer your life in the direction you want it to go. Expat life is a perfect opportunity to create your life exactly as you want it to be. Find new activities you didn't have time or opportunity to do before.
Be open to meeting new people. You may not actually like them - that's fine, but all conversations are interesting. Say yes to all opportunities you are offered. If you turn down invitations too soon, they'll very quickly dry up and nobody will invite you to anything in the future. You need to plan your life. Don't go with the flow, make things happen. So, clearly you do need to be proactive by saying yes to all opportunities. But I think it's a good idea to plan your life too.
If you're proactive in a completely random way, you may achieve certain goals, but perhaps not the one thing that would have made you truly happy and fulfilled. Maybe you plan to study for a new qualification, but you've not factored that into your plans. You may find you've left too little time to complete it. Also, life has a habit of throwing curveballs around; sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Many, many years ago, I find myself in a corporate job that was previously inhabited by somebody quite incompetent.
It took them two days to complete something that I managed to finish each day by 1030. The rest of the time I actually had nothing to do. I asked for extra work and I was given bits and pieces and small projects, but there was literally nothing else to do. So I schmoozed, I networked. I found bits and bobs to do outside of my scheduled work, but was still kicking my heels quite a lot. So with permission from my boss, I signed up to do a couple of courses to boost my education grades, with the intention of studying at work between the tasks that I actually had to do. As soon as all the books arrived, and this was before the Internet, by the way, so it was books, I was actually offered a fabulous new job thanks to my schmoozing. So the course ended up taking twice as long as I had expected. I got there in the end and I got a fabulous new job. But life plans don't really go well for me. So do plan your life, but don't plan it so full that you have no time for the unexpected and unplanned fun.
Something else you need to be proactive about is keeping in touch and seeing your old friends and family back home. Plan visits, home and friends and family coming to visit you as far ahead as you can, so that you can see your life mapped out on a calendar. It really helps to have something positive to look forward to. Even keeping in touch via Skype and so on takes some planning, especially if there's a significant time difference between you and home.
And don't forget that sending cards and gifts takes longer from overseas. So you do need to be more organised and forward thinking than may be natural to you. So just a little bit of planning and then try and be spontaneous as much as you can when you've got a family as well.
Stepping out of your comfort zone is one of those phrases that is bandied around a lot. You know, life begins at the end of your comfort zone and so on. And of course, it is all very true. Life is much better when you move away from the norm. However, when every hour of every day is spent outside of your comfort zone, just by simply living abroad, it can become draining mentally and physically exhausting. Therefore, it takes an even bigger leap of faith to keep on going further away from your comfort zone to where all the wonderful stuff is. Which is why it is so easy not to say yes to every single opportunity. Because sometimes just another outing in a foreign country, something new to do is just too much. But please keep persevering. It will get easier.
Make sure you're aware of your own mental and physical health boundaries, but do get out there and make your life your own. The great thing about being proactive is the sense of achievement it gives you. When you set out to do something, however small, and you do it, you manage to do it, then you get a true sense of satisfaction and self-worth. This is particularly valid if you've moved overseas to a place where you have little sense of purpose in the early days other than supporting your partner in their new job and your children in their care free child's life. Even the smallest of tasks will improve your own sense of self-esteem and confidence.
And keep going with them. Every little thing adds up to one big thing. They will all help you settle much more quickly. Keeping your confidence up however you choose to do it will make a huge difference. And you need to also make the most of where you are and grasp new opportunities. It's easy to get caught in the idea that you can't do what you used to do. You can't find where to participate in hobbies and activities you enjoyed before you moved. Perhaps the climate is too hot or too cold. Perhaps safety is a concern. Maybe you like running but simply can't run in that heat. How about you change the time that you go for a run - early morning or after sun-down maybe? Perhaps those activities aren't available in your new location. Perhaps you really enjoy hill walking and now you live in the Netherlands. Well, maybe factor them into your holiday plans instead? Reframe your thinking. Rather than focus on what you can't do, work out what you can do. It's the chance to try something new.
Try to be appreciative for the chance to explore somewhere new and exciting and take advantage of all the opportunities available to you in your new life overseas. Embrace the life you live now and don't look back too much. Open your eyes to what's around you. What's your new home country known for? Perhaps you'll discover a new interest in food. Spice markets and other food markets abroad can be absolutely fascinating insights into a new, fresh world.
Maybe they create a certain type of craft known the world over. Who knows? You just keep your eyes open as you travel around your neighbourhood for new ideas. I recall spotting lots of gorgeous mosaic work in Pretoria in the first few days after I arrived. It turned out to be a very popular art there and was something I actually used to do myself before I had my daughter. I stopped then as a craft that creates slivers of glass isn't really a good mix with a baby! So I took some mosaic classes in Pretoria and made a fabulous and lasting new friend there.
The natural world is my go-to new opportunity and it always has been. Wherever I go in the world, I want to know what birds and animals I can look out for from my new home.
Take advantage of your new location as well geographically. When you live in a different part of the world, there are certain places that are now more accessible than they were from your home country. For example, if you move to the UK, Europe is now on your doorstep and you can easily visit Paris, Rome and more. Travelling to Asia is more expensive from the UK and takes longer and is generally a longer trip, a long holiday, not a weekend's break. But if you live in China, then it would be the reverse. When you move overseas, what travel gateways does it open up for you? When we lived in Japan, we were able to use it as a base to explore some amazing countries we'd never have considered flying to from the UK. For example, Hawaii, China, Bali and Guam. When we moved to South Africa, Mauritius was right on our doorstep. And yet that's a 12 hour flight from the UK and probably not somewhere we would have considered going to from the UK.
So whilst you're living overseas, see if you can adopt an explorer mindset. Most expats already have this, I have to say, but go further afield. Even if you're not into exploring, there are still many opportunities to visit places or landmarks that you're interested in. And as I keep saying, the natural world is my thing. So South Africa was a dream come true for me. I got a thrill simply from the unusual birds who visited my tiny garden, and I could spend the day in a national park with rhinos if I wanted. A day trip! Can you imagine?
Make the effort to visit local examples of what you're interested in? Architecture, art, palaces, natural parks. If the country you're living in doesn't offer your specialised interest, can you find something similar or expand your horizons. If you're a nature fan living in a desert or an urban sprawl, perhaps you can find plants interesting. There are botanical gardens in most places. Or perhaps geology. Food is also a great thing to explore, especially if you're living in a culture where food is of great importance, I'm thinking again of Japan here.
Many sources say that their top lifetime regret is not travelling more and seeing more of the world. Well, now's your chance. Make the most of it. Another way to keep proactive is perhaps to educate yourself. When I first moved to Japan, I threw myself into lots of different courses and workshops; from metalwork to Ikebana. It was a great way to meet new friends, but first and foremost, it was a way of keeping me fulfilled and busy by learning something new.
I also found I had a great affinity with Japanese culture, so it suited me wonderfully. I actually kept up the Ikebana flower arranging long enough to pass all my exams and I'm now a qualified teacher of the art! My daughter learned Aikido in the land of its origin. How lucky is she? Unfortunately she couldn't continue Aikido in our next country, so she took up horse riding instead. It's great to be a kid sometimes though, isn't it? Try all sorts of new things.
Taking an interest in something different can be really fascinating as you learn new skills and new attitudes from your adopted country, which you couldn't necessarily learn in such detail in your native country. You could also study for exams and for different degrees, perhaps. Distance learning options are available for almost anything you can think of nowadays, and the Internet makes this an opportunity that's well worth taking up. But take care. While you may be enjoying your studying skills, it's not really getting you out and about to truly immersed in your new country, is it?
So do plan not to become a hermit to your studying. Obviously, if you don't speak the language, some courses are not going to really be an option. But many other things are. And some countries and some cities have groups dedicated to expats, so you should be able to find something in your native language in some of the bigger expat hotspots.
When you move abroad, everything is going to be new. And the key to adapting is to see it all as a learning experience. You will get proficient in the language so this barrier is going to be temporary.
Something else you need to do in your expat life is to learn to let go of certain things, certain attitudes. Being an opportunist means letting go of things. Maybe it's letting go of the way you've done things before, or saying goodbye to attitudes that don't serve you well in your new life. Nobody knows you, so there are no pre-set expectations. It's a great opportunity to get rid of restrictive attitudes from your previous culture, which don't really apply to your new culture.
Invent a new you, but do make sure it's authentic. You can be a new improved you; don't try and be a different you! It's a chance to change old habits which may have helped you in a different life, but don't help you in this one. For example, meal times. Meal times in Spain are vastly different to the ones that we have, for example, in the UK. So you may have to change your eating habits, especially for kids, to fit in with the new lifestyle. Basically, they eat a lot later than kids do in the UK. It's much more fun, much more relaxed.
If you had a strong support system of friends who you could call on for random chance and then you move somewhere with a ten hour time difference, it means that they won't always be available when you want or need them to be. So you have to let go of depending on them to meet certain of your emotional needs. Instead, you need to work out a different way to get those needs met.
For example, if you feel that emotional pull to talk to somebody and it's the middle of the night for them, but the middle of the afternoon for you, perhaps take yourself out for a walk and find some peace and inner calm that way. Remember, life is not always a direct parallel, replacing like with like. You don't necessarily replace one set of friends with another, you can keep them all. You can never have too many friends, that's for sure.
Talking of friendships, you may find rather than go home to meet a friend or have them visit you, why not meet them in a country halfway between the two of you? It's an opportunity to go somewhere new for both of you, and you can create a beautiful shared memory for you to treasure forever. The most important thing in accepting your new expat life is don't play the victim if things go wrong. Even if you consciously and wholeheartedly embrace the move abroad as the accompanying partner, when things go wrong even a little it's all too easy to play the victim, even subconsciously. This is because when you feel that you lack control and feel unempowered and dependent on others, the natural response to that is to apportion blame, automatically turning you into victim mode. "It's not my fault." That's a childlike response. It's actually called transactional analysis and it basically refers to how we communicate with everybody, with our partners and with others. There are three states, if you like, adult, parent and child. The best bet is to google it. You're working on adult. You want to be an adult. You don't want to be the child. You're not going to stamp your feet and say it's not my fault. You're going to take responsibility for your actions. You are!
So how do you avoid playing the victim and how do you persuade your conscious and subconscious mind that you are not a victim? Avoiding playing the victim means avoiding blame. If you start to play the victim because your partner's company has sent them overseas and you're struggling to adjust, then the worst thing you can do is to start to blame the company or your partner.
You really do need to catch your thoughts and weed out the negative ones. It's not about how victim mentality is self-destructive and unproductive. It's about being 100 percent honest with yourself. The question to consider is this "could I have stayed behind and not moved overseas?" The answer is consistently "yes." So yes, you could have stayed behind, but you chose not to. You chose to move abroad. So own that choice; own that decision. When you realise that you do actually have some ownership over that decision, how are you going to make the most of it now?
Because putting yourself in a victim situation, either blaming the company or the country, or your partner will only bring very short term comfort. And that isn't really comfort, is it? It's passing the buck. Long term it will not serve you well at all and will be extremely damaging. Blaming the company won't help because you can't talk to them about it. Blaming your partner will only damage your relationship, so that's not good either. The big thing about blame is that it takes away your power. If you are not owning your decision and if you're not working out how to make the best of it and you're just saying, !"Oh, it's somebody else's fault", then you are actually looking for someone else to solve your problem for you.
And in all honesty, that's not going to happen. Blame leaves you powerless. It takes away your power. So the best choice you can make is to take responsibility. Take ownership of this decision to move abroad and decide what you're going to do to make the best of it. As soon as you make this shift in your mindset, you'll start to see life a lot more positively and it's not unusual at that point for previously unseen opportunities to suddenly spring up out of nowhere.
So make the most of your new expat life. The key to living abroad is to find your kind of life, preferably including your kind of people, whatever nationality they may be. What does matter is that they are like minded and enjoy the same things as you do. Have the same outlook on life as you do. Just because fellow expats are from your native country, it doesn't automatically make them your best friend. In fact, I personally, unconsciously and naturally gravitate away from fellow Brits and make friends from all countries and cultures.
It's all about the person, not what they're wrapped in. Start finding things that you want to do and make it your move abroad. Don't rely on your partner or your children for your entertainment and happiness, and don't oblige them to rely on you for theirs either. Do your own thing. Many expat partners say that as soon as they take complete ownership for their happiness and stop relying on each other, that they really start to be happy.
When you move abroad with your partner and your kids, rather than feel like the victim of the decision, instead, choose to feel empowered and make the most of your new life. Recognise that you are not alone in feeling like this. Somehow it does really help to know that you're not alone in this. Is not something people talk about very much, but trust me, not all trailing spouses are happy and carefree.
So to summarise, be proactive, make it your life, embrace all opportunities and say yes to everything you're invited to. Even if it's not your thing, give it a go, it's a way of changing your scenery, meeting new people, and if you really don't like it, you've still learned something new about yourself. And that new thing is that you don't like doing that thing!
Moving overseas is a chance for you to embrace opportunities and say yes to life. If you have the attitude of an opportunist then you are always looking out for opportunities, you're attuned to them. You can spot them a mile off and seize them with both hands. You're seeing where you can travel to what new things you can do and what interesting people you can meet. Remember, life is full of opportunities if you know where to look. And once you open your mind to them, they'll pop up anyway.
And as soon as you take complete ownership for your own happiness and stop relying on others, you really can start to be happy, I promise you. So grab life by the balls and start living, not just existing. Don't wait for life to happen to you. Get out there and make it happen.
If you're struggling and would like an outsider's perspective, get in touch. I'm a fabulous listener and I can advise you on ways that you can help yourself move forward. Hop on a call with me and let's chat.
And I really look forward to talking with you again soon. Take care.
Thank you for listening to the Expatability Chat podcast, please check out ExpatChild.com for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.