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How to survive the challenges of the expat lifestyle

By: Brian Kennett

Expatriate life can be more challenging in many ways than a standard hometown existence, but very few expats take the time to acknowledge that this may in fact be part of the personal appeal. By recognising the benefits of challenge and balancing disruptive situations with support and a positive mindset, Kim Forrester says it is possible to use every challenge as a springboard to greater growth, understanding and fulfilment.

Since our first steps off the African continent 50,000 or more years ago, humans have undergone a constant process of exploration, dispersion and adventure. This may explain the sometimes irresistible allure that expatriate life has for some people, and the deep-set sense of fulfilment that often comes from adapting to new lands and cultures.

Despite an array of personalities, mindsets and beliefs, there is one factor that all expatriates have in common: at some stage they have decided to say goodbye to all that is familiar and comfortable to pursue an endeavour in a foreign land.

This ability – and in many cases, desire – to seek out newness and challenge is at the root of any expatriate relocation. Perhaps those who undertake the expat experience are honouring the same fundamental instinct that led our ancient ancestors out of Africa.

Interestingly, many expats neither recognise nor acknowledge this trait within themselves; they do not realise – or they forget – that taking up the expat challenge is a choice that many others refuse to make. Mel, mother of three teenage boys, has overseen the relocation of her family throughout Australia, and to the Philippines, the US and Singapore. When asked about her apparent desire to seek out challenge, she responds with surprise.

“I wouldn’t say that about myself, but it’s probably right. A few of my friends have asked me why I don’t just say, ‘No, I’m not moving.’ But what am I saying no for? So that we can stay in the same town and do the same thing for the rest of our lives? I guess there is a part of me that doesn’t want that kind of life.”

Recognising that you are someone who seeks out and thrives on challenge can be both powerful and liberating; realising that you choose challenging situations (even if these decisions are made unconsciously) frees you from a victim mentality and enables you to handle stress and disruption more effectively.

Getting the most out of challenge

According to human behaviour expert, Dr John Demartini, challenge is a vital element of personal growth. “People have to have challenge to facilitate the birth of innovation, creation and opportunity,” he says. “Pain is your innate feedback mechanism; you need pain, discomfort and things that challenge you in order to grow and succeed.”

This idea is backed up by a 2014 study conducted by organisational psychologist Brady Firth. His research into the adaptability of new expats on international assignments revealed that a challenging environment – one that provided stretched goals and opportunities for personal achievement and growth – was a powerful positive factor in expat adaptability.

Being challenged somehow increases an expat’s ability to integrate and settle at work.

However, the study also shows that these very same challenges can decrease the psychological wellbeing of a new expat and lead to conditions such as emotional exhaustion. Having a supportive emotional environment is imperative to reap the benefits of personal challenges.

Mel has seen the benefits of the challenge-meets-support dynamic play out in her family several times. In her experience, if one family member has struggled with a relocation, others in the family have stepped up to counsel and support them. This has created a deep bond and co-reliance that she feels hometown families are often missing.

“When we go home and see other families, it becomes apparent how close we are as a unit. We see families that are much more dysfunctional than we are, despite the fact we have moved around and rearranged our lives so many times. As a family, we have learned how to help each other through disruption.”

How to thrive off the back of challenge:

  • Balance challenge with support: Be willing to place yourself or your loved ones in a position of unease or disruption, but ensure that an equal measure of emotional support is available for those who struggle.
  • Distinguish real challenge from fear: Media or social pressures can easily arouse fear about threats that are fabricated or exaggerated. A measured approach will help you maintain a healthy perspective and allow you to focus your energies only on those challenges that are beneficial to your personal growth and sense of fulfilment.
  • Recognise when things are just not working: If a situation has become overwhelming or untenable and the support you need is not available, it may be time to move on. There is no failure in recognising what is best for your wellbeing.
  • Maintain a positive outlook: Trust in your ability to endure, and in the resilience of your loved ones. Seek the support you need, but always understand that challenge, if approached correctly, can be an inspiring and invigorating experience.


This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Expat Living. Subscribe here.

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