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Expats and Mental Health: Why Identities Change Abroad

by Lysanne Sizoo

This week City Savvy’s mental health expert Lysanne Sizoo discusses how our sense of identity is challenged when we move to another country… and how we can use it to our advantage.

Have you noticed that the way you introduce yourself to others has changed since you moved abroad? Before, you might have said; “Hi, I’m Jane, I came here with Angela, one of my work colleagues.” Or you might have used your professional identity as an ice breaker. But now it often is, “Hi, I’m Lysanne, I’m Dutch and I’ve been here sixteen years.”

We have the ability to pick and choose amongst a range of inner business cards to match the right one to the environment we’re in. Amongst parents we may talk about our child(ren); someone present who has no children might feel quite uncomfortable or even bored. Yet, since they may also want to fit in, they will often produce a story about a nephew or niece. Amongst fellow professionals we might present our job credentials first, and amongst other foreigners abroad, we present ourselves first with where we’re from and how long we’re staying. The need to find an ‘in’ with the group you are trying to connect to is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and we are variously skilled at reading the code.

Nature and nurture

Our core family is the first ‘group’ that we ever belong to and the way that we adjust our sense of self is very much dictated by how welcome we feel in these primary years. The totality of our self is usually very welcome and warmly received, but the specific characteristics that make up that totality are received selectively.

We are skilled at reading the unspoken code and quickly begin to realise that this part of me gets brownie points, while that part of me does not.

For example; Emma* is by nature a very quiet person, quite shy and not really a great social animal. But she was born into a loud, rumbustious, and socially gregarious family. One of two things might happen; in one scenario her shyness is recognised as part of her and she is allowed to be the quieter one of the gang, without being judged, while learning from the outgoing nature of the others. In the more likely scenario, no one really notices her shyness for what it is and her parents push her into being less reticent and fearful, and more outgoing. Over time Emma develops a loud and gregarious self that can hold its own within her family structure. In the meantime, her natural shy and reticent self has gone underground.

A combination of adapted and true selves

By the time we go to school we have become a bundle of selves that are both genuine and adapted to the environment. And the process continues, reinforcing and sometimes weakening this increasingly adaptive structure. Sometimes teachers see ‘behind’ the already growing façade of a child and set about nurturing aspect of a truer self. But there are also plenty of stories where adapted selves are built on and extended, just like a house, until the new exterior totally masks the true building within. This happens all the time. It is the price we pay as humans for being not just conscious, but self-conscious. We are constantly investing psychological energy into maintaining, adjusting, and rarely challenging this outer scaffolding that may hide the beauty of the dwelling underneath.

International adult life – out of your comfort zone

As adults, we get the choice to remain well within our comfort zone or to push the boundaries in the way internationally mobile people do. Moving abroad means that suddenly that wonderful scaffolding, that façade that so meets the needs of your core family and your core culture, is not reflected back to you in the way that it was at home. The first reaction is often annoyance at the bad behaviour of this ‘other’… and then we begin to doubt our selves. Because the choice seems to be; if you can’t beat them, join them; a choice the psyche remembers from those very early days in the bosom of our families.

By joining them, you become part of them and then you become safe, you belong; in doing so, you may either win back a lost part of your self, or lose yourself even more. This inner dilemma is partly what constitutes the cultural identity crisis that almost all expats go through at some point.

Working with it creatively

Let’s go back to the example of Emma. She was pushed into developing a socially engaging loud-mouth self just so that she could belong to her family. Emma is now living in a country where people are more like the Emma she used to be: shy and a little reticent. Try as she might, Emma can’t draw them out or get them to engage in loud gregarious observations on the pitfalls of motherhood. They nod politely, say ‘ahhh’ and continue talking about less dangerous subjects. Emma feels that she is ‘too much’ and yet wants so badly to belong. Her ‘normal’ way of being is being rejected rather than accepted and she is confused.

But eventually, Emma allows her shyness to come to fore, and begins to enjoy being with people who were equally happy to sit in silence. And then, as even more time has passed, she will have access to a quiet, as well as a social aspect of herself. Her foreign move has enriched her and given her the chance to choose, moment by moment, whether to use the skills her façade has taught her, or to enjoy sitting quietly and observe the world from a quieter place within.

Summary and self-reflection

What I have described is how we develop an identity as we grow up that meets the expectations of our primary group, the family and by extension, our culture. Some intrinsic personality traits are kept, others have to go backstage while an adjusted self is created. During our school years this structure can either be reinforced or certain intrinsic self-aspects might be ‘rescued’ by empathetic teachers or significant adults.

When we move abroad this structure is no longer mirrored back to us in the same way, since the other countries and other cultures (including the international ‘third culture’) hold different values to our own. Where loudness was valued in one culture, shyness might be valued in another. The first reaction is often irritation and a sense of being lost, and yet the opportunity is there to experiment with integrating forgotten parts of who you are.

Moving out of your comfort zone will always trigger new self-aspects to come forward. It will also bring with it a renewed attempt at shoring up the defences even more, now by meeting the requirements that come from the new group we want to belong to. As one of my teachers used to point out; “just doing the opposite of what you’you’ve always done before is still being stuck”. It’s the balance of opposites, the ability to choose which aspects of self you want to use for this particular moment, that makes life fun.

So here’s a challenge: name something you criticise/fear/judge/reject most in the new culture you find yourself in. Then sit with it for a while and see if there might be a nugget of what you resent that actually is something you have repressed in yourself? It’s a worthwhile exercise to undergo; enjoy!


*Emma’s story is made up for the purposes of this article.


Copyright 2016: Lysanne Sizoo

These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and
clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic
meetings at Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would
never be shared in a public forum.

Photo: David Marcu/Unsplash

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