Expat life between lights and shadows

Bye Bye Italy: a growing number of Italians leave the country. 

According to the study on migratory movements of 2016 of OCSE, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the number of Italians who in 2016 notified the transfer of residency abroad rose by over 11% to 114 thousand. According to relationship however, official emigration is probably underestimated: real estimates for 2016 range from 125 thousand to 300 thousand.

Data processed by Idos study center, they highlighted that in 2017 about 285 thousand citizens left Italy.

In 2017, according to data processed by the study center Idos , about 285 thousand citizens have left Italy.

From the 2018 Expat Insider Report , annual and international survey on the world seen through expat of each nationality, for the Italian focus "Italians Abroad"It emerged that 8% moved because of a relationship; 55% are graduates; 35% speak the language of the host country excellently. Even if one Italian in four, 27% for accuracy, says he does not feel at home in the host country and another 17% say he will never be, only a quarter thinks of a probable return to Italy. Numbers aside, the word "expat" contains many emotions and feelings. The expat is the one who leaves the country of origin for different reasons such as work, study, the search for new opportunities, for love or to follow his partner in view of business changes. Beyond the reasons for which you decide to leave, you need to focus on how you are prepared emotionally, but also physically, to transfer and change. It is not easy to adapt to new rhythms, to integrate with a different culture, to speak and to relate to a new language, especially in the initial phase where conflicting feelings of love and hatred towards new life take over. There is talk of honeymoon, initial cultural shock, compromise, acceptance but also the difficulty in adapting back to the country of origin after having been expatriated for so long. Particular attention deserves the "Third Sons of Culture" or TCK, or the children who spend a significant part of the years of growth outside the cultural environment of the parents. The term was presented for the first time by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their book "Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds".

What is the path to follow in order to face in a positive way the traumas and the unexpected and reorganize one's life? How important is resilience for one's identity when moving abroad?

How to develop and improve one's emotional recovery? 

What is the psychological impact of expat children and the role of parents?

The Journal of Italian Healthcare World interviewed Valentina Verderio clinical psychologist in Dubai. 

You are a clinical psychologist with experience in supporting expat people. What does it mean to be expat from a psychological point of view? 

It is first of all a change and from the psychological point of view it can have different impacts that can also lead to serious emotional problems. The life of an expat inevitably involves pragmatic challenges, those who undertake this kind of path must get used to living with a perennial sense of uncertainty and learning how to cope with the constant changes. Attention should be focused on the concept of departure, separation and arrival. To mature the choice of leaving for another country means to clash with the concept and with the experience of separation: one separates oneself from the original family, emotional, social and cultural context and this choice causes a break in the pre-existing equilibrium. This phase is a contradictory moment of suffering, combined with expectations for the new country and new life. The departure and the separation provoke the need to elaborate these experiences just like a mourning: the mourning of separation from the original group, from the bonds built during childhood, from family, friends, habits, but also from the language and culture of membership. The conditions in which it occurs, the very reasons for the choice taken, are important because they condition the whole trajectory of the migratory experience. Trajectory that is not only geographic, but also mental and emotional. The choice to start is the emotional starting point of the migrant. The departure is also the moment that marks the transition from "before" to "after". The moment you start, you leave a part of yourself to acquire a new one, still unknown. Having expectations about what can be found once you arrive at your destination, whether you have the conviction of knowing the culture of the host country perfectly or that you are aware of having to deal with environments regulated by different norms and customs from those of the native country, does not eliminate the possibility of being still surprised how much life abroad can prove even more difficult. The change from the psychological point of view is not always clear and can lead, in a second moment, to ambivalent and estranging experiences. What I was, under different conditions, changes and transforms acquiring new skills, facing unforeseen challenges, surviving impervious conditions. This can sometimes be estranging and lead to dissociative experiences, anxiety and / or depression, thus blocking adaptation and the journey towards new experiences.

What are the main difficulties that the expat has to face? 

To the physical disadvantages are added psychological frustrations. Over time the individual learns to adapt: what changes are not the problems encountered, but the attitude towards them. Do not underestimate the social aspects related to the transfer. Your social security network is dissolved and although the internet and the many existing social networks that exist today allow us to stay in touch with the affections left in the country of origin, we are still forced to enter a new context, with the need to create new friendships and relationships. We get to the point where we need to identify which of these can become more than just knowledge. Mobility often leads to intense friendships built in a very short time: this is due to the fear of not having enough time to get to know each other, living with the fear of being in the process of leaving or experiencing another loss. However, creating social and emotional bonds, even if they may seem superficial, turn out to be an aid for both parties in order to overcome the most difficult moments. 

Among the feelings that an expat feels there is a sense of guilt ...

Guilt is one of the many feelings that an expat can experience once transferred; sometimes it can be the family that causes this feeling, sometimes it's self-imposed. Having independently chosen to move away from their "home", having left behind the affects can weigh on the conscience to the point of causing guilt. The writer and consultant Linda Janssen in 2013 in 'The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures', underlined how the sense of guilt is even stronger for those who are part of the so-called "sandwich generation": these people are to meet the needs of their children and those of their aging parents. Associated with the sense of guilt, sometimes as a direct consequence also comes a sense of loss. As time passes in a foreign country, it becomes more and more aware of how "home" life has continued despite its absence. What many expat do not externalize and share but is also a rather common reality, is the fear of being rejected by their loved ones, often due to an accumulation of feelings on the part of the family and friends who see the decision to leave as a selfish choice . Getting back to your country for a short vacation or an occasion can give you the size of what you are missing. All that an expat needs is the comfort of their affections: for this reason the emotional difficulties deriving from not being supported in their choice to move can not and should not be underestimated. The motivation is certainly a fundamental element that influences the psychology of expatriates, but even more important is not to analyze what motivates an individual to opt for a mobility path as much as this motivation affects his / her behavior. A strong personal motivation behind the choice of expatriation allows the Expat to carry out its task with greater resilience, facing the difficulties of integration that such life entails.  

Speaking a different language is a difficulty? 

The language barrier can jeopardize a multitude of things, starting from the small aspects of everyday life to the elements that can change a person's life. The language barrier is not only given by not knowing a particular language because the cultural background and the context can also actively influence. It is very important to understand that differences in communication, both verbal and non, can lead to completely different interpretations.

What is the most common consultation that is required?

The consultations are very varied and the search for help does not happen only when the emotions concerning the transfer abroad become unmanageable or affect the normal course of daily life, causing symptoms such as panic attacks, feelings of strong estrangement, chronic loss of attention , sleep disorders, experiences of sadness and crying, but also when other problems arise that do not directly involve the problem "expat" even if sometimes they can be chained or exacerbated such as problems of couple, relationship, work.

About couple problems. What are the main actions to be taken to avoid conflicts arising in a relationship? 

The 'personal costs' that an expatriate experience can imply are many, about 1 in 3 couples divorce following the expatriation and the divorce rate among expat couples is 49% higher than that among sedentary couples but this does not takes away that expatriation can be a formidable opportunity to re-become and to strengthen the union within expat couples. The main success factors that can be adopted are: To fully agree on the transfer abroad so as to avoid, when the first difficulties inevitably arise, to blame the other for the choice made. Align the couple's expectations before leaving: although the main tendency is to explain only the logistic aspects of the transfer while keeping life's expectations, expatriation is a family project and can only be successful if it is treated as such. Whether it is done autonomously or with the help of an expert, verbalizing one's expectations and comparing them with those of partners in order to build a family project is essential to better enjoy the adventure. Another important factor is to remember what the basic principles of a healthy relationship are sharing, respect, support, fairness and reasonable certainty. It is essential that decisions are taken together. Finally, a reasonable certainty, especially for the partner who leaves everything to follow the other and who is not abandoned at the first difficulties. 

What is the position and difficulties, often minimized, that those who leave everything must face to accompany your partner? 

The position of those who leave everything to accompany their partner with respect to the partner is different. They are people who in their place of origin were autonomous and in most cases carried out a profession that not always, for various reasons, can be practiced in the host country. They have to deal not only with the difficulties of the transition from expat, but also with the frustration and make their own daily routine, new social relationships and carry out alternative activities. Sometimes they are repressed ideals, expectations or sufferings that prevent this path from being undertaken. In order not to feel prisoners of decisions taken by others it is important to consider the success factors explained in the previous answer.

Which and how many are the transition phases? 

Although cultural shock (defined as a process of cultural integration in its emotional, psychological, behavioral, cognitive and physiological impact on individuals) is a highly subjective psychological manifestation, and each individual affected can be more or less severely affected, the anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1960, identified 4 phases:

  • Honeymoon: during the first weeks of stay, most of the subjects experience a general feeling of fascination for the new culture, leaving out the problems and differences. This phase has a duration that varies from a few days up to six months depending on the circumstances. However, when such a "vacationer" approach ends, one must begin to deal with the real conditions of life. 
  • Crisis period: when the honeymoon fades, a period of crisis usually occurs. We begin to see the problems related to both the culture and living away from home. Sometimes even seemingly more insignificant details can turn out - or only appear - to be difficult issues to deal with. Language, the creation of a social network, the distance from loved ones, the social and work differences: everything that could initially excite us becomes a big obstacle. The person who is in this phase, if not properly prepared and supported, may not be able to sustain the emotional burden and decide to return to the native country. Usually, in these cases, if it is not dealt with correctly, even the return home is not immune to problems; 
  • Adjustment phase•: when the decision to stop is over, after the crisis phase the recovery moment normally arrives, in which we start to look with a more objective look at the new culture and try to change ourselves instead of what is around us. Especially in the case of more curious characters, we try to find out better the culture in which we find ourselves and try to reach compromises that allow us to better face the challenges we face;
  • Acceptance and adaptation phase•: integration is almost complete; the expat now accepts the habits of the new community and sees them as another way of life. The sense of anxiety that has accompanied it throughout all the previous phases is dissolved, although there may be moments of tension. Only a complete mastery of the symbols underlying social relationships allows this tension to disappear altogether. A complete integration with the new culture allows not only complete acceptance of food, drinks, habits and customs, but also makes it possible to really appreciate them.  

Does everyone experience the various moments of the expat transition cycle differently? 

Yes, both in terms of character and context. The phases do not follow a precise order but they help the expat to prepare on a psychological level, trying, over time, to normalize emotions and feelings without making a plan of how we should feel. It may happen, then, that on the same day the expat alternates feelings of love and hate but with the passage of time these feelings become less intense. However, I would like to underline that anyone who leaves his comfort zone, even if for different degrees, duration and intensity, will find himself passing through the 4 phases of the cultural shock.

How to deal with the phases of the cultural shock? 

Depending on the person, the phases can be perceived simultaneously or one can precede the other without following a specific order. One of the best resources you can have is emotional resilience or the ability to deal with stressful events, overcome them and continue to develop by increasing their resources with a consequent positive reorganization of life. Being resilient is a fundamental requirement for all individuals, but it becomes fundamental especially for those who, over the course of their lives, are often forced to have to re-adapt to new realities. The expression of this characteristic is the ability to recognize that all the difficulties encountered are events that can happen and which can be overcome in the same way.

Expatriation is a family project. How to behave with children? And what are the most common mistakes? 

The positive and reassuring attitude of adults towards children and adolescents is essential to accompany them in all phases of the novelty. Moving abroad involves adapting to a different lifestyle and, especially at the beginning, the difficulties for families with children are not lacking. Children are habit creatures who do not like changes too much. The mixed feelings during, before and after the transfer can lead to mistakes with the children, as an example to communicate the transfer near the date, or avoid the goodbyes to make the situation less painful. To start well, we need to close well. Another mistake is not to allow the child to talk about what worries or scares him. One of the effective tools that can be used to help the parent to manage and better process the emotions of children is the use of books of fairy tales, because of their high symbolic value, allow to reassure and instill confidence. For the fairy tale to be useful, it is important that you talk about emotions, in this way it becomes easier not only to recognize fears and fears, but also to share them. With adolescents or preadolescents, however, the announcement of the transfer must be given at a time specifically chosen by the parents and communicated with patience. The impact can be 'violent' and may show disapproval. Accepting their opposition, encouraging them to talk about their emotions, modulating their attitude to maintain good communication, listening and being empathic are all actions that will help adolescents feel loved and supported in this change / test. It is also very important to make them participate in and participate in the family project, such as consulting them on certain decisions and involving them in the organization of the move, to interest them on what will be the new environment sharing with them books, films, music, trendy clubs. And not only. It is essential to give them time to greet friends and spend time with them, reassuring them that friendships can continue even at a distance. However, if necessary it is important to contact an expert professional, psychologist-psychotherapist able to allow child or adolescent to elaborate and consolidate the emotions that had been interrupted and not expressed.  

The Children of Culture Third or TCK have some of the culture of their parents and some of the host culture, in essence they live between two cultures. How can they be integrated during growth? 

The Third Culture Kids will not belong 100% to any of the cultures. The parent's attitude then becomes crucial during the growth process to be able to integrate them: the less pressure will be on one culture compared to the other, the more freedom the young will have to find their way to integrate both cultures into adulthood.

Is the risk of an identity difficulty? 

There is a real identity problem because the Third Culture Kids face many challenges that arise from being raised in different countries, continents and communities. But although the child can assimilate some elements from every culture with which he has come into contact in the course of his life, their sense of belonging lies in intertwined relationships with individuals who share similar backgrounds. So a child born cosmopolitan, will have more difficulty in developing a personal identity, unlike its peers who reside permanently in one country, but once overcome the greatest challenges with the support of their parents, or professionals or school , will become a real resource for the world of the future.

What are the advantages of the Third Culture Kids? 

Despite the many challenges they face since they were young, if supported from an emotional point of view and listening, TCKs once they are grown up are able to extrapolate the best from what they have experienced. They are able to fit into all cultures, to accept and understand differences in a natural way, to adapt quickly to any situation and know how to make deep bonds from the beginning very easily.

Reverse cultural shock or return to your country but do not feel at home anymore. Why does it happen? 

Because when you return home you expect to return to a place that represents "our home" for us as we left it. Coming back home after years spent abroad may not be as easy as you think: the environment that once felt like family has inevitably changed; the city has taken on another aspect, the family and friends of a lifetime have taken their own path. These changes cause a lack of familiarity in the Expat that somehow relives the initial stages of its adaptation in a foreign land. 

And according to you is more devastating than the initial one? 

It is more difficult to manage than the cultural shock as it is unexpected/unforeseen and unexpected. In returning to "home" the expat relives the first stage of cultural shock, the honeymoon, feels a sense of estreneita/strangeness 'that can' lead to a real alienation, the difficulty of settling back into their lives. Once this phase is over, the cultural differences that initially had not noticed become more evident and begin to accumulate stress from re-entry. The latter can be influenced by various variables such as a voluntary or involuntary return, expected or unexpected return, age, previous repatriation experiences, length of stay abroad, degree of interaction with foreign culture, surrounding environment at the time of repatriation, the level of interaction with the culture of the country of origin in the period of stay abroad, the degree of difference between the host culture and that of the country of origin. Obviously, those who did not take this stress into account must face even greater challenges. 

In having to face a reality made by cultural differences now no longer common, the expat undertakes a period of re-adaptation within its country of origin, in an attempt to regain stability on a psychological level. As for the initial cultural shock, the duration of these phases is subjective and depends on individual to individual; what unites these phenomena, however, is the success, after passing the various stages, to integrate (or in this case to reintegrate) with the culture of the country.

After all that’s been discussed, what is your message? 

Leaving one's own safety for the unknown can involve many challenges, both on a practical and psychological level, but anyone who has the desire to test and test/ prove and experience their ability/abilities to adapt must not be frightened: being informed, being able to recognize their own emotions and above all knowing how to manage them are the basis of a successful "expat" life. 



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