Reshaping Your Identity
Updated: Mar 3
I've been coaching and inspiring expat spouses for over 15 years and a common theme we just can't escape from is having to figure out who we are (again) and find our place is in this new life. When we pack up our home and move to a new country, we lose a piece of our self - a piece of our identity - so we search for ways to fill the void.
Identity is a tricky thing. In it's most basic terms, it refers to the unique collection of labels you either give yourself or society assigns to you. In reality, it's the essence of what makes you, well, feel like you. When you lose some of those labels (or gain a new combination of them) you get thrown off balance.
If you gave up a job, left your dog-walking business behind, or even just miss the mahjong group you belonged to, you'll feel the loss and look for ways to feel 'whole' again. To boot, the label 'expat spouse' is added to the mix. Learning what that really means to you is a challenge in itself.
I was recently interviewed for Passport Magazine published by the Brussels Women's Club on what identity really is and the role it plays in the context of an expat spouse.
Here are my answers I hope they're helpful.
Tanya Arler, A Happy Expat, will be facilitating a workshop at the BWC Clubhouse on the topic of ‘Reshaping Your Identity’, which is about how expat women can regain that sense of ‘self’ that seemed to lessen – or perhaps even vanish – when they made a major life change.
In this interview, Tanya explains what ‘identity’ means, and what role it plays in the context of an expat woman.
How do you define ‘identity’?
“Identity refers to a combination of labels we either give ourselves or society assigns to us. These labels associate us with a collection of groups to which we belong.
There are many types of identity markers, but the main ones are: 1) societal roles (mother, daughter, cousin), 2) activities/profession (fitness nut, marketing manager, homemaker), 3) physical attributes (short, tall, brown-eyed) and 4) personal characteristics (quiet, enthusiastic, optimist) …
It's the unique combination of these individual markers that defines us in society. From there we create a subset of key markers to define our self-image. In that subset that we find our connection, belonging, self-worth, purpose and fulfilment.”
What do you mean by ‘reshaping your identity’?
“When we go through major life change, like moving or leaving a job, we leave things behind. The missing pieces usually relate to our key identity markers so the loss is felt on a deep level. We also gain new labels which feel foreign and uncomfortable. Suddenly the combination of labels that made you 'feel like you’ looks different, confidence wanes. and you search for the comfort zone of who you used to be.
We think if we look for similar activities the picture will look the same again and internal order will be restored, but in the context of our ‘new life‘ that tends not to be the case. The solution to restoring our confidence is not to replicate our previous identity but rather to reshape it so that it fills our needs as individuals and coalesces with our new circumstances. To achieve this requires a fair amount of self-reflection and self-truth.
Using Maslow’s pyramid (https://www.thoughtco.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4582571) I focus on two of the needs explained in that model: Belonging versus Self-Esteem. Belonging includes friendships and sense of connection. Self-Esteem includes respect, status, fulfilment, and recognition.
I ask expat women what they got out of their previous job/life and what they miss (i.e., what need did that key identity marker really fill)? Was it recognition, social interaction, routine, independence… etc? Are they looking for belonging, or are those needs already met and they want to pursue self-esteem?
Once they understand what's really missing, it's far easier to find a job, activity or life choice that fills the void so they can regain their sense of self.”
How can you reshape your identity?
“I help expat women figure out what needs they're really trying to fill so they can look at local opportunities from a different perspective and find their new fit.
I see so many women trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Once they have a better handle on the missing piece of the puzzle they open themselves up to the new experiences and opportunities available to them that offer connection and fulfilment.
It might still be a job they're looking for, but while they're looking, they might try photography, join a walking club, volunteer at a social club or learn how to play bridge… or they might try something they never would have dreamed of before.
Ultimately what everyone is looking for is a sense of belonging, purpose, and happiness. I try to make it easier and faster to find them."
Tanya Arler is a coach and workshop facilitator specialised in helping expat women manage major life change in a positive way. She offers practical tools, mindset coaching, and advice on how to navigate the staggering change they are going through, all the while remaining the rock their family so desperately needs.
So they too can become...
A Happy Expat
Are you in HR or Global Mobility and want to increase your assignment success rate?
My 4-part Transition Coaching for expat assignees and their spouses offers guidance, insight and tools to help them better navigate the process of change and adapt more quickly and easily so your assignee can focus their energy on performing to their potential.
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