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Unpacking the complexities: the impact of living abroad on identity and sense of self

When we move abroad, our sense of identity changes, and there could be many reasons for this. Leaving our home, community, and cultural background and adapting to a new environment can be challenging and lead to feelings of identity confusion and loss. For many people, their cultural identity is closely tied to their sense of self (and only recently, I discovered that was my case, too). 

Due to a change in customs, traditions and values, it can be challenging to maintain a sense of identity about a culture (our own) that feels now far in time and space. We may feel displaced like we don’t belong anywhere. 

If you are curious and want to learn more, I recorded an episode on my podcast We are here, too, and I have included a detailed blog post about the loss of identity and the journey to find ourselves below.

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How moving abroad affects our sense of identity

The definition of identity is a mix of introjections from others and how we make sense of our experiences. Exploring who we are can be difficult in normal circumstances, but when we travel, we also deal with whatever stereotypes and prejudices precede us.  We also try to balance what instinctually we know about ourselves and what societal and cultural discourses dictate (and this can go from “Italians eat pasta every day” to racial discrimination). Our survival is a fine balance between rejecting and embedding what is happening inside and outside us.

 

It’s a complex interplay of cultural and personal influences

Introjected values are those beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that people have internalised from their cultural background and upbringing (for example, how we communicate through a cultural-sensitive combination of both verbal and non-verbal cues – for Italians, it is our stereotypical use of hands). 

These values can play a significant role in shaping our identity and sense of self, but they can also conflict with the norms and expectations of a new culture, causing disorientation, stress and sometimes conflict.

Here and there: it’s the difference that explains it all!

There are many reasons why we may feel disoriented when moving abroad, and this is a common process many of us go through. For sure, struggling with our sense of self and a loss of identity is a process that happens in comparing our home country with the host one. 

Discrepancies between expectations and reality (in relation to our living and working arrangements, for example) can cause a loss of identity because they challenge our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. When our expectations are not met, we may feel a sense of disappointment, frustration, and confusion, which can lead us to question our beliefs, values, and behaviours. This may happen when we settle for a job with a lower pay and position than our qualifications and experiences request due to a new, unfamiliar market. 

We may experience racism or other forms of discrimination, which can make us feel like a second-class citizen and tamper our chances to integrate into the new social network. 

The lack of social support and peers we can bounce off feelings and emotions in connection to our time abroad can leave us disoriented for longer. 

Finally, the support offered for our emotional, physical and mental health can be culturally inadequate. It creates feelings of disconnection and frustration, and our experiences may not be validated for lack of understanding.

The mental health side of losing our sense of self

Loss of identity is a common challenge faced by those who decide to move abroad for a living, and it can significantly impact our mental health. This can result in feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disconnection. After all, we are uprooted and unsupported, especially if we move to a new country alone or with a different time zone, which makes it challenging to communicate with our community back home.

These circumstances can create feelings of depression and low moods, anxiety, confusion, disorientation and feeling unsettled, as our struggles to find our place in a new environment continue. This can be exacerbated by language barriers, discrimination, and cultural differences, resulting in feelings of shock and homesickness.

Read more: Culture shock is real

Practical solutions for overcoming the challenges of losing your sense of self

Grieve

Moving abroad and starting a life elsewhere will inevitably carry a loss of social structure and culture, what is familiar to us (such as language, especially colloquialisms and dialects, attitude, values, and social networks).

This loss triggers a grief reaction. Going through the grieving process will offer you an opportunity to rediscover what matters to you. It will also bring further understanding of what you need in your life, and use this newfound energy to move forward in your life, whether it is in the new country or elsewhere.

Self-reflection

The journey to self-reflection is not easy but can lead to a sense of inner peace and relief. When struggling with our sense of identity, it can help us to balance introjected values from the host country with what we carry from our past. 

This involves questioning and examining our values, beliefs, and behaviours and determining which ones are important to us and align with our sense of self.

This is not a linear process; it will present over time whether we decide to move on again.

Building connection

I will never be tired of saying this: building connections (aka, finding a community of like-minded people), especially those with similar values and experiences, can be a lifesaver. This can look like seeking out spaces occupied by individuals who are navigating similar challenges or connecting with others who have successfully navigated the process of balancing introjected values and sense of self during migration.

It’s about the journey, not the destination

Finally, it’s important to be patient and understanding with yourself and to recognise that finding balance is a journey, not a destination. The process of moving abroad can be emotionally and psychologically challenging, and it’s important to give ourselves the time and space we need to adapt and grow.

Need support to navigate a loss of identity? I can help! 

Embracing change: how living abroad can fuel personal growth and self-discovery

Moving abroad surely contributed to my growth as a worker, a friend, and a partner. It hasn’t always been easy, though. More times than I’m happy to admit, I had to dig deep through the pain to find answers and make changes. Moving abroad was what I needed then, and what I found was a new sense of self that is both inwardly and outwardly kinder, more resilient and empathic. The following is a series of learnings I collected in almost 20 years of experiences outside of my home country. 

Cultural exposure

Moving abroad provided us with the opportunity to experience new cultures, customs, and ways of life. This exposure to new perspectives and ways of thinking can broaden our minds and uncover new directions and possibilities that we couldn’t even imagine before leaving our home country.

Adaptability

Moving to a new place required us to adapt to new situations and environments. This process of adapting and learning to navigate new circumstances surely helped me build resilience and problem-solving skills. Ultimately, these were the inner resources that helped me to survive my temporary loss of identity and discover a new integrated sense of self.

Independence

Moving abroad often requires us to rely on our own resources and abilities to build a new life in a new place. This can lead to a greater sense of independence and self-reliance, which opens up our horizons to endless possibilities. 

Self-discovery

Remove yourself from familiar surroundings and comforts, and you have fertile ground for a journey of self-discovery. And self-discovery may lead us to find that we have strengths and abilities that we did not previously recognise or appreciate. It goes without saying that I would have never chosen to start my counselling career without taking that decision, at the age of 20, to move abroad.

Conclusions

Moving abroad can be difficult. Finding ourselves in a place of disorientation can be disheartening, especially when that migration was loaded with expectations and dreams which they now seem far away. And this can impact our well-being.

But there are lessons to be learnt. We just need time to heal.

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2 thoughts on “The impact of living abroad on identity and sense of self: a guide

  1. Pingback: S1E6: Boundaries when living abroad: a work in progress -

  2. Pingback: S1E3: Lost and found, in search of self -

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