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

  • Gabriela Encina
Article
Published 2020-09-01 14:27

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.

10 Comments
Kean
Kean
2 weeks ago

Ashamed for what ? I do not understand the article at all, unless you are purposely leaving out something, that one should not discuss. I guess one should be ashamed if one portray a certain skill set, but notice that they are inadequate. Like there was a doctor from middle east who ruined multiple operations, left multiple persons permanent or semi permanent damages. In the end he was kicked. Still I do not think that he was ashamed, he was just accusing the patients.

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Gabriela Encina
Gabriela Encina
last week

Thanks for your comment Ken. I'm sorry If the interview wasn't clear enough. Shame is individual and some people may feel ashamed of something that triggers nothing in others. Also, shame is expressed in ver different ways, what includes anger and frustration too. I'm not purposely leaving out anything, but this topic deserves more than an article to cover the many aspects of this emotion.

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Kean
Kean
last week

"Many expats feel shame in connection with their competency as professionals." Well, this is what I mean. The shame comes from something portrayed, which is not adequate for purpose. Exaggerated skills or expectations, also that one is expected to be treated as a King or Queen. Professional respect has to be earned. I met some of the most arrogant and incompetent persons from Nigeria, on the other hand they do not ever feel ashamed. I think the "shame", might come from not knowing and being afraid to ask. The bulldozers on the other hand, never feel ashamed. So be couscous with the bulldozers, not the "ashames" ones.

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Gabriela Encina
Gabriela Encina
last week

I see your point Kean. And I actually agree with most of it. I do not understand your last phrase though. You are right, shame comes from insecurity and fear, in this case as you say, to ask something you might not know. I don't like to categorize people as "bulldozers" or "ashamed" , but again, I undertand what you mean. Thanks for the explanation!

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abthree
abthree
2 weeks ago

This is an extremely timely article. With social distancing in place in many countries because of the pandemic, there's a heightened danger of expats, especially singles, feeling isolated, lonely, and ineffective.

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Gabriela Encina
Gabriela Encina
2 weeks ago

Thank you so much abthree. It is indeed timely and the circumstances have exacerbated feelings of uncertainty, lonelines and shame. Hopefully lots of them feel less alone and more resourceful after reading this article :-)

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lamyo
lamyo
2 weeks ago

An interesting article Gabriella. Surprised there are not more responses to it. It seems that most people are successful in their endeavours to live abroad. For those that are not I will be interested to hear their stories.

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Gabriela Encina
Gabriela Encina
2 weeks ago

Thanks for your comment lamyo. Like I explain in the interview, secrecy feeds shame. It is very difficult that people talk about, because some of them may see it as a character flaw or sign of weakness. I hear this stories when my clients first come to me: it is extremely difficult, even with their psychologist, to accept and embrace this shame as part of their vulnerability. Let's hope that with this article we can talk about it more!

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