‘Expat shame’: Getting over unrealistic expectations when settled abroad

  • Gabriela Encina
Published on 2020-09-01 at 14:27 by Anne-Lise Mty
When you tell your friends and family that you're leaving everything behind to pursue your dream job abroad, they expect nothing less from you than success. And the truth is, you do too. But what happens when things do not quite go your way? Psychologist and expat counsellor, Gabriela Encina talks to Expat.com about Expat Shame.

What is expat shame?

Shame is an emotion that comes from fear and mixes with guilt.  It has to do with a negative image of ourselves and something we did or felt that we think was wrong. It triggers stress, anxiety, and the urge to hide or flee.  It is also associated with powerlessness and low self-esteem.

I think the analogy of "wanting to curl up in a ball under the covers and never come out" is pretty accurate in describing how we feel when we experience shame.

Expat shame It's a phenomenon I've identified throughout all these years working with expats:  the big difference with "normal" shame is that "expat shame" has an additional stigma.  Living the dream of an expat life, where everything should be shiny, adventurous, and exciting, when experiencing feelings that do not fit in this image, like envy, jealousy, anxiety, or lack of motivation, some expats experience shame because they "shouldn't feel this way." 

Also, all expats are "supposed" to achieve because they had it already in their country of origin: financial status, social recognition, a brilliant career. When those assets change abroad, and expectations don't match reality, shame takes over.

When do expats feel most shame related to their expat status?

Many expats feel shame in connection with their competency as professionals. For instance, many of my clients were very successful in their home country, and they expect to have something similar to a small extent of time. As if their status was moving abroad with them. Yet in their new country, the struggle to find the success they had hoped and the adjustment period took longer as they thought it would.

Similarly, an intelligent and accomplished person may feel ashamed that they cannot articulate themselves well in a different language. 

Another common reason for feeling shame would be the failure of a relationship if they moved because of their partners. That might not be compatible with a social image they want to preserve, and it can lead to embarrassment.

What kind of emotional pressure is an expat exposed to?

Cultivating a new identity abroad can be very stressful.  Expats face unique challenges, develop new skills, and rediscover their resources to cope with them.  In this process, they feel more vulnerable and exposed than usual.

They tend to compare themselves with fellow expats. When they perceive that the others are "making it" (regarding their careers, financially or relationships), feelings of envy and jealousy may take over. Because those are "unacceptable" emotions,  consequently that may lead to feelings of shame.

Another factor is expectations.  The ones they set for themselves and the ones they believe the others have.  I stress the word believe because we often think that others have certain expectations placed on us, yet if we ask, we might get a completely different answer. 

What are expats usually the most scared of when moving abroad?

The list can be very long, and it depends on the reason they moved.  I would identify three common causes:

- the loss of financial and social status that might lead them to some economic and even emotional dependency

- loneliness and isolation because finding meaningful and deep connections its more complicated when we are adults, and adding to the mix the language and cultural barriers makes building a support network a challenging task

- losing their emotional connection with people back home, traditions, and cultural background. Expats are in a constant struggle to adjust to their new country without losing their identity.

How do expats recognize expat shame?

Shame is a very "charged" emotion and, therefore, difficult to recognize when experiencing it.  The usual coping strategy is to ignore it.

I tell my clients that recognizing shame is not that difficult:

- feeling the urge of hiding or fleeing where nobody can see you

- inadequacy or the sense of "I don't belong" here

- secrecy by trying to lie or hide (to yourself and others) what you feel 

- feeling exposed and the perception of no matter what they do, they fail.

How should expats deal with expat shame?

1. Identify what they are feeling.

Just being able to put a name to this emotion is incredibly powerful. Once they can identify that knot in their stomach's pit, they can start untangling it to set themselves free.  It might take a while, but being open to seeing all sides of oneself, even the b-sides (especially the b-sides), is the first step to acknowledging and coping with shame.

2. Talk about it.

Because secrecy is the primary food for shame,  it cannot survive being spoken. The second step and the most critical thing expats can do to regain clarity is to talk about it with either a friend, a family member or a professional.

3. Empathy and Self – Compassion.

Empathy kills shame. Imagine a friend who came to you with the same problem you might be experiencing. How would you speak to them to show them compassion? Speak to yourself in the same way and stop being so harsh on yourself. 

Removing harsh judgment that is often reserved for self-criticism, even when they wouldn't hold others to the same standard, is critical in coping with shame.

Is there anything good that comes from expat shame?

Indeed!. All emotions are relevant providers of information; there are no "good" or "bad" emotions. The way we relate to them and how our thoughts feed these emotions generates negative or positive outcomes.

Shame can help us to:

- Have a  snapshot of self-imposed demands

It can be an invitation to revisit self-imposed requirements and evaluate if they are real or reasonable.

We usually assume what others want/expect from us without even ask them if they do.  It can be an invitation to look into it, instead of just supposing.

 - Overcome and let go of those impositions.

Evaluating those self-imposed demands can also change the perception of its importance and make it easier to say goodbye, as those demands are that: SELF IMPOSED.

- Connect with others at a deeper level

Like Brené Brown says (highly recommend her!), vulnerability leads to deep and meaningful connections. And vulnerability can manifest in shame. Seeing and recognizing what causes shame can lead to being open to connecting in a more profound and meaningful way.