Why Expats Face Identity Dilemmas And How To Resolve Them

In a new environment, suddenly the perception of other people about about who you are, changes completely.

The expectations of the local people are significantly different from what you are used to. Your behavior comes across differently. Suddenly, you no longer have the same role in society than what you had before.

Furthermore, you are exposed to completely different beliefs and ways of thinking.

You inner compass of how to operate in society suddenly stops functioning reliably. Assumptions about the world that you have taken for granted are clashing with the local culture and no longer prove to be able to guide you through life successfully.

A new cultural environment forces you to change.

Who we become is a result of a large variety of factors working together.

Our genetic setup, our personality, the process of socialization we go through and other factors together enable us to adapt ourselves to the environmental conditions that we are exposed to and function as a member of society.

The thing is that when we are moving to another country, the environmental conditions that we are exposed to on a daily basis, change completely.

All these factors that influence who you were at the time that you left from your culture of origin also influence how you respond to the sudden shift in environments that you will inevitably be exposed to.

And yet, being successful in your home country by no means determines that you will successful when moving abroad.

In fact, at times being successful in your culture of origin can be detrimental to your success.

Behavioral patterns and habits that have previously been among the most important factors for your success may suddenly cause completely different, at times even negative reactions among the local people.

You are left wondering why the results of your actions are completely different from what you had expected.

The question is whether or not you are going to be able to let go of who you once were and embrace the new circumstances.

As a side note, people who are uncomfortable with their life circumstances often find it easier to adapt themselves to a life in another country. It is that these people are ‘unsuccessful’ in the conventional sense, but rather that they are uncomfortable with their position in society for one reason or another.

To them, moving overseas can often be a chance for a new beginning — a chance to find themselves.

If you are among this group of people and are looking to move overseas, I encourage you to ask yourself what it is that you are looking for? Is moving overseas really a chance of giving you that?

The 3 key tasks of resolving identity dilemmas

The first key task of expatriates when facing identity dilemmas is to determine what their core values and beliefs are — those that will remain constant throughout their life’s wherever they go.

These core beliefs are the result of their ‘primary social conditioning’. Some factors this includes are:

  • The history of how they grew up
  • The experiences they have accumulated throughout their lifetime
  • The values and beliefs that were ingrained into them by their parents, friends, schooling, media and the general cultural environment in which they were placed.

All of us have develop certain core values and beliefs as a result of this primary social conditioning which are forming the essence of who we are. No matter what happens to us and what kind of situation we face; questioning them or attempting to change them will lead to nothing but unhappiness.

“Among other things, human beings are a collection of beliefs”.

The second key task of expatriates when facing identity dilemmas is to determine which one’s of their values and beliefs they need to rid themselves off or adjust in order to become more effective in the new cultural environment.

It may seem obvious, but I will mention it anyway: none of our beliefs are facts.

Unfortunately, people tend to forget this. They are making assumptions about how the world works and their brain tricks them into believing that these assumptions are ‘facts’.

People perceive certain assumptions as facts because as long as they are staying in their original cultural environment, the majority of the other people around them perceives these assumptions as facts, too.

When these people are suddenly exposed to an environment where people simply do not share these same assumptions, they are shocked. They are left wondering how these people can not see something that is so obvious?

As an expatriate, you have to figure out which one’s of your assumptions about how the world works are, in fact, culturally-based.

If these assumptions are detrimental to your success in the new cultural environment, you have to let go off them. It is a painful process, but there simply is no way around it.

The third key task of expatriates when facing identity dilemmas is to understand the way of thinking of the local people and to integrate certain beliefs into their own belief system.

Of course, the dominant beliefs of your host culture are just as much subjective as those of your culture of origin.

I personally approach this issue with a practical mindset.

I am simply asking myself: which of the host culture’s beliefs are going to be helpful for me in achieving the goals I am trying to achieve?

When I find that they are helpful for me to adapt, then I am noting them down in a notebook and start reflecting about these beliefs on a regular basis to the point where I am slowly starting to internalize them.

So, what are the next steps?

Facing identity dilemma’s requires us to gain a good awareness- and understanding of our own belief system.

We need to understand which of our beliefs are so central to who we are that putting them into question will throw us into a deep crisis.

At the same time, we need to become aware of how those beliefs that we have learned as part of our own cultural conditioning affect our perspective on any given issue and the decisions we make as a result.

Lastly, we need to take active steps in terms of trying to understand how the belief system of our host culture differs from what we are used to, and remain reflective in terms of how we can integrate these different beliefs into our own sense of self without putting our core beliefs into question.

I would like to leave you with some questions that can help you go through the journey of resolving an identity dilemma you face:

  • what are the most crucial experiences in your lifetime which have had the biggest impact on who you are today?
  • what are the core values and core beliefs which are so important to you that you would never be willing to question them?
  • what beliefs have you been exposed to in the new culture that are ‘threatening’ your sense of self?
  • in what ways do people in the new culture perceive you differently compared to people ‘back home’?
  • which beliefs and behavioral patterns have you observed in the new culture that would help you in growing and achieving your goals?

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