How Paying Better Attention Can Create a More Fulfilling Expat Experience

We’re all watching the world go by. We absentmindedly read the news, scroll through Facebook, eat lunch with one eye on our laptops and drive home without even remembering how we got there.

To be fair, it’s a little bit harder to become fully zoned out when you’re living outside of your home culture. Not paying attention could land you eating some bizarre, new food or telling the cashier, “I don’t need a bath,” instead of “I don’t need a bag” (true story). So naturally expats tend to be a bit more observant.

But, no matter where we are, we get into habits in our daily routines. We take our feelings, our thoughts and our actions for granted. Much of the time we don’t even notice that the strain in our neck came after the disagreement with our spouse or that the third cup of coffee fuels the sloppy emails or late night media binge.

I believe there’s an additional layer to this for people who are living away from home. Our thoughts, feelings and actions are complicated by the unpredictable and unusual way in which we live. There are more distractions…and simultaneously more ways in which to pay attention.

Often, people who thrive in this lifestyle do so by learning to pay better attention and by adopting a level of intentionality in their daily lives despite all of the spinning around them.

When I talk with people about this, no one ever disagrees. Yes, of course, we should pay attention to what we’re feeling and thinking. But, how? Should I journal? Talk with a friend? What about going for long walks…listening to woodwind instruments over the sounds of the sea…drinking one less gin and tonic?

Sure. But really, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

There are surprisingly easy ways to adopt a higher degree of intentionality in the things we do. And, contrary to what you might think, it can start in small and specific ways at any point in the day.

When we’re able to pick a couple of things to do on purpose, we’re strengthening the part of our brain that pays attention. At first we simply pay attention to a couple of seemingly innocuous events, but before we know it, that heightened sense of awareness has come to support us in noticing the more significant ups and downs of our daily experience.

But pay attention to what?

I like to say, “Think of yourself as a scientist.”

In that vein, paying attention can be anything from really noticing the sensations of washing your hands to making a head-to-toe scan of your body when you sit down at your desk each day. It can include actually observing yourself making your coffee or sitting on the train, noticing the world around you (not reading your phone).

Brainstorming a list of ideas is a great way to start. And there’s nothing that says you have to choose everything you write down. Maybe just one to start and then add two or three as the weeks progress.

What you’ll notice is that the noticing, instead of the brushing-aside, becomes the habit. The paying attention starts to feel normal. It’s an exceptional way to tune in to your daily experience. And that, in turn, creates greater insight and can improve decision-making and relationship building.

None of this happens over night. It’s like doing push-ups. You get stronger and more skilled, little by little, until (before you know it) you’re aware of things you never noticed before.

If you’re stuck – this exercise might give you some insight into how to try out paying attention.

I also love this TED talk about developing habits. I watched it as part of a Personal Leadership program I’m participating in. While he’s not exactly talking about paying attention, the presenter’s ideas for micro-practice could help you establish a regular routine for paying attention.

And, if you want to get a better sense of how to observe your thought and emotional patterns, check out this activity from my book, The Expat Activity Book, here.

How Saying No to Gifts Helped Us Find Our Favorite Ones

christmas-gift

My husband and I don’t exchange Christmas gifts anymore. Actually, we haven’t for years. It was a gradual process that has turned out to be one of my favorite details of our holiday celebrations. The process was accidental at first, but the reasons for our decision are rooted in our desire to live more from our personal values and not from outside expectations.

Of course, like anyone, we have moments where we struggle to find the balance between our values and the demands of a hectic international lifestyle, but this no-gifts philosophy has been a real success story for us. Here’s why.

I come from a gift-giving family. My husband does not. I enjoyed the process of finding the perfect opportunity to share something special. My husband approached it with dread and shame. He never felt like he’d live up to what I’d chosen for him. It was stressful. Something about that seemed really wrong. A gift shouldn’t make you feel bad. So we started to make gifts more simple. Nothing fancy. Maybe a just a book. Socks are fine.

Then, when our children were born their excitement at opening a special gift seemed like a gift to us. Nothing either of us could receive would measure up to the delight of seeing what Santa had placed beneath the tree. We started to get forgetful about our own and we realized it didn’t necessarily matter.

And so the gifts started to fade. They seemed less like a priority. We moved to just filling our stockings. That’s funny too because we realized – we take good care of our needs. We don’t need each other to buy our socks, or underwear, or Chapstick or purse-sized packets of tissue. That’s a lot of effort to fill your sock with stuff you can throw in the Amazon cart when you have a few minutes at work. Why are we doing this again?

About six years ago we started hosting Christmas Eve for our friends and their children. That was always fun. It enhanced the feeling that the real party wasn’t in the presents, but in the company.

Then one Christmas season, 4 years ago, it all seemed to click – we decided to throw a huge Christmas Eve potluck for our friends and neighbors. There were around 80 people and we immersed ourselves joyfully in the planning. The love we felt in setting the stage for a memorable evening for a group of diverse people from all over the world spending Christmas at a remote corner of the globe superseded any gift we could have cobbled together.

That gift – the gift of sharing together in welcoming friends – is now the most special gift that we offer each other.

Habit and tradition are hard to overcome. This is where people often have their values challenged – at the intersection between doing what feels right for us and what we’re told we should do. However, if we pay attention and tune in mindfully to our intentions during the holiday season, we may see a whole new way to celebrate.

The holiday season – whether Thanksgiving, Christmas or the New Year – is a natural time for self-reflection. This year, how will you turn away from the shoulds and must-dos (even if they’re part of tradition) and live more from your values? What do you think you might be willing to give up, if it meant you’d find just a little more happiness or peace under the tree?

Life, Money and Globetrotting: Episode 5 – Celebrating Failure

Oh my! We are already five episodes in to our Life, Money and Globetrotting Series! It has been so fun to have these discussions with Hui-chin. One of the things I keep finding is that even though she and I come from different professional backgrounds, we have very similar views on how to address common expat challenges. In that sense, Episode 5 – Celebrating Failure, really embodied the interconnectedness of all aspects of the expat experience.

So…FAILURE! That’s a big one, no? Who really wants to talk about failure? We do! We do! The truth is, both Hui-chin and I believe that failure is really just a stage in the learning process. The biggest challenge we face is not learning how to avoid failure, but rather learning how to grow from it and adjust our choices for the next time.

I think you’re going to love this episode! Watch it here.

Our Life, Money and Globetrotting conversations are part of a monthly series. You can follow me on Facebook or Twitter to get updates about upcoming episodes. And be sure to check out Hui-chin’s blog Moneymatters for Globetrotters or follow her on Twitter. You can also subscribe to Hui-chin’s YouTube Channel to get regular updates about upcoming episodes.

Thanks for joining us! Our September episode will be live on September 20 at 10AM Tokyo time (GMT +9) and 9PM EST (Monday, Sept. 19). We’re still deciding on our topic for Episode 6 so please stay-tuned (by connecting with us at one of the places above). We’ve also changed platforms (bye-bye Blab) and are now live streaming our episodes on YouTube through Google Hangouts. Subscribe to Hui-chin’s YouTube Channel above for easy access to past episodes. Thanks for listening!

Decision Making – More Than Point A to Point B

decisions

One of the major topics of my coaching conversations with clients is on the topic of decisions. Should we stay? Should we go? Should I go back to work? Should I find a new career? Should I visit my family every summer? Should we move home and stay?

I’ve been thinking recently about how strict and definitive these conversations can often feel. It’s as if there is Point A (pre-decision) and Point B (post-decision). Point A is stressful, complicated and fraught with worry over making the “wrong” choice. Point B is supposed to bring relief, confidence and a new-found sense of balance.

However, one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that my clients who feel the most confident in their decisions are not the ones who simply make a decision and go with it (although, of course, that matters). My clients who feel the most grounded in their decisions, make their decisions over and over and over again.

That is to say, they prepare for the fact that their decisions may be challenged sometimes. Those challenges can come in the form of criticism from others, but they also come from changes in situation, new information and moments of unexpected clarity or doubt.

I think this is an important point that is often missed in the decision making process. We forget that decision-making is much like learning. As professionals, we don’t get to obtain a degree and call it a day. As parents, we don’t learn to change a diaper and call our work finished. As expats, we don’t move once and figure we’ve learned all the skills we need to do it again. We keep learning.

It’s the same with decision-making. In my experience, the best decision-makers make a decision and then are open to examining the challenges that may arise after they’ve made their choice. They recognize that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will abandon the decision they’ve made – it just means that they’re prepared to adapt when needed. A learning-centered model of decision-making ultimately provides more freedom and flexibility.

What I like most about this insight is that it takes the pressure off of us to make the “right” decision. It puts us in the position to say, “I’ve made the best decision right now with the information I have available.” It’s more forgiving when things don’t go the way we’ve hoped and it enables us to stand back and think again when we need to.

Do you have a decision you’re grappling over right now? How will you decide? And then, when tomorrow comes, how will you decide again?

To learn more about how I support clients with decision-making, check out my coaching programs here.

Life, Money and Globetrotting Episode 1: Life Coaching vs. Financial Planning

Expat spouse, financial planner and blogger Hui-chin Chen and I have been having some fabulous conversations over the past two years. We have enjoyed getting to know each others’ perspectives on the ups and downs of international living and how our unique professional positions enable us to support expats in a variety of situations.

Have you ever considered pursuing life coaching? Financial planning? Are you curious about how the two compliment each other? Have you ever asked yourself, “What does a life coach do exactly!?” (Come on, I know you have!) When you look at your bank account, do you think, “I could really use some help here.”? This short 30-minute conversation will give you some answers to these questions.

We talk about financial planning and life coaching in general, the specifics of that type of support in relation to the expat experience, and our own individual perspectives on what we offer our clients.

This is the first of what we plan to be a monthly series. You can follow me on Facebook or Twitter to get updates about the next episode (scheduled for May 19th). And be sure to check out Hui-chin’s blog Moneymatters for Globetrotters here or follow her on Twitter here.

Stopping – The Hidden Secret To Going Forward

stop

People often decide to work with a coach because they feel stuck. In fact, I’d say it’s the number one reason that people seek out my services.

For many of my clients, the natural response to this is to move, to make a change – any change – that can get them headed in the perceived right direction. Somewhere out there is a direction that just feels right, if they can just do enough of something…anything…they’ll feel better and the stars will once again align.

And here’s where I briefly become the worst enemy of the doers (and trust me, I know this because I’m naturally inclined as a big time doer myself). I suggest they stop doing! I suggest that maybe they put away the decision making process for a little while. Perhaps they walk away for a bit, imagine a decision doesn’t need to be made or simply maintain the status quo for a bit longer.

While this might seem like utter nonsense and completely antithetical to coaching (where you often hear or assume the goal is a big fat kick in the pants to take action) – it’s not. In fact, supporting my clients in taking moments to not do has become one of the ways in which I can rest assured that the changes my clients make are heartfelt, sustainable and true to their sense of values and integrity.

Here’s why…

The Sea of Voices

We spend a great deal of our physical, emotional and intellectual space surrounded by the thoughts and opinions of others. This is no big mystery – think about Facebook, the Huffington Post and Yahoo News. Think this! Do this! Take action now! We drown in this information. In ways both big and small this happens to us every day with our own decision-making. As a result, our own opinions about where to go next are drowned out by the perceptions of others.

When we slow down, we take time to recognize which voice is ours and which voices are those of our friends, our colleagues and our family members. We enable our voice to get a bit clearer and we become better prepared to filter judgment, criticism, self-interest and peer pressure.

Our Thought and Emotional Patterns

We often pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task and the truth is for many of us a certain level of multi-tasking is just a fact of life. If I weren’t able to cook dinner and also supervise my children’s homework then we would either eat very late or the homework would get done way past bedtime. It’s just a fact of modern life.

But too much multi-tasking puts our thoughts and emotional patterns on autopilot and that can be a major squasher (yep, toddler word) of effective and clear-minded decision-making. If we don’t take time to observe and develop a deeper understanding of the ways we think and the emotions we feel, then any changes we make are from the same places that got us where we are in the first place.

Simply boxing up fear, anxiety and worry doesn’t make those emotions disappear; it makes them come up in unexpected ways later. And pretending we don’t have negative thoughts about our skill level or believe others are judging our decisions doesn’t eliminate these thought patterns. We still make changes based on these thoughts – we just fail to recognize we’re doing so.

When we stop and take time to cultivate a better awareness of our thoughts and emotional habits, we better understand the forces that drive our decision-making and can adjust accordingly when we finally do decide to make a shift. (More on that here.)

Small Decisions that Hide the Big Ones

Small changes feel good. A new sofa. A new bike. A new coffee shop. A new television program. These little shifts can bring new life to the feeling that what we’re doing everyday just doesn’t feel right.

However, when we get to a place where we’re passionately searching for something new, these little changes can sometimes mask the bigger changes that we need to be making. It’s as if we’re throwing every possible tool at that broken lawn mower when the truth is it’s really just time to buy a new one.

When we refrain from the cycle of change-making – even for just a week or two – we can find that our minds and hearts are drawn to examine the larger, more significant changes that have been hidden under layers of fear.

Baby Steps Count

Our decision making processes sometimes benefit from a sink or swim approach. Take the leap. Go for it. Deal with the consequences later. Sometimes, but not always.

There is a whole lot to be said for taking baby steps and giving yourself time to practice and try out small answers on the path to the big decision.

And the truth is, you can’t do this if you’re always moving liking a bull in a china shop. Loud, clumsy and unobservant actions sometimes get you loud, clumsy and unobservant results that in a few months or a year will put you right back where you started.

So every once in a while, look at the big picture and say – what’s one simple thing I could do to get a tiny bit closer? What will that feel like? What will I learn? You’d be surprised the answers that can come from taking a more slow and gentle approach to the way you change. (More on that here.)

So with 2015 marching towards an end and 2016 set to be your year to do something different, make a change or (yes!) get unstuck – how will you change differently? How will you stop so you can move forward better than you ever have before?

The Upside of Detours

Don't forget the detours.

The first thing my daughter said when she woke up this morning was, “Momma, will you take me to school on your bike this morning?” I so wanted to…but I also didn’t. I could see all of these excuses in front of me – I don’t really know the bike route to her school, the bike is new and I don’t yet have a patch kit and supplies, I don’t have a good place to store a water bottle, I had a client session scheduled for 10:00 AM.

I told her I would think about it. That’s all it took. She was so enthusiastic – looking at the bike, telling me it looked sturdy and ready to go, getting dressed and following all of my instructions to make sure she was ready on time. “Please Mommy,” she kept saying.

Between dishes and lunches and beds and backpacks, I was able to sneak a peak at the trail map. It looked pretty doable. I figured at any rate, if I got lost I’d just get up on the road. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if she were late to preschool. We probably weren’t going to have a flat or an accident. The ride’s only an hour round trip, I couldn’t get that thirsty. I’d definitely be back by 10:00.

I found myself saying yes.

Normally, I’m a big believer in saying no to the things that you’re not super enthusiastic about doing. But, this is one of those cases where I had the exact opposite feeling. In my heart, I wanted to take her, to spend time with her, to get in a great workout, to be out in nature, to try something new…. it was just different than what I had planned on for the morning. As I went through my mental list of excuses, I realized that all of them were really excuses based on the fact that I’d already planned my morning and a bike ride wasn’t initially part of that plan.

While I was getting dressed, I took myself through my mental list of excuses and realized that none of them really prevented me from taking her to school on my bike. The only thing stopping me from having a pleasant morning with my daughter was me and my silly plan.

To be honest, changing the plan made me a little anxious. We’re at that place where we’re starting to transition. I don’t feel over-scheduled, but I do feel fully scheduled…if not logistically, at least mentally. It’s that time where you feel like any small shift in the plan could set the whole thing tumbling on the floor like an unstable pyramid of oranges in the produce section.

And yet, we took the bike. And it was awesome. We got a little lost at one point – that’s what maps are for. It was hot and steamy, but it didn’t rain – it was a good workout. After dropping her off, I skidded on a rocky incline, fell and scraped up my knee – it actually feels kinda’ nice… like being a kid again.

I needed this reminder today. I love our life, but the packing and moving never get easier. I’ve gotten better at managing the moves, at knowing where the ups and downs will be and at staying true to myself in the midst of transition – but it remains challenging. Today was the day that I was reminded that one fool-proof way to live through it is to say yes here and there to the detours and when you find yourself on one, you might as well go ahead and have fun.

Just The Way You Are

Add a little bit of body text

They should have boxes of tissues in the greeting card aisle at Target, shouldn’t they? Actually, come to think of it, women’s magazines should come with little tiny tissue packs attached to the articles about baby’s surviving remarkable odds…or long-lost twins being reunited…or mothers who gave up careers to watch Sesame Street and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and clean Goldfish crackers out of couch cushions.

And since we’re (mostly) expats here – let’s include free mini-packs of Kleenex for those moments when you feel compelled to flip through photo albums from your last home…or the one before…or the one before that.

Am I alone here? Okay…maybe so. I am a complete and total crybaby when it comes to this sort of thing. Tell me a story of how your kid made you the cutest Valentine’s Day card ever and you’ll see the first hints of glistening in my eye. It’s not allergies. Don’t kid yourself. I’m unequivocally moved to tears.

But would you believe for years I gulped back tears because I was worried I’d look weak or – let’s face it – crazy. I used to love to get in my car or take a shower and crank up my favorite songs that made me cry. I loved the privacy of that. No one would ever know that I (GASP!) had feelings. Feelings like empathy and sentiment and what appears to be a pretty strong ability to put myself in another woman’s shoes.

Little by little over the past couple of years I’ve decided to shed the burden of trying to look invincible. What I’ve found is that the part of me that gets choked up about things like greeting cards and television shows is the same part of me that makes me a good friend and a good coach. But, even more important than that, is the fact that letting that sloppy, sniffly part of myself show also makes me – Me. I am that person who cries at the things that other people find overly sentimental.

And what about you?

As a coach, I love supporting my clients in the process of taking off the mask and living more authentically – messiness and all.

Sometimes just spending some time writing or thinking about these parts of ourselves can give us a whole new perspective on the complicated nature of our personalities. And it can be a great way to move towards living more authentically.

Not sure where to start?

Check out these 10 Questions for Nurturing Your Authentic Self:

  1. Is there a part of yourself that you’re hiding?
  1. What little burden are you carrying around for fear of looking silly, weak, petty or unlikeable?
  1. If that part of you were gone tomorrow, would you miss it?
  1. Who already knows this part of you and loves you anyway?
  1. What would happen if you told someone you love about this part of yourself?
  1. What would change about your relationships with others if you trusted that they’d accept this part of you?
  1. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you let this part of yourself show at work, at home or at school?
  1. What would it look like to both accept this part of yourself and recognize that maybe it’s something worth changing or doing some work around?
  1. How would you respond if the person you loved the most also had this characteristic?
  1. In what soul-nourishing ways would your life get better if you decided this part of yourself isn’t all that bad?

“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” Amy Bloom

 

 

Making the Most of Worry

Worried-

As we come up on the one-year anniversary of my son’s Type I Diabetes diagnosis, I am thinking a lot about worry. When we moved to Madagascar with our children ages 6, 4 and 2 months I was really worried about the lack of health care. It seemed like a silly worry though. Actually, it didn’t seem silly to me at the time, but I kind of knew it was ridiculous to worry about it. My mantra for unpredictable health issues was, “Could happen. Probably won’t.” Now, while that’s technically still true with any health-related worry, for obvious reasons I’m finding it less reliable than I once did. I mean, what could happen did indeed happen!

In this last year, I haven’t completely abandoned “Could happen. Probably won’t,” but I do find I’m moving towards something a bit more solution-focused. And that’s got me thinking – have you ever noticed how sometimes worry can lead you to be more productive and at other times it can leave you feeling completely paralyzed?

In my own vast experience with worry, I’ve come to find that productive worries are usually ones that are based on true and immediate facts. For example, I feel worried that my kids won’t be ready to start at a new school, but the reason is that I’ve done absolutely no work on their applications. In these cases, I usually get my list out and get down to business. The worry subsides.

But paralyzing worries are usually based on uncertainty, unpredictability or what I like to call “disaster thinking.” It’s the kind of worry that goes from a Point A like “My 2 year-old has hives,” to a Point B like “My 2 year-old has developed some strange nervous condition that will result in her hospitalization, my husband’s reassignment and our family’s confinement to Washington, DC…FOREVER.”

So I’ve been trying out a new little worry-test for myself. I’m no expert yet (and trust me, I’ll tell you when I’ve abandoned all worry), but I’m finding it works pretty well. I’m calling it FACT OR INVENTION.

Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you’re faced with a worry. Like this one (keeping with the Type I Diabetes theme from above), “Sam had a really active soccer day today. His blood sugar might go low over night. I should probably test him again before I go to bed. But I don’t want to test him too much. What if one day he’s angry about having Type I? What if he goes years without testing his blood sugar? What if he goes blind? What if he blames me for dragging him around the world and has no permanent home and no one to care for him…when he’s blind?”

Here’s what happens when I use the FACT or INVENTION test on this scenario.

First I ask,

What are the facts here?

  • Super-active day playing soccer
  • Lots of activity increases his chances of having low blood sugar overnight

Then I ask myself,

What am I inventing? What unnecessary burden am I creating for myself here?

  • What if some day he’s angry?
  • What if he stops testing his sugar?
  • What if he goes blind?
  • Then the big snowball – What if he hates being a TCK and that all culminates in a big TCK/Type I Diabetes Nightmare!!

See the difference? One worry is based on real and immediate facts, has a solution (an extra blood sugar test) and therefore has the potential to release me from worry. The other is based on the fear of some daunting, uncertain future, has no immediate solution and traps me in a mental tape of disaster thinking.

By asking these questions I take a step back, sort it all out and come up with the stuff that’s solvable based on fact and the stuff that is cluttering up my tenuous sense of calm and increasing my stress levels.

And get this! I’m not going to tell you to stop worrying. Sure, there are things you can do to keep worry from running amok, but a certain amount of worry is just part of being human. But – I do want to invite you to focus on what you gain by putting this FACT or INVENTION question to work for you.

Identifying the practical, fact-based worries helps you focus on solutions. Make a list, take some action, put that doubt behind you by doing what needs to be done.

But what about those pesky unproductive worries? While it’s true that unproductive worries can be paralyzing, we still learn from them. They serve as powerful reminders to reach a little deeper into our survival tool kits and rely on those things that keep us steady (a nice long run, a good book, a quiet night in, a Skype session with a friend).

And the big take-away from all of this is that as life continues to be unpredictable and worry stays a part of the normal human experience, you can focus in on what you’re telling yourself about how you face what’s in front of you, make decisions about where to go with what you learn and reapply the insight you gain again and again.

 Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. Corrie ten Boom

Expat Life with a Double Buggy