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.

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.

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.

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!

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?

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?

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.

The Home That Lives Inside Us

I grew up in Central Texas. Every time I go home for the summer, there is a point at which the heat hits me.

I step out on to the back patio at my mom’s house and feel it burn under my feet. I open the car door and feel the steamy escape of 100+ temperatures even before I sit down and turn the air-conditioning up full blast. My poor, sad cup of Blue Bell melts all around the edges so the chocolate just kinda’ floats in the frothy soup of sea-green mint.

You’d think I’d hate it, but I don’t. In fact, I adore it. Sometimes I get a knot in my throat and I tear up with I think about the way the sun feels on my skin in August. That heat is full of a million tiny memories from a lifetime both in and out of the Hill Country. It’s the heat that calls to me – Welcome Home.

It’s not a given that every person who goes “home” for the summer (or winter) really wants to be there. There are people for whom the trip is fraught with anxiety, stress, conflict and discomfort. Maybe you have a place to stay or maybe you don’t. Maybe your friends and family welcome you with loving and open arms, but maybe you don’t even have anyone back there anymore. Maybe the unhappy memories are too numerous to count and the joyful past too fleeting to even bother to see. It’s not the same for all of us. I get that.

And yet, what we don’t get to escape is the fact that all the places we’ve lived take up residence inside of us. The storage of our memories, traumas, joyful occasions and traditions may be place-specific, but they become layers of what makes us, Us no matter where we go. Like…we’re the home and all that stuff is collecting there inside us.

And this is where it gets complicated. Even if we want to, there’s really no way to ignore all the baggage, the junk, the odds and ins, old snapshots and keepsakes piling up there because we carry it with us.

The challenge we face is figuring out how we sort through all of these experiences, memories and pieces of information so that we can begin to create a coherent sense of home.

Why do that?

Because it’s like a rarely entered attic, whether you tend to it or not the stuff is there whether you tend to it or not. Right now it’s probably just weighing you down. Paying attention to it now lets you see what you treasure as a piece of your home identity, what you can learn from but never want to repeat again and what you can simply let go.

Where do we begin?

Doing this takes learning to pay attention. We can do things like…

  • Noticing what emotions come up for us in a given situation
  • Paying attention to the physical sensations we experience when we engage in certain activities or traditions.
  • Tuning in to see which relationships we approach with joy and which ones we anticipate with dread.
  • Making a mental catalogue of the sites, sounds, smells and sensations that accompany certain places. What puts a smile on our faces? What brings tears to our eyes?
  • Asking lots of questions about what we notice in making these observations. We can get curious and engaged with who we are in the place we call home. We can approach each moment from a state of “This is interesting…” and ask “Hmmm, what’s here?”

I realize this might seem totally overwhelming from the place of kids and suitcases and parents and flights and all the many, many annoying or joyful things that go into a trip back home. But here’s the thing – this is part of our life’s work. It’s part of creating who we are so that we’re better for ourselves and for those around us. And it will feel good to grow in this way…I promise.

Are you ready for more support in finding a sense of home no matter where you go?

Join my mailing list, enroll in one of my online courses in mindfulness for expats or schedule a 30-minute, free, no-obligation conversation to learn more about coaching.

Relocation Season

It’s May and that means a lot of things for those of us living between cultures.

If you have children, their school year is likely coming to an end.

If you’re an expat you may be planning travel or planning on staying put in your host country…both of which come with their unique challenges.

Or, perhaps you’re relocating. You may find yourself in that weird space of not yet leaving, but not quite still here either.

You may be (once again!) asking why you’ve chosen a globally mobile life. Perhaps you’re even wondering if you actually chose it. You might be feeling a little dragged along. You’re likely also reminding yourself of all the fabulous reasons you’ve chosen to do this.

It’s yo-yo mind and yo-yo heart.

This time of year is always a time in which I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to keep moving from place to place. For many years it felt like we moved almost as soon as we arrived in a new country. We would take six months to get settled, be comfortable for a year and then immediately move towards repacking and planning for our next assignment.

We’re fortunate to now be coming up on three years in Japan. We had one small move after the first year, but fifteen miles from Yokohama to Tokyo hardly felt like anything. Even the fact that the kids changed schools seemed less critical since they were able to visit their new school ahead of time and our middle son had even played a few soccer tournaments there.

Right now we’re at the place of being “stayers,” but we also have lots of stayer friends. Next year we’ll be leavers again. And so it goes, the cycle of expat life. Something comes up, we see it. Something comes up again and we’re right back where we left off. Learning to be wherever we are…while also learning to move through is part of the process.

So, no matter where you are in your international adventure, be sure to check out the tips and ideas I offer in the articles below (recently published on InDependent and I Am a Triangle) – they provide some really important reminders for maintaining balance during relocation season and beyond.

I often find an uptick in individuals seeking out coaching during this time period. Transition is a surprisingly good time to have a coach – the touchstone of someone to keep you focused on your priorities is important when you’re going through change. If that’s you and you’re ready for some gentle, but unfailing support, a space for thoughtful reflection, an opportunity to sort through what is most important to you and someone to hold you accountable to your goals – I’d be honored to work with you. Click here to learn more about how we can work together.

Five Ways Mindfulness Helps Me Find Home

It’s no secret that I’ve found a daily mindfulness practice to be a key ingredient in my ability to manage the ups and downs of our international life.

Despite common misunderstandings about mindfulness practice, it’s really not all that complicated. Mindfulness is quite simply the practice of paying attention and seeing clearly what’s happening while it’s happening.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that, in the unpredictability of expat life where pretty much everything can feel strange and unfamiliar, becoming more mindful can help us navigate our experiences with increased ease and resilience.

Here are just a few of the ways that’s played out for me.

Mindfulness allows me to practice feeling homesick…and also not homesick.

I make a point of reminding the people in both my personal and professional life that there are no “good” and “bad” emotions. Emotions are neither positive nor negative. Sure – some feel better than others, but ultimately, everything we feel comes from somewhere and serves a purpose in helping us navigate our experiences.

Mindfulness practice enables us to pay attention to what we’re feeling without trying to:

  • change it (what we often try to do when we’re feeling emotions we don’t like),
  • chase it (what we like to do when an emotion feels good) or
  • judge it (what we do when we feel our emotions don’t align with how we’re “supposed” to feel).

When it comes to living life around the world, practicing mindfulness by developing a more reflective and compassionate relationship with our emotions can support us in learning how to deal with whatever comes our way.

Mindfulness helps me see home as a state of being created in my own mind.

Another key element of mindfulness practice, is learning to see things as they really are, not simply as we want them to be. Mindfulness inspires us to ask questions about what we’re witnessing and examine what we find there. While this isn’t always easy, being able to tune in to life as it truly is is a huge benefit of mindfulness practice.

What does this mean practically speaking?

Imagine I’m telling myself, “I hate it here! I’m never going to fit in. There are no work opportunities. This is a disaster!” Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate our ability to feel lost or overwhelmed, but it does enable us to stop and examine our perceptions. I can then start to ask questions like:

  • How much of this is really true and how much of this is a story I’m telling myself?
  • Is there anything that is working right now?
  • What can I learn here?
  • Are there things that I don’t hate?
  • What previously unnoticed options do I have in this situation?

Now, that doesn’t mean you suddenly start loving a place that just isn’t working for you, but it does help you get more creative, offering you the opportunity to make decisions based on a clearer, more thoughtful way of seeing.

Mindfulness reminds me to notice the details.

One of my most treasured benefits of maintaining a daily mindfulness practice is the way in which it has deepened my ability to pay attention to the “small” things.

When we move from place to place, it’s so easy to think that we should be unfazed. It becomes common, I think, to feel that we’re able to adapt at a moments notice and that our unbelievable flexibility means we can make these shifts with little or no disruption to our body or our mental state.

When we develop basic, everyday mindfulness skills, we engage the practice of slowing down and seeing the little bumps in the road. Sometimes small disruptions – the noise outside your new apartment that causes you to sleep poorly, the times you spend hungry because you’ve yet to stock your pantry, the frustration of slow internet connection that means your calls to your best friend are mess of static, feedback and silence – can actually have a huge impact.

When we take a moment to be still and really pay attention, we may notice the physical sensations, the emotions, or the discomfort of uncertainty that live in that space. We learn from seeing those places of unease and becoming mindful of them enables us to make much-needed adjustments.

Mindfulness encourages me to practice ritual.

Before we started our international life, I wasn’t really someone who stuck to a routine. Sure, I attempted to create positive habits (going for a run, reading before bed, etc.), but I never felt much pressure to really keep up with them.

Moving from place to place has made my healthy habits all the more important and my mindfulness practice supports me in staying awake to their significance in my life.

Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation inspire me to establish rituals and routines because the habits themselves (whether seated meditation or simply performing tasks with attention and care) foster dedication. In other words – by committing myself to being more mindful in my choices, actions, observations and interactions, I’m laying the foundation for commitment to other positive health habits as well.

Morning meditation, a daily jog, cooking healthy meals, taking frequent work breaks throughout the day and reading before bed are habits that I rely on during transition to create a sense of inner balance during upheaval. Additionally, when I notice these habits slipping, it’s my commitment to everyday mindfulness practice that helps me return to these supportive rituals.

Mindfulness supports me in building relationships.

A great deal of mindfulness practice is about developing an awareness of our inner dialogue – our thoughts, emotions, and judgments. However, it’s important in mindfulness practice to recognize the way in which our relationship with ourselves (and this internal dialogue) relates to how we connect with others.

Mindfulness helps me to take time with people. It supports me in active listening so that I can better understand how the moving experience affects my husband and children. It enables me to slow down and see better the ways in which those around me may be suffering or the ways in which they’re brought to life by something new in our world.

Moving is almost always a time of great stress. It’s a time when our tempers are short and we’re more likely to lash out at those around us. Mindfulness doesn’t always prevent that from happening (we’re all human after all!), but it can give us the skills to turn back to generosity and kindness when we realize we’ve behaved poorly towards others.

And, mindfulness helps us make friends. Research says that our ability to understand our own emotional experiences makes us better at understanding the experiences of others. That, in turn, makes us better friends – and that goes for the friends we’ve left behind and those we’ll make in our new home.

What about you?

Do you have an informal mindfulness, meditation, or spiritual practice or other ritual that supports you in practical ways as you move? If not, what would it take for you to start something like this?

Share with me in the comments what’s worked for you or what’s sparked your interest in reading this post. Click here to learn more about how I can help you bring these skills into your own life.