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The 7 phases of Expat Life

Contrary to what most stay-at-homers think, expat life is not always rainbows and butterflies. After all, it’s still life - and life comes with ups and downs. Sadness, grief, anger, heartache and boredom are part of it just like with any other life.

But expat life does have a special component to it that the people who stay at home never experience. There are certain phases that every expat goes through (if they stay long enough), alternating highs and lows and with different challenges. Knowing that these phases are part of expat life and that you can mostly likely expect them when you move abroad, helps you to prepare for them and to be kinder to yourself when you’re in one of them.

So here are the 7 phases I identified:

  1. The preparation: going from pure excitement for your future plans to “OMG what am I doing” once you realise what you’ll miss - and the “ok let’s get it over with now” a few days before leaving. What makes this phase more challenging is the INCREDIBLE amount of things you need to arrange: paperwork, sorting out your belongings, packing, finishing or preparing for a job, getting your shots, planning some final trips and nights out with friends, making sure your pet can travel with you, moving out… I could continue. The overwhelm is real!

  2. The honeymoon: you've now moved to the new country and everything is wonderful. All is new and exciting and fun and you can’t believe how lucky you are to be there. It usually involves some travel too. This phase can last from a few days till a few months. You're loving it! Tip: while you’re in your high, make sure you’re building a social life or support network to rely on for when things are getting tougher - it’s easier to do this now than when you are in one of the lower phases.

  3. Frustration & annoyances: as you’re coming off your honeymoon high, you slowly start to get annoyed with how things are done over there. The people are too rude or direct. You can no longer deal with the incredible inefficiency. When you think you’re there, you need yet another stamp to get the paperwork done. Argh! Welcome, this is your culture shock ;)

  4. Adjustment: this is when you overcome the first culture shock and adapt to the new culture. You found your way around, know how things are done and have set a daily routine. Life is pretty good!

  5. Frustration 2.0 / Homesickness: the annoyances hit again… But this time, it’s on a deeper level. Usually in this phase you’re going through something personal: stress at work, a breakup, worries about a loved one, doubts about if you’re in the right career. And as you deal with that, you’re more and more annoyed with how the other culture is dealing with those things. Maybe you feel that people are dismissing your feelings or they say the ‘wrong’ things. You start to miss home more often and you long for the ‘normal’ way. This is also when homesickness can hit. How long this phase lasts depends on you: some expats actually decide to end their time abroad in this phase because they’re not happy.

  6. Adjustment 2.0 / feeling at home: once you’ve overcome the previous phase, you’ll really start to feel at home there. You’ve not only built your routine, you now also understand and adapted to the culture on a deeper level. You know that the cultural differences remain, but you also know how to deal with them. You’re happy where you are; you call it home. This phase can last for years.

  7. Returning home: the phase that’s often forgotten when people think of living abroad, and also the most underestimated one. Eventually most expats (though not all) return home, either by choice or because their posting abroad ends. And this is when reversed culture shock happens. Because you’ve lived in another culture for so long and have adapted yourself, you no longer really fit in at home anymore. It’s like your favourite comfortable jeans all of a sudden feel a bit too tight. Everything that was always so normal, is now something to question. You may also realise that all your friends have moved on without you, and they too might realise that you’ve changed. People back home often think that you’ll still be the exact same person as when you left, but you’re not - you’ve grown. And being back home can also feel very ‘small’. It feels the same as before (with some small changes), but you now know what else is out there. And this can feel very conflicting. You’re happy to be back home but at the same time you know you could be happy elsewhere. It’s like you left tiny pieces of your heart in another place and you realise that no matter where you go, it will never feel whole again anymore. This can feel very lonely too - your friends back home don’t understand what you’re going through. They assume you don’t need any help because you’ve moved back to your own country, easy peasy right? If only it were this simple…

Do you recognise any of these phases? And could you use some guidance in going through them? My coaching package might be a great fit for you. In 6 sessions we dive into your situation, what feels problematic, and what may lie underneath that (your own beliefs, thoughts, emotions or patterns). You’ll discover new layers of yourself and take steps towards where you want to go, feeling lighter and more wholesome with every step.

You can schedule a free discovery call to hear more:

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