Five steps to healthy identity when abroad

Five steps to healthy identity when abroad

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Blogger Carolyn Vines shares five helpful exercises to try out when looking to build confidence in your identity as an expat abroad.

Know Thyself

An expat lifestyle is filled with constant change: faces look different, words sound unrecognizable, foods taste strange and entire lives are reinvented. Regular travel to the great unknown often lands us in chaos, to which we may respond by seeing ourselves as inadequate, powerless and helpless. And how we see ourselves has a direct impact on how we experience where we are in the world or in our lives.

Creating a healthy identity, or self-image, is the key to weathering the storms that international relocation can bring. Multicultural counselor/psychologist Christine Fischer, an American expat, affirms that a healthy identity "is achieved by having a deep understanding of who we are no matter which societal mirror we choose to gaze into: race, ethnicity, social class, orientation, etc."

So how do we go about achieving that deep understanding of ourselves?


The first step is to find a safe place to pour out our deepest, most hurtful thoughts about others, ourselves and our situations - a journal.

In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron's seminal book on unlocking creativity coined the term "morning pages", a style of journaling that "gets us to the other side of our fear, of our negativity, of our moods". That fear of seeing something ugly in ourselves is, arguably, the biggest obstacle keeping us from a healthy self-image.

Cameron recommends setting aside 15-30 minutes every day first thing in the morning to write. Pick up the pen and let it flow across three sheets of paper. Write down whatever comes to mind, no matter how petty, judgmental or harsh. Cameron believes that it is crucial to allow ourselves the time and space to wade through the muck of our negative thoughts, the majority of which are probably about how inadequate we are.

She insightfully maintains that we perform this type of meditation "to discover our own identity, our right place in the scheme of the universe...we acquire and eventually acknowledge our connection to an inner power source that has the ability to transform our outer world". Empowering ourselves is the point of achieving a healthy self-image.

Look in the Mirror

The second step is to take a good, honest look at ourselves. Begin by regulary asking: who am I?, the answers to which will be noted and safeguarded in the morning pages. Notice that the initial answers will most likely be based on physical attributes: race, gender, body weight, etc.

This is an opportune time to question the attachments we and others (family and community, for example) have placed on those attributes, which, according to Fischer, are mere reflections of who we are.

"Stereotypes and prejudices," she argues, "are like carnival mirrors that distort the images we and others see." Eventually, through persistent questioning of who you are and consistent journaling, we can achieve a healthy identity, which Fischer equates to "the wisdom that there is a difference between who we are, societal reflections and societal distortions."

Dare to Be Passionate

This is the fun part: finding your passion. It comes, however, with one caveat. Passion doesn't usually rain down from the heavens or in one of Oprah's famous "Aha!" moments. Sometimes, we have to dig deep to find out what makes our hearts sing.  

Jo Parfitt, an expat from England, knows a thing or two about passion and healthy identity. She recalls that her passion for writing has been her one constant and only salvation through moving to five countries in 23 years. "My identity has always been inextricably linked with what I do for a living," explains Parfitt. "I like to have a professional label. I am a writer and a publisher."

That bond between passion and identity led Parfitt to author 27 books, mentor countless aspiring writers and create Summertime Publishing. It wasn't easy for Parfitt to maintain a professional identity alongside being a wife, mother and accompanying partner. But she achieved her goals, putting her success down to always pursuing work that she loved.

It is no coincidence that she's written two books on the subject. "I advise anyone who wants to create and maintain what I call a Career in Your Suitcase that the first step to take is to Find Their Passion."

Flickr photo © dreamer..

Be with Good People

Looking inside as we've been doing with the morning pages, questioning who we are and finding our passion, is the ideal road toward a healthy self-image. Now it's time to look outside ourselves and say goodbye to the crazymakers in our lives. Using Julia Cameron's definition, they are "charismatic but out of control, long on problems and short on solutions". Crazymakers are destructive people who will do their best to throw us out of kilt.

Irish expat Niamh Ni Bhroin has met a lifetime's worth of crazymakers. In her harrowing memoir The Singing Warrior, she recounts how the sexual, physical and emotional abuse she suffered as a child gave her a false sense of who she was. The people she surrounded herself with, reflected the negative self-image she had. Now in her 50s, she's finally seeing herself with new eyes. She also shares her method of dealing with her crazymakers.

"I visualize myself sitting in a lifeboat filled with destructive, energy-sucking people. I give each one a lifejacket. As we start rowing to the lush tropical island in the distance, I visualize chucking each individual out of the lifeboat. I have been merciful by giving them a lifejacket and the chance to swim to shore - on their own."

Ni Bhroin uses this technique in her "Spear Your Fears" workshop and swears by its ability to remind her that she's in control of who she is and what she does. "I have giggled and laughed like a hyena. It lightens things up."

Be Good to You

The quest for healthy identity invariably leads us to self-care, which relocation coach Kama Frankling, an expat living in Australia, believes is the first thing we neglect when life spirals out of control. She is adamant that self-care is crucial for remaining true to ourselves. "It is not selfish," she asserts. "It is nurturing the soul so that we can be who we really want to be."

We must pamper ourselves by making time for hobbies and meditating. We can read uplifting and inspiring books like The Artist's Way, Loving What Is by Byron Katie, and David D. Burns' classic Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Each of these books directs us to be aware of our thoughts. They teach us that our thoughts reflect how we see ourselves and our place in the world.

How do we know when we've reached our goal? For Denny Gerberding, a grandmother who was raised in Indonesia and spent her adult years in Holland, it's simple: "It's when you no longer have to prove who you are to anyone. You just are."


Carolyn Vines / Expatica

Besides being an author, editor and award-winning blogger, Carolyn Vines is a full-time mother of two bicultural, bilingual daughters. She holds an MA in Latin American literature and has taught in universities in the Netherlands and in the US. She speaks Spanish and Dutch fluently and currently resides with her family in the Netherlands.

Her memoir, black and (A)broad: traveling beyond the limitations of identity is available online at, and Barnes & Noble online.

Photo credit: dreamer.. (girl).

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Kristine Holland posted:

    on 3rd April 2012, 07:45:47 - Reply

    Wow...excellent summarisation of life for expats in Denmark. Thankyou for this perspective...just today I realized these learnings and then found this article. Harmony and stability reign once more, after so much change, change and moving foundations.
  • Maureen Dolan posted:

    on 1st June 2011, 15:53:32 - Reply

    Hello Carolyn. This is a wonderful article. I´m a little smug about it though since you describe where I am at, finally, in my expat life in Spain. For people still in the eye of the hurricane your advice will help them fight their way out of it. Congratulations on a great piece.
  • Anna Maria posted:

    on 10th May 2011, 10:59:52 - Reply

    Hi Carolyn! Great to see your contribution to Expatica and your smiling face at the bottom of the page. I can hear your voice as I read. I do enjoy your writing style! You offer some great insights and reminded me that I need to read "The Artist's Way"! It's been on my reading list for a decade! I am still hoping to get in touch and see if we can meet up in Holland this autumn and talk about doing a presentation on lovepats at FIGT.