What Happens When we Move Abroad?

When we move abroad, we leave our trusted home and move into the unknown. Because everything is new, our life can feel chaotic for a while. We pretty much expect that it’s not going to be easy to leave everything behind, get on a plane, land in the unknown and set up a new life. What we don’t expect is that after the initial move it can feel like you’re on a crazed emotional rollercoaster.

The emotional ride is more than just some initial discomfort; it’s a constant process of ups and downs. Often times when  you feel like you’re finally settling in and you’re proud of yourself for getting it together,  something unexpected comes out of nowhere and you find yourself racing through yet another unpredictable loop on your emotional rollercoaster.

This pretty much goes for all of life’s challenges, every new situation or change can cause us to be on an emotional rollercoaster. However for most of the ‘normal’ challenges you will have the support from people around you who have gone through the same thing. Moving abroad is an experience you often go through alone or with a close partner who is also doing this for the first time. Friends and family ‘back home’ will be supportive but have no idea what it is you are really going through.

Does it Get Easier?

Everyone transitions into a new life at their own pace, some take longer than others to get a grasp on their emotions and enjoy the ride. The key is to prepare yourself for what’s ahead, it’s important to understand that there are stages that you go through when moving abroad.

The question a lot of people ask me is; Does moving ever get any easier? From my many moves to places and cultures that were far distant from my normal reference points, I can tell you that you will be on an emotional rollercoaster every time you move. What gets better after your first move, is that you can now find solace in the fact that you survived the last move and know that there are thing you can do to make it more manageable.

How can you Prepare Yourself for Life Abroad?

David C. Pollock, an authority in the field of global mobility describes five stages in his Transitions Model. He talks about five transitions people go through when moving to a new place. I will use these stages to explain what effect moving abroad has on our decisions and emotions. Once you know what’s coming you can also read about what to do to make you’re ride smoother.

The 5 stages of Transition

Involvement Stage

In this stage we are involved in our ‘life as we know it’. We are comfortable, we feel like we belong, and we know our place in our community. Familiarity of our surroundings offers comfort and a sense of security. We don’t even realize this is a stage until something changes.

Leaving stage

During this stage we start mentally preparing for our leave and the fact that we will soon no longer be part of our trusted community. Before we prepare for the actual move, where we pack up and say goodbye we often start by mentally ‘checking out’. We start telling people about our decision to move, we don’t start anything new and we start letting go of our responsibilities. You soon start feeling like an outsider because others’ future plans no longer include you.

We want to make leaving as painless as possible so we try to make it manageable. This reflects in our relationships. We either pull away from people by shutting them out or we hold on too tight which makes goodbyes difficult. During the leaving stage we often feel anxious and excited at the same time. Planning the trip can be quite lonely because no one else truly understands your process.

Transition stage

The transition stage begins when you’ve left and arrived at your new location. This stage can be quite chaotic. You will start with highs, especially in the first couple of weeks when you still feel like a tourist and everything is new and exciting. But then you start realizing that this is not just a temporary holiday, this is your life now and this can cause lows. Often times the romanticized images of our new location, the ones we had in our leaving stage, don’t really match up to reality.

Everything is new and different and you don’t have a routine yet. You don’t really know what you’re new role is in this new society is and you still need to build up a support system. You can feel temporarily dysfunctional because you have no idea how to act and what to say or not to say. Although you have a roof over your head, you feel ‘homeless’ because home is also about feeling like you belong and have a place in the community. You realize it’s not easy to make new close friendships, you feel isolated and alone. In short, it’s overwhelming but it gets better.

Entering Stage

This is when you really start unpacking not only your suitcase but also your mind. You start to find a routine and start to nest. You allow yourself to be there and have accepted that this is your place for the foreseeable future so you might as well make yourself at home. Without a place to nest or the decision that you are going to nest it is very hard to reach the entering stage. People that move from place to place will often remain in the transition stage or linger somewhere between the tourist stage of excitement and the chaotic transition stage.

Homesickness is common during this stage. You were so busy surviving the chaos in the previous stage that you now have more time to think about home. The advantage of deciding to nest is that your new environment will also notice this and because they now believe you’re sticking around for a while they will make room to accept you.

Reinvolvement stage

This is the stage of acceptance.  We accept our new place and feel like a part of the new community. Our role is now clear and we feel that we matter. We may not entirely belong but close enough. This stage can only be reached if we decide we want to. It might not be your goal to reach this stage. If you’re planning to return home or to keep moving you choose not to become completely involved because it makes moving on easier.

How to make the ride on our emotional rollercoaster smoother?

  • Understand that what you’re going through is perfectly normal
  • Create a leaving ritual; throw a party or talk to loved ones individually
  • Accept uncertainty, you can’t control everything
  • Be patient, hang in there and know that easier times are ahead of you
  • Build a support group of like-minded people who understand what you’re going through
  • Be flexible, realize that things won’t always work out the way you imagined
  • Bring items from home or stick to some usual rituals to help you feel comfortable
  • Develop a new routine in your new ‘home’
  • Decide to unpack your mind and allow yourself to become part of your new environment
  • Have a good laugh at yourself and all the craziness around you
  • Be proud of yourself as you successfully maneuver through these stages

Good luck on your emotional rollercoaster! Even if the ride is bumpy at times, if you’re prepared for what’s to come you will actually end up enjoying it.

Gaby Kamp, Global Nomad Coaching

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