Why Gratitude is the Best Answer for Difficult Expat Emotions

hands in mittens holding warm hot cup of coffee with gratitude written in bold

Five years ago when my middle child was suddenly diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, we left everything behind from our life in Antananarivo, Madagascar and headed to my parents house in Texas for 6 months.

It was an incredibly emotional time, full of ups and downs and doubts about what our expat life would look like from then on. And, it was also a time of reevaluating and refocusing. We started to see that we could live quite normally even in the face of challenge and that our international existence would actually return, more or less, to normal.

It was also one of the most wonderful times for my children to reconnect with their grandparents. For just a little while – we saw what our life would have been like had we never left Austin. Baseball and soccer, tacos and live music, Barton Springs and fire ants.

Within a year of our 6-month stay in Austin, however, my step-dad was diagnosed with cancer. He died just shy of 2 years from our emergency evacuation from Madagascar.

There is a part of me that will never fully be able to accept my stepdad’s death. It seems he was too young, too healthy, too much a part of our lives to be gone so suddenly. It seems so wrong to have befallen a man that was so universally loved, a person that seemed to want nothing much more than to love the people in his life…and go fishing…and drink an ice-cold Corona on a sweltering Texas day.

Never in a million years would I wish to repeat the chaos and upheaval of our departure from Madagascar. If I could wave a magic wand, I would take my son’s diagnosis any day so that he could go on living as carefree as a 10 year old should. And yet, because we were in Austin, we had those precious 6 months with my stepdad. I can’t say I’d change it.

The deep, deep well of gratitude I feel for having had that time in which every day my kids got to know their PawPaw offers a sense of peace and acceptance about the way things turned out. My gratitude for those unexpected days in Texas provides a sort of balm that softens the sting of the loss and reminds me that having been loved so unconditionally by this one person is an incredible blessing, even if he wasn’t in our lives as long as we all wanted.

Gratitude serves this purpose in our lives. It’s not that by being grateful we suddenly erase the shittiness of bad things that happen. I strongly disagree with the idea that in our most difficult emotions we should simply apply a little gratitude and everything will be okay. What we can see, however, is that gratitude offers us the chance to see our experiences and our emotions in the context of the larger picture.

For expats, one of the biggest gifts of practicing gratitude is that it’s so portable. You can step into a grateful mindset no matter where you are – from the airport security line to the first loving embrace of a brand new friend. Learning to engage with gratitude provides unique ways in which to deal with many of the difficult emotions that plague our unpredictable international lives – not so that we can always feel exactly the way we want to feel, but so that we can better address the very real emotions that sometimes knock us flat.

Gratitude requires reflection, insight and mindful awareness and these are all traits that help us get a handle our difficult emotions. It helps us to see ourselves at a distance so that we can make clear, thoughtful decisions about how we want to embrace and honor the ways we feel.

Moreover, more than being simply a state of mind, gratitude inherently offers us a chance to take action. We can feel thankful with our thoughts or our hearts (and sometimes that’s enough to help us address our emotions), but gratitude also compels us to act. It encourages us to actually say thank you – to write the letter, to make the phone call, to rephrase the complaint, to offer and to receive the support we need.

If you’re feeling helplessness, sadness, envy, anger, rejection or grief, it can be helpful to process those emotions by seeing them as part of your complex life – a life that also includes good things…even good things directly related to the challenges you’re facing.

If you find you’re in a rut, try these gratitude-centered, self-coaching questions. They might get you started in gaining new space to see, move through and heal from the difficult emotions you encounter in your expat life.

  • What uncomfortable emotions am I feeling right now?
  • What might I appreciate about these difficult emotions? What might they be trying to tell me? What gifts might be hidden within these emotions?
  • Who in my life has been the most supportive and understanding during this challenging experience? How can I acknowledge my gratitude to this person?
  • What skills or abilities do I possess that have helped me to move through this experience? What person or situation has supported my cultivation of these abilities? How can I offer gratitude to that person or situation?
  • Who have I witnessed overcome challenges? In what ways am I grateful for the opportunity to learn from this person?

How has maintaining gratitude helped you deal with difficult expat emotions? Based on your experience, what questions would you add to the list above? I’d be honored to hear more about how gratitude has supported your expat journey in the comments.

Throughout the month of December 2018, I’ll be posting more self-coaching questions on gratitude on my Facebook page. Like the World Tree Coaching Facebook page to join the conversation.

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Everyday Expats Video Series – Episode 6

everyday expats episode 6 gratitude title card with headshots of 7 guests

Welcome to Episode 6 of Everyday Expats! This month we’re talking about GRATITUDE.

Over the past 6 months, I’ve loved talking with expats all over the world who are finding simple, thoughtful ways to deepen their experience of living overseas no matter where they go. The tips and reminders they’ve offered are accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Nothing is rocket science – it simply takes intention and attention to put these skills to work in your own life.

We’ve talked about the concept of home, self-care, parenting, rituals and traditions and creating a vision for who you want to be in the world.

This month, as we talk about the concept of gratitude I decided that I’d like to offer you the reflections of a variety of expats. These globally mobile people share what they’re grateful for in their international life – each one offering a short 30-second video from wherever they are right now in the world.

In my own life, I’ve found no matter where we’ve lived and regardless of the challenges we’ve faced, I feel an incredible sense of gratitude for the gift of getting to build community in so many places around the world.

Right now I’m grateful that my family is happy and healthy and that we’re surrounded each day by people we love and people who love us. I’m grateful that my children are getting to see and experience things that were unimaginable to me as a child. And I’m grateful that this has taught them to value difference, complexity and generosity.

Interspersed with the reflections of this month’s Everyday Expats, you’ll find Expat Gratitude Action Steps that you can take in your own life. I’ve also included those action steps below where you normally find the Everyday Expats Questionnaire.

I also want to give you the heads-up that I’ll be taking a break from Everyday Expats in January. I’m considering different formats and ideas and ultimately whether I continue with this project or move on to other ways to bring you quality content on expat life. Feel free to share any ideas in the comments or offer feedback you might have on this month’s format.

Thank you again for watching! Very best wishes as you wrap up 2018. I look forward to seeing you in 2019 – either here at Everyday Expats or somewhere else entirely!

Expat Gratitude Action Steps

As you go through your life living from place to place, it can be really easy to lose sight of what brings you joy, what gifts you’ve been offered from the Universe and what it really means to feel a sense of connection with others and with the larger world. Taking time to express gratitude is a wonderful way to cultivate a sense of peace and comfort – even when things aren’t always going our way. If you feel you’re in a gratitude rut – try some of these tips for boosting your sense of thankfulness for your expat life.

ONE

When you’re leaving somewhere, present a thank you note and a small gift from your home country to the people you’ve encountered in your daily life.

TWO

After you’ve settled in to your new home, hold a coffee morning or dinner party to thank the people who were the most helpful (logistically or emotionally) in helping you get adjusted.

THREE

When family or friends come to visit, give them a framed photo of their trip to your host country.

FOUR

Plan a special celebration (a dinner out, a cake or family meal) to recognize how your Third Culture Kids have adapted to their new home.

FIVE

Take a gratitude walk. Mindfully explore your new town, taking note of all of the interesting things you’re getting to see for the first time.

SIX

Do something to better the environment of your adopted home. Plant a tree, reduce your plastics consumption, shop locally, etc.

SEVEN

When you return to your home country to visit, take time to mindfully recognize what you love about the place you come from. Make a list of those things and review it from time to time when you’re feeling lost between worlds.

EIGHT

Tell your family, often and with deep appreciation, how much you love having them on this global journey with you.

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Seeing Through Red Brick Walls – How I Found My Vision at the End of the World

When we moved to Madagascar several years ago, I had three small children. The youngest was just a few months old. My husband worked long hours and I used to dread the moment when our helper left at the end of the day and it was just me there with the kids in a strange place where I didn’t speak the local language or yet understand the culture.

It wasn’t that being without our helper was scary. It’s not like we’d always had a helper. I think it was the feeling that, once she left, the connection I had to the world beyond my own small compound faded away. It was isolating, even if it only lasted a couple hours until my husband would bang three quick, clumsy thumps on the outside gate while balancing, suit and all, on his bike.

In the hours before he got home, I’d often insist, despite the determined swarms of mosquitos descending in the dusk, that we all go out to the front yard. The boys would play in the red, unrelenting dirt and I’d nurse my daughter from a chair on the front porch, holding on for dear life, staring at the jacaranda peering over the brick wall of our compound.

The brick wall.

If you’ve ever lived in Madagascar, you know that for the rest of your life, when you mention it as a place you once lived, people will say, “Woah! Madagascar! How was that!?” I always struggle to answer at first. While we grew to create our very best friendships there and to love our little life on the Red Island, my early memories are inseparable from the fact that we moved there with a newborn and two small kids, that I’d just left a job that I loved, but that spent me emotionally and I felt utterly without focus or vision.

Everything was red brick walls.

But sometimes, we have to get to this place where we feel stuck behind the wall in order to better understand our way through to the other side, to find the hidden doorways. That’s what happened to me.

It was during those early days in Madagascar, when my days were a mix of dreaming and surviving, that I began to see the importance of turning each day towards a vision of who I wanted to be in the world. I didn’t think I’d felt lost before, but in retrospect, I realize that what I thought was vision, was really more like ego combined with a fine dose of optimism and a fair bit of adventure. With small children and a meandering career, I realized those things were no longer enough.

It was there, that I began to see the significance of not only asking what my vision for my life was, but revisiting it often, with commitment and focus. Most of us probably have some sense of the person we’d like to be, yet we consider this as an after-thought – something to take up only during times of struggle or loss, great opportunity or fortune…and maybe not even then.

But learning to see each day as an opportunity to move closer to our vision of who we want to be in the world is something we can engage in at any time. It might even be simpler than you think.

The short exercise below is a modified version of one I do in vision crafting sessions with my clients. While I’ll confess there’s added benefit of taking up these questions with a coach, someone who can ask more questions and help you stay focused on the exercise, there’s really no reason you can’t do this on your own.

Do this…

First, think back to a time when you felt completely on your game. This can be a small moment – like a bath-time parenting win or something bigger like overcoming a professional or financial setback. When you think of that time, what qualities were you most exhibiting? Write down as many as you can think of.

Then, think about the people you know and love – what do you admire in them? Are those qualities you’d like to bring into your own life? Write those down too.

Next, look at all the words you’ve put on the list. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then, open your eyes and circle the 3 words that most draw your attention. These words are a starting point for defining your vision of who you want to be in the world. This may take some time. You might even choose 3 to try out for a few weeks and then choose another 3 later. That’s okay.

Finally, to see how your vision works for you in real life, try one (or all) these practices:

During a moment of intense emotion, pause, take a deep breath and ask – Who do I want to be right now? Say your 3 words in your head. Use them as your guide.

After you have a stressful experience, a big change, a challenge or miscommunication, think back over the event. Ask yourself – How did my actions align with my vision of who I want to be in the world? If your actions aligned well, spend some time thinking about how you were able to act in accordance to your vision. If your actions weren’t aligned ask – How can I strengthen that alignment?

Write your 3 words from your vision on a notecard. Place the notecard somewhere you’ll see every day. Notice if this helps you become more aware of your vision in your daily life. Alternatively, consider keeping the notecard in a place where you feel you have the most difficulty staying aligned with you vision.

It’s important to remember in doing these exercises that our vision is not so much a destination or a list of wants or dreams. The most useful and adaptable vision is a vision that reminds us of who we want to BE not what we want to DO. Our vision of who we want to be guides what we want to do. It brings us back again and again to the deeper role we play in the story that unfolds before us. It’s a light shining on, and ultimately through, the brick walls.

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Everyday Expats Video Series – Episode 5

This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about the importance of Vision. Living every day with a clear sense of who we want to be in the world is perhaps the most essential element of a successful expat experience. And yet, many of us wander through life with only a vague awareness of what we want to bring into the world each day.

I’ve met a few people in our life overseas who really embody this sense of connection to values, vision and intention and I’m thrilled to share the experiences with you this month of Franchesca Minikon-Reece.

Franchesca is an American living in New Delhi and I first met her when we were living in Madagascar. I’ll never forget – I was dropping my middle son off for school and from the classroom came the most amazing, full-hearted laughter. I knew then and there that the source of the laughter was someone I had to meet. A caring, generous and fun-loving mom, management specialist, wife and mother of three, Franchesca offers her reflections this month and the keys to living with vision and purpose.

Read her responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch her Everyday Expats interview for our conversation along with her top 3 reminders for answering the question – Who do I want to be in the world?

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island (The biggest little state of the union!). I left Rhode Island just after completing my freshman year of high school and moved to Massachusetts to attend high school. I continued to live in Massachusetts through college and graduated.

I’ve lived back and forth between the U.S. and Africa since 2002. I’ve lived in a few different cities in Rhode Island, a few different cities in Massachusetts, in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Rwanda, Madagascar, Maryland, Virginia and am currently living in India.

So many things occupy my head and heart! My children and husband currently occupy my heart! My kids are my joy! I work in Management, and do my best to impart knowledge to my staff, and treat them and my colleagues with respect. My work is my heart! I believe in my work and my contribution to my community.

It has been a privilege to live in India. Exploring New Delhi and India has been spectacularly stimulating. While living in India, I experience all there is to see, touch, smell, hear, photograph, wear and EAT! This place is full of so many contradictions! There is beauty here in the form of people and culture (extraordinary history of this country and the diverse religions we are exposed to), but there is also tragedy and inequality. I’m especially aware of this in the case of women and it’s something that has really drawn my attention since moving here

Becoming a member of a book club has filled me with an abundance of delight. Getting lost in a great read, then spending time with smart personalities to talk about what we have read.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

WOW! Great question. One would think it would have been when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, but it was actually when I first received my international assignment to live in West Africa. I was not a volunteer, but was being paid to live overseas, was receiving a shipping allowance, was provided with a furnished apartment. I had to stop and think about the time zone I was in, and how they had an impact on my ability to connect with my mom and my brother (two individuals who I am extremely close to). I think the hardest part of living overseas, and the moment I realized I was living an international life, was when I realized I could not immediately call my mom whenever I felt like it, or call my brother to ask him about work. This was before WhatsApp!

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

I guess the most obvious answer to that question would be the opportunity to live in different countries, different communities, and being in a constant state of adapting to the newness of my environment. No matter how long I live in a place, I will always be a foreigner, and I accept that. I have found myself in conversations with people about how I am different in an obvious visual way from them, but how I am so much like them in the not so obvious ways. It’s a delight to see how someone else’s eyes grow larger when they discover they share a similarity with you. It’s amazing to watch, and also a bit comical.

What’s your least favorite part?

Even though my family is with me (husband + kiddies), I do miss my mom, and my siblings and cousins. It’s not that I miss talking to them (the difference between when I lived in Nigeria and now, is WhatsApp). I communicate with my cousins and siblings almost every day. I speak to my mother once or twice every week, but I miss being able to just jump in a car and driving to see her. I do feel fortunate that I can still call her when I want, but giving her a hug, and running from her hands that like to tickle me, makes me miss home!

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I am more resilient than I had initially thought I was. I knew since I was 15 that I wanted to join the Peace Corps. However, it is not until I was placed in my village, in my dorm size room (which also served as my kitchen, living room and sometimes bathroom) that I realized how resilient I needed to be in order to serve a successful, fulfilling and complete tour of service. I realized how important it was to make the best of the situation. I had the choice to sit around and cry, worry and stress about being alone, or I could immerse myself in the culture of the wonderful Burkinabé people who welcomed me to their community with open arms.

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

WOW. Super powers? My super powers?

1) My laugh…my loud laugh from the gut! I love to laugh, and I try to bring people “into my sphere” when I laugh! It’s such an exhilarating feeling, even more so when I get others to join in with me. Most of the time, they don’t know what I am laughing at, but they laugh because they are overjoyed by my LOUD laugh and cannot control themselves!

2) My generosity. I mean this in many ways. It could be an extra handful of peanuts I share with a colleague; it could be an extra ten minutes to discuss a really important matter with a friend, where they require a second opinion before making a decision; it could be money, in the form of bus or cab fare to get home to help a sick relative; it could be a compliment. People love compliments, and I love giving them! It could be encouragement. Everyone needs encouragement!

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

I believe it’s important to act with integrity. It is important to be faithful. It is important to serve. It is important to be supportive. It is important to speak up. It is important to NOT go with the herd. Do not be like everyone else. Laugh loudly, laugh deeply, laugh with your gut! It’s contagious! So, here are my top tips for connecting with vision…

ONE

Do not be afraid to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable allows you that space to sometimes reflect. It could be a short or extended period. It does not matter.

TWO

Be truthful to yourself: Be honest – Act with integrity – Act with faith.

THREE

Enjoy the moment, and do not worry if people think you are too happy, too loud, to goofy or too excited about everything. The moment you are in will not last forever. Enjoy it here. Enjoy it now. Then you get to reminisce about it tomorrow!

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7 Ways Traditions Foster a Healthy Expat Identity

Sometimes you have a tradition that, despite the complexity of the task, you do it so frequently that it becomes like second nature. There are rituals to it, set ways of doing things, recipes for just the right amount of each fraction of the experience.

It’s a bit like that with our annual Christmas Eve Potluck. Yes – I’m totally talking about Christmas on the first of October. Eeek! I know, but keep reading as I get to my point…

This year will be our 7th time to host the party (9th if you count earlier, much smaller versions). And while we’re still a few months away, this is about the time I start thinking about the process. I know by now exactly what we need so I’ve long since learned how to minimize the potential stress and plan ahead. To be honest, even though it’s usually a huge party, it’s never in the least bit stressful. It’s a celebration of love and gratitude. Come December 24th, I don’t think I’d ever want to be anywhere else. It has become one of the defining traditions of our life as a family.

We often think of the importance of traditions and rituals in the context of creating a home space or in building family unity, but for expats, there’s even more to it. When we move frequently from place to place, creating rituals, adhering to traditions and enjoying celebrations makes a globally mobile life more than just the transitions, baggage, and upheaval. It helps us define the very nature of who we are in the midst of those things.

Traditions and rituals help us express ourselves fully in new spaces and remind us who we are in familiar ones. They can help us build community, learn new things about ourselves and create a sense of home no matter where we go. They are the medium through which we learn to simply be regardless of where we’re physically planted.

In short – committing to rituals and traditions and taking time to mark important milestones with celebrations shouldn’t be an after-thought. These aspects are key for living a healthy, connected and fulfilling life as an expat.

Here are some important reminders about what cultivating a spirit of tradition, ritual and celebration can do for your expat life.

Traditions, rituals and celebrations help you:

Claim your home space. When you move a lot, it can feel like the place you’ve landed is just a house. Creating rituals – like a family photo wall, or letting your kids choose which color they want to paint their rooms – allows you to fully turn a house into a home. They foster a sense of comfort with your new space.

Get creative. Anyone who’s tried to bake a family recipe in a country where half the ingredients don’t exist knows exactly what I’m talking about here. Committing to carrying on family traditions despite being in unfamiliar territory means we find completely new and unique ways to do things we love and that’s a really good way to stretch our brains outside our comfort zones.

Become the expert. Except for perhaps your extended family, who likely live very far away, no one but you understands the rituals unique to your family. This means you’re introducing a new custom from your home country to people who may have never experienced it before. You get to teach people about new and interesting ways traditions are practiced around the world. When you live a life where you’re often in the early stages of learning completely new things, it can feel really good to be the expert at something and to share that experience with others.

Set goals. Living outside your home culture means that it takes a lot more prep-work to do the things that would be easy if you were back home. Knowing you might have a longer way to go to follow through with a tradition or celebration helps you plan ahead and strategize how to reach your goals. When you reach your goals, the feeling of having accomplished something is a really nice boost to your self-confidence.

Foster group cohesion. Having regular traditions, rituals and celebrations can help you connect with other expats who share similar customs. This is a really great way to bring people together – even if they normally wouldn’t have much in common. We get to say, “Yes! I do that too!” That can be a nice feeling when you’re far from home and, at the transition phase, is an excellent way to begin to feel a part of something.

Create built-in pauses to be in the moment. This is so very important! Milestones are worth celebrating, but it can be tempting to blow them off whenever life gets hectic (as it always does when you’re living between worlds). By acknowledging the significance of meaningful life events (like birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries) with set rituals and traditions, we remind ourselves to slow down and observe the passage of time. They remind us that the only moment we really have is the one we’re in right now.

Build community. Celebrating and sharing in traditions brings people together! Whether it’s over a favorite traditional meal, through religious or cultural celebrations or simply by taking time to create new moments to mark important milestones – people enjoy connecting as a community! The people we encounter in our journey from home to home are, without question, what really make the world go round.

So, as you transition into a new season, one that often comes with a whole new array of opportunities for tradition, ritual and celebration – what will you be doing to mark this unique and special passage of time? And – how will those special moments help you feel more like yourself, no matter where you go?

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Everyday Expats Video Series – Episode 4

This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about Traditions, Rituals and Celebrations. Over our many years living overseas we’ve found great comfort, community and a sense of home through the traditions, rituals and celebrations we’ve made a part of our life around the world. I love it that our friends around in all corners of the globe get a glimpse into our favorite moments and habits and that we have the gift of learning about and sharing in their’s as well.

That’s why in this month’s interview, I am so honored and excited to sit down with Stacy Perry. Stacy is a mom to three kids, wife of an American diplomat and teacher. Stacy’s commitment to traditions, rituals and celebrations is one of the (many) things I admire about her the most. Even when the goin’ gets tough – she exudes a spirit of celebration. Her family is blessed to have her wisdom about why this commitment is so important for expats (and honestly, for everyone). And you, my friends, are so lucky to get to hear her talk about that all right here!

Read Stacy’s responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch her Everyday Expats interview for our conversation along with her top 3 reminders for how to bring traditions, rituals and celebrations into your expat life.

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up on the shore in New Jersey, moved to South Carolina for college (Go Tigers!). I met my husband there and decided to stay and start our family. Beautiful Charleston, SC is our heart home. We have been posted in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and Krakow, Poland. My husband is currently serving an unaccompanied assignment and I’m in the US with our three kids.

I am a teacher who is currently taking a “sabbatical” in the corporate world. So, I guess I’m a bit backwards compared to other expat spouses as I find that my career as a teacher has been better served me when we’re outside of the US. I adore international teaching and will get back to my craft once we’re back out as a family.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

Well, I realized on the plane on the way to Santo Domingo that it was really, actually happening – before then I actually didn’t give it much thought.

My father passed away suddenly – at least what felt like suddenly – from cancer at the age of 62.  One of the last conversations I had with him was sitting on the side of his hospital bed waiting for transport to bring him home on hospice.  He said (in the most quintessential salty old Irish guy way):

“Listen, don’t sit around feeling bad about this.  You have three kids at home who don’t need a mother who’s going to be sitting around crying and feeling bad for herself.  I’ve lived a great life. Would I have liked to have visited the Grand Canyon? Sure, but things didn’t go my way, and that’s ok.  I’ve lived a full life.”

My dad lived in Las Vegas.  He never went to the Grand Canyon.  I remember coming home and sitting at the fire pit late one night retelling that story to my husband.  It just resonated with the both of us; we wanted to show our kids the world. We wanted to make meaningful memories together as a family while we still could.  I also remember him calling me from work the following day to tell me about the Foreign Service…how he could take this test, and only 2% of the people who sign up actually make it, but if he did…we could take the kids to see the world.  That conversation was about 4 months before “flag day” where we found out we were headed for Santo Domingo. Then, the next thing I knew, I was on a plane.

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

Change.  I crave it when we’ve been in one place for longer than a couple of years.  I love the idea of having a fresh start, the adventure of learning the “lay of the land” and meeting new people.  A very close second to my absolute favorite part are all of the people I have collected from all over the world. It is an absolute gift to meet so many different people.  They have been my favorite souvenirs from everywhere we’ve been.

What’s your least favorite part?

“So, here you are too foreign for home; too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”  

The feeling of never quite fitting in; it’s hard as an adult, but it’s excruciating to watch your kids go through it.  We’ve come to expect it when we’re living overseas, but we didn’t quite expect the intensity of these feelings coming “home” back to the states.  Repatriating has been the hardest for the kids. They are all in the tween-teen years – the years that everyone just wants to blend in as much as possible – the years where different is sniffed out immediately.  All in all, my kids are rockstars when it comes to acclimating, but repatriating and fitting in to a small-ish community where everyone has been in school together since kindergarten is still a work in progress.

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I have had so many things come together for me during our time in this lifestyle so it’s hard to say that it’s because of the life we’ve chosen to live or because I’m settling into my 40s, or it’s because death affected us so deeply, but during this time in my life I have done the most growing as a person.  I have learned I am enough; I have learned to trust myself; my abilities and my gut. Our experience is so unique in this lifestyle that I’ve learned to stop asking for advice – to force myself to stare down some hard choices and to figure it out on my own. I have learned that my intuition is always spot on and I should trust the whispers from the universe; to recognize opportunities when they are presented and to come from a place of yes. I have learned that I need connection in my life. Learning where to find or how to ask for deli meat in any particular language is not as important as making connections to the people around me.

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

This question has been so hard for me. I have been struggling with what’s so super about me – this question inspired some really amazing answers from my family when I told them I was stumped.  My husband said “well that’s exactly it…you have this amazing ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. You have constantly created this bubble of normal, constant normal for us wherever we are. Once we close those doors all of us know that inside of our home everything stays the same.  The address changes, but our home does not. Our routines change a bit, but our traditions stay; we eat an early Sunday supper every week, we have movie night or game night every week, we have family dinner every night, the kids look forward to taking turns in the kitchen with you. Christmas looks exactly the same every year – we all know you’re setting us up with matching pjs – every year.  We can wake up anywhere in the world and our normal life remains normal because you work hard to make sure that it does.”

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

ONE

Seek connection.  It’s immeasurably hard to make relationships that you know have an “expiration date,” but do it, and do it as soon as possible.  Once you have your first “You too?! I thought I was the only one” moment, HOME starts to build up around you. What’s nice about having traditions you really love is that you can use those to connect with and build your community. Those traditions are a piece of who you are that you share with others.

TWO

Stay connected to your tribe.  For me, I’ve found that “temperature” taking of my kids involves activity together more than a firing squad of questions every night, so I make a point of scheduling some sort of one-on-one time with each child as much as possible.  This ranges from going grocery shopping together to our to eat together – but it’s the time where I’m 100% focused on what they’re saying. These rituals – even the simplest thing like a dinner out – show my family members that some things never change and that’s really important to helping our family stay strong when we move from place to place.

THREE

Let the little stuff go.  This lifestyle is HARD, but life is also very short. Let the little (and sometimes medium sized things) GO.  Once I learned to accept that I cannot control the world, I can only control how I react to it; I became instantly “boosted!” This means you might have some things you really love or always do or “have to do,” but it’s also important to note when certain rituals or traditions need to change. It’s hard to keep everything, so it’s important to focus on the ones that most matter.

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Expat Parenting: Learning to Leave it All on the Stage…and Teaching our TCKs to do the Same

I recently had the sweetest of bedtime conversations with my 12 year old. He’s starting 7th grade and he was talking about his impressions of 7th grade as a scary time. This is probably a combination of urban legend, YouTube and bits and snippets of conversations he’s overheard from adults (myself included).

I don’t particularly remember 7th grade as stressful. Actually, I don’t really remember 7th grade all that well at all. Perhaps it was simply uneventful – the middle years of middle school, stuck between the exciting newness of 6th grade and the grown-up feeling of 8th.

As the conversation continued and I attempted to reassure him that every year is different and one kid’s worst year could always be the best for the kid down the hall, I was reminded of the especially unique position that we as expat parents and our children as TCKs have when it comes to school, friendships and life in general.

We’re fortunate in the gift of being able to leave it all on the stage (or the field, the court, or the pitch). Each moment becomes about what’s most real and most important right now.

If we choose to see it this way, leaving it all on the stage means we’re free to release ourselves from the burden of “should” and “need to.” We can learn to reflect, to get deep-down and personal with what type of parent we really want to be and, distanced from the pressures of one set cultural norm, start to try new things. We get bolder, more creative and more flexible.

When we parent from this place we go from rote performance, to more fully engaged. We more frequently do things because we want to and because they feel right, not because it’s what’s expected of us.

When we leave it all on the stage, it becomes easier to return to what’s most important for our own families because we recognize (and it’s easy for our children to see) that each group of people – whether it’s a family or a culture – does things differently from the other. From this perspective, doing things differently becomes the norm, whether it’s the amount of money spent on a birthday party or the age at which children get a smart phone.

The freedom we gain here is a weight lifted from our shoulders and it can bring a heightened sense of confidence when it comes to guiding our children into flexible, thoughtful and compassionate people.

The gift of leaving it all on the stage extends to our children as well.

This was a big part of my conversation with my son at bedtime. We’ve lived in Japan for three years and he and his siblings are starting their final school year here.

I reminded him that this is the year to make the friendships, try the sports, engage in the creative projects and set the challenges that he may have put off in the past. Sure, he could have done these things before, but the unique privilege of moving every few years is that – whatever doesn’t work out – serves solely as a learning experience.

For kids, leaving it all on the stage means the freedom to turn every potential awkward moment into a full embrace of their true selves – whether they want to start a 7th grade D&D club or switch to a new sport they worry they might not be good at. Something turns out not to be what you anticipated? Who cares! Next year it’s a clean slate – new home, new friends, new school.

I also reminded my son that it’s important to remember that sometimes things will hurt. You might feel embarrassed or regret a choice you make. Leaving it all on the stage is not about creating a myth that everything will work out fine, it’s about seeing that challenges are a normal part of our existence (no matter where we go) and that our lifestyle, in it’s extreme flexibility, offers the opportunity (and maybe even the anonymity) to recover faster when things don’t go your way.

Leaving it all on the stage is the ultimate embrace of the inherent ambiguity and unpredictability of life – a reality that expats face over and over again, every day.

If you don’t know where you’ll be tomorrow, what will you jump into today with the full force of your complete and wonderful self? What will you leave on the stage?

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Everyday Expats Video Series – Episode 3

This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about Expat Parenting. It’s an incredible gift for my husband and I to be raising our children between worlds. As a child and adolescent, I used to lie on the trampoline in my backyard in small-town Texas and dream of traveling to far off lands. On a clear day, my kids get a view of Mt. Fuji on their way to school. They’ve played with lemurs in their natural habitat, Caribbean beaches have been their default playscape. Their lives are so different from they way mine was. So much about raising kids is the same no matter where you go. At the same time, expat parents do a lot without the standard road map (or support) that less mobile families may have.

In this month’s interview, I talk with Rob Newman about what parenting as an expat means to him. I decided to ask Rob to join me this month because as an expat partner and parent of 6 (!) I’ve come to know him as someone who turns toward creativity and exploration in his parenting. Even through challenge, he adopts an air of openness and clarity of purpose with his kids. He has certainly been a role-model for me since my earliest days as overseas.

Read Rob’s responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch his Everyday Expats interview for our conversation along with his top 3 reminders for expat parents.

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. My Mom is from Bolivia so I grew up hearing a lot of Spanish and eating Bolivian food. My mom’s entire family immigrated to the United States, but she still managed to assimilate fairly quickly into American culture. The Bolivian cuisine we were exposed to was mostly prepared by my Aunt and Grandmother. My mom spoke Spanish with me before I started school, but switched to English when my Kindergarten teacher expressed concern about my language development. I mostly forgot Spanish and, as a result, understood very little during the dinner conversations at my grandmother’s house on Sunday nights.

My dad is from New York and never learned Spanish, so, despite my mom’s influence, I never really saw ours as an immigrant family. It wasn’t until after my sophomore year in college when I spent two years as a missionary in southern California working with Spanish speakers that I really started to identify with the Latino side of my cultural heritage.

Interestingly, since my wife joined the Foreign Service, we’ve had the chance to be posted in Latin America and Scandinavia, which is where my dad’s ancestors came from. Somehow these people who came from different parts of the world in many ways shape who I am today.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

I went to college in Baltimore. And then I met my wife, who is from Colorado. A year after we got married, we decided to move to Denver, both to be near her family and to be near the mountains. I was really excited and I wanted to move to the West, but I found the transition surprisingly difficult. This was my first real move away from the only home I had ever known. And it was incredibly stressful.

After living in Colorado for a few years, my wife started thinking about joining the Foreign Service. A few of her friends were diplomats and hearing their stories made her feel more and more like she wanted to work for the State Department. I liked the idea, but it seemed like a fantasy. I never really thought we would end up traveling the world. By that time, I had come to love Colorado and felt like there was still so much to explore there. Over the course of the application process, we often talked about and imagined moving abroad with our family, but in my mind it was still a dream. When the offer actually came, I was caught off guard and, frankly, shocked. In just two months, we sold our house and moved to Washington, D.C., knowing full well that we would be moving overseas within the year.

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

As much as I dread moving, I also love it. Change is exciting to me, although I know the temporary loss of routine is a also a source of great stress. My favorite part of living abroad has been discovering the history of the places in which we live. I love reading and going to museums. I find it fascinating to try to understand the present by learning about the past. I love to discover peoples’ routines, food, and pastimes. I feel like, no matter how far we travel or how different a place seems, there is a fundamental humanness that I recognize and to which I can connect.

What’s your least favorite part?

The worst part of this lifestyle is the disruption it causes to our family. We usually find out where will be moving next about a year before we depart, and, as hard as I try not to, I find myself pretty immediately starting to let go of our old home and getting ready for our new one. With a large family, the logistics are overwhelming. I start going to bed really late and waking up really early, making mental lists and scrambling to prioritize, organize, sort, or dispose of all our stuff.  The length of my mental “To Do” list makes it harder to focus on parenting and I often feel frustrated that things don’t get done as quickly as I had hoped. I struggle with anxiety. As I find myself so preoccupied with the practical aspects of moving, I am less patient and engaged with my kids, even though the stress they are experiencing means they need even more attention from me than normal. This cycle often leaves me feeling discouraged and inadequate. I’ve realized that most of my sense of identity and self-worth comes from my ability to be a good parent. I am also learning to be a little more forgiving of myself and to trust that the love I feel for my children will compensate for the mistakes I make along the way.

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I’ve learned that stuff is just stuff, and, honestly, is more of a burden than it’s worth.

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

I’m one of four children. The family I grew up in was very close, and I always knew I wanted to be a father. I also knew I wanted to have a large family of my own. I got married when I was 24, and we had our first baby a year and a half after our wedding. Since then, my priority has been my children.  We now have six kids ages 14, 11, 10, 7, 5, and 1. I’ve stayed home full-time with them since my wife joined the State Department ten years ago. When we only had small children, I gave up a lot of my personal desires and interests. But, as they have gotten older, I’ve been able to figure out how to incorporate my passions and interests into my relationship with my children.

With their wide age ranges, it is very difficult to engage all six kids in an activity at the same time, but it’s not impossible. It is important to be flexible and patient, and to have realistic expectations. When I first started hiking with my oldest child, I had to figure out how long he would sleep in the baby carrier and anticipate everything he might need along the way. It took me a while to figure out how to quickly thaw frozen breast milk in the middle of a hiking trail. Once he started walking, the challenge became moving forward. At that age, everything is interesting, and he couldn’t take more than a step or two without stopping to look at a rock or pick up a leaf. When our second child was born, it was back to the baby carrier while simultaneously trying to motivate a toddler whose curiosity distracted him at every step. With the next baby, the older ones were getting better about expressing their feelings and opinions.

With each child, I had to adjust my routine – and my expectations – and look for ways that we could do something together that everyone would enjoy. Fourteen years after the birth of our first child, it felt like an amazing opportunity and accomplishment this summer to hike with him to the top of Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise, above the Arctic Circle. If I hadn’t had the patience when he was young to make hiking fun for him, he might not have had any interest in climbing that mountain with me. If I had hiked by myself all those years, I might be a stronger hiker, but I would be hiking alone.

Two years ago, when we were living in Swaziland, I decided to take the kids hiking up a small mountain that had amazing views. I’d been considering doing it for a long time, but I didn’t think all of the kids would be able to reach the top. One day, on a whim, I suggested we try to hike that mountain. I made it very clear that I had no intention of reaching the top and that I mostly just wanted to enjoy the hike and the views. Surprisingly, the kids all agreed.

Since we had no expectation of reaching the top, we took our time and just enjoyed being there together. At about the halfway point, I realized that we had a good shot at actually reaching the top. When I mentioned the possibility to the kids, everyone got excited and wanted to go for it, except for one. I bribed him with ice cream and found him suddenly hiking at an unprecedented speed. He lead the pack until we reached the top. When I tried to imagine hiking to the top of the mountain with five kids (ages 2, 4, 6, 8, 11), it seemed impossible and I put it off. But when I decided on a smaller, more manageable hike, I was surprised and amazed by my children’s endurance and determination. Instead of worrying so much about reaching the top, we took our time and really enjoyed just being outside together, which ultimately made reaching the summit so much easier.

I love biking, camping, swimming, and rock climbing with my kids. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but I feel like the time we spend together and the experiences we have are an investment in my children. Parenting has taught me more than anything else how to love someone selflessly and unconditionally, which I think is ultimately our greatest source of joy.

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

Moving and living abroad will be stressful on a family.  I found these things helpful:

ONE

Children need more attention during and right after a move.  While it is impossible to give them one’s undivided attention, it is important to prioritize them, even if it means taking longer to get unpacked and settled. I think it’s important to prioritize children’s needs, even though it will take longer to take care of all the practical things.  Of course, you have to strike a balance; it’s hard to be at peace if you are living in a mess.  But I find it impossible to feel settled in a new environment if my kids aren’t settled first.

TWO

Saying goodbye to all of my friends does not make me feel super motivated to go and make new ones. In the beginning, my family members are the only friends I’ve got.  I think it’s important to guard against loneliness by doing things together.  I find that limiting screen time is helpful.  Although TVs and movies are cheap and effective babysitters, too much screen time makes my kids grumpy and more prone to fighting. It is not a substitute for human and family interaction.  Feeling a sense of connection and security with people you know is really important during transition.

THREE

Don’t be shy or too proud to accept help.  Expats bond quickly out of necessity, and the common experience of moving abroad makes them more empathetic and compassionate.  The people who offer help are usually very sincere about it because they’ve been in a similar position (and because, more often than not, someone helped them when they most needed it).  This system of paying it forward works pretty well, so don’t feel an obligation to somehow repay them for their kindness.  Rather, look for ways to help others once you are in a position to be able to.

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6 Essential Practices for Hard-to-Reach Stressors

This summer we’ve decided not to go home. We’re here, in Tokyo, living out our sweltering summer amidst the asphalt and kakigoori (also known as the best thing made from ice ever invented).

My mom’s here visiting. That’s super nice. Occasionally she comes to see us and get a taste of our life between worlds. I’ve been talking to her quite a bit about the stress of this lifestyle. It feels particularly acute because we’re here and not in Austin. I always feel like the only place in the world I’m supposed to be in the summer is Austin. It makes the universe feel a bit off kilter to be here and not there.

I realize in talking with her that it’s not the everyday stressors of expat life that most get to me (although, of course, there are many), but rather what I think of as background stressors. The deeper, more intimate questions of – Will all this work out in the end? What does our retirement look like if we’ve never had a home? Will our kids wish they’d stayed in one place? Where will we be living this time next year? What does it mean to be an American overseas during times like these?

When we think about stress-management and self-care – we often think about the everyday skills and habits that help us deal with the surface stressors of life. Going for a nice long run, getting a massage or calling a friend largely helps us handle that sort of stress.

But background stress is different because it can be hard-to-reach and difficult to figure out what’s actually going on. It lurks under and behind everything we do. It nags – like losing your keys or forgetting the name of that girl you used to know in middle school, the one who moved to Hawaii. Those stressors are there whether we notice them or not and they pile up. Background stressors can leave us feeling unexpectedly down, lost, irritable or just plan weird.

While having positive self-care habits like exercise, sufficient sleep and healthy eating definitely help ease the intensity of background stressors, I’ve found that these stressors also take a separate and distinct type of engagement.

To deal with the challenges that hit at our egos, our values and our sense of purpose – it’s important to develop habits of self-reflection and insight. Taking the time to look more closely at who we are and how we fit in the world can be difficult. Sometimes the effort can feel daunting. We may not be sure we’ll like what we find there. On the other hand, deep down most of us know it’s important to do this type of inner work so that we can grow and develop into our full selves.

One way to cultivate a more reflective state is to develop practices that naturally foster paying attention to our experiences. These skills can help us turn towards what’s going on inside and around us, giving us more information about the source of background stress.

This can include practices like:

Attending to Judgment – Learning to become aware of our judgments and assumptions.

Attending to Emotions – Asking ourselves what we’re feeling.

Attending to Physical Sensation – Paying attention to our body and asking what it may be trying to tell us.

Cultivating Stillness – Spending time in “not doing” to see what insights might come.

Engaging Ambiguity – Learning to become more comfortable with what we don’t or can’t know.

Aligning with Vision – Asking, “Who do I want to be in this situation?”

These practices (from the Personal Leadership model for intercultural communication) are great for those moments when you feel that nagging sense of uncertainty. Those times when you sense something’s not quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it or those times when you feel like you’re just floating along – neither completely engaged nor disengaged.

Sure, you’ll still go for a run, call a friend, write in your journal or enjoy a little “me time,” but for all the stress that just keeps on giving learning to turn your attention towards what’s going on, just might be the key.

To hear a bit more about these practices in detail, check out this blog post from my 7-Part Facebook Live video series – What Does It Take to Practice Mindfulness? To learn how you can apply these practices in your own life, consider joining the fall session of Finding Your Way: Everyday Mindfulness for Critical Moments.

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Everyday Expat Video Series – Episode 2

This month on Everyday Expats we’re talking about Stress-Management and Self-Care. I’m sure I’m not alone in having faced some major ups and downs while living between homes, countries and cultures. I’m thankful that with each passing year I learn more about what it means to take care of myself, to recognize when I need a break and to see what it takes to step back and reevaluate how I can best thrive in this unpredictable life. I know I’m not alone in this experience.

In this month’s interview, I talk with Bego Lozano about what stress management and self-care mean to her. I decided to ask Bego to join me this month because she is, like all of us, someone who has faced significant ups and downs, stressors, set-backs and amazing highs while living around the world. Even with all those challenges, I’ve come to know her as someone who always comes back to a focused, thoughtful approach to caring for herself. And, I’ve seen how well those skills have served her in managing stress. I’m so happy to have her here to share those reflections and tips with you all.

Read her responses to my Everyday Expats Questionnaire below and watch her Everyday Expats interview for our conversation and her tips for how to handle stress in your life, no matter where you go.

Everyday Expats Questionnaire

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? What currently occupies your time, mind and heart?

I grew up in Mexico City to Mexican parents with a big Spanish influence. Lived there all my life until I married. I have lived in Paris, Miami, Seattle, New York City, Mexico City, São Paulo, and now Burlingame, CA…and who knows where next? I’ve been happily married for almost 23 years and am a mother to two wonderful kids and a dog that responds to commands in three languages!

Currently my mind, head, and heart are occupied by tons of things. Our son is going off to college in the fall (to the Boston area), so there are many things to get ready – both physical and emotional. Our daughter will be a junior in high school. I’m busy planning my next professional reincarnation and thinking how to best manage and budget my time between family, volunteering, doing yoga, meditation, and now returning to running while doing business development and working.

When do you first remember realizing that you’d live an international life?

I’ve never really thought about this. Thinking back, I know when my now husband and I started dating we talked about wanting to live abroad for a while and when the opportunity came we immediately jumped for it. My Mom used to describe me as her “nomad daughter.” After a while of living in the US we decided to go back to Mexico City, so our kids would have a similar experience to the one we had growing up: family, friends, familiar places and routines. Probably the decision to move to Brazil was when we decided to intentionally live an international life and embrace it.

What is your absolute favorite part of living a globally mobile life?

How your mind and your heart grow. Meeting new people, trying new foods, listening to new music, reading new books, experiencing new rituals, immersing in a new culture and taking what you like and making it yours. My life is richer and deeper thanks to these experiences. A part of me is from all the places I have lived, and I like to think I left a part of me as well. Understanding we are all interconnected, and seeing the world is bigger than just my little vision and comfortable corner AND understanding that I have a responsibility to the world.

What’s your least favorite part?

It is two-fold: leaving friends behind and all the administrative things required when leaving and starting over. I read somewhere that friends are either for a season, for a reason, or for a lifetime. It is very hard when you think you have made lifetime friends and you know your worlds will probably not intersect again.

Doing all the administrative things gets to be tiring and repetitive, and it is honestly hard work. Before leaving: paperwork for the movers and insurance, closing out accounts, cancelling services. Upon arrival: inspection of whatever broke or got lost during the move, new medical insurance, setting up all the services, bank accounts.

What have you most learned about yourself because of this lifestyle?

I have learned quite a bit about myself. I never knew I was so strong in the face of adversity, and how resilient I am. While living in Brazil I had cancer (thyroid) and my son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune condition that can be properly managed, but for which there is no cure). I read somewhere that the hardest things to do in a different language is get a haircut and go to the doctor, and yes, I can attest this is the truth. I still have a tough time distinguishing in English between a dull and a sharp pain – it hurts, that is all I know! I have also learned that I truly enjoy this lifestyle of opportunities, building, trying, trying again, learning from others and from past mistakes

What do you consider to be your “everyday expat” super powers?

This is a hard one! (Impostor syndrome, right?) I think my everyday expert superpower has something to do with remembering to build support systems and be part of somebody’s support system. I see support systems as both internal and external. By internal I mean finding what brings you joy and doing it often, have “me” time, taking care of the basics: exercise, sleep, quiet time, eating well. Living far from family and people I grew up with, it is important to build a support system: people you can celebrate and cry with, people who will give you their honest feedback, people who will get your car from a parking lot when you have to catch an airplane (true story!).

I like to think about how the seemingly “everyday” choices we make in our expat lives are actually huge boosts for our mental health, physical wellbeing, ability to connect with others and sense of self in the world. The goal of this series is to bring these reminders to life. For this month’s theme, what 3 tips, suggestions or insights would you like to offer the World Tree Coaching community?

My 3 stress-management and self-care tips are:

ONE

Reach out and build a support system, ideally before moving. Don’t be shy about contacting the friend of a friend. You will get insight that only locals have -they did the legwork, take advantage of it. And keep tapping into it when you run into issues or unknowns – there is someone that has gone through what you are facing.

TWO

Remember to prioritize yourself and build your internal support system: if you do yoga, find a studio, if you like running, find a trail, sleep well, eat healthy, have quiet time.

THREE

If you don’t do anything for yourself or by yourself, find something. Try different things until you find what sparks joy for you: take a class, get a massage, meditate…figure out something for you and only for you. (Which in turn will benefit those around you).

And sneaking in a number FOUR

Be self-compassionate. Living an expat life can be hard: acknowledge what you feel, be kind to yourself, and remember you are not alone. This is all part of being human.

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