Why it is difficult to be an expat - and great fun too


Why it is difficult to be an expat - and great fun too

Steve Savels
1.440 Words | 7 min

When I arrived for my first work mission to the Congo in 2005, I wanted to turn back immediately. I swore never to set foot in the country again.


Already on my way from Kinshasa airport to the hotel, I was appalled by the devastating poverty I could see everywhere.

Endless slums stretching out. Piles of plastic garbage smouldering next to improvised vegetable patches. People scraping a few cents together by renting out their cell phone. Children playing in puddles with chaotic bundles of electrical wires dangling dangerously close to the water.

I had never been to Central Africa before and had never witnessed how utterly destroyed a country could be after decades of corruption and war.

I had never been to Central Africa before and had never witnessed how utterly destroyed a country could be after decades of corruption and war.

What on earth am I doing here?

When I visited the Ministry where I was supposed to be helping the Congolese administration rebuild itself after many years of neglect, I was even more shocked. 


There was only the empty shell of a building left, with just a handful of offices renovated for our project. Hundreds of civil servants wandered around in the rest of the huge building like ghosts without even having decent chairs to sit on – let alone computers or other working materials. I learned that the average salary for a government official was about 30 US dollars per month, paid out in cash - huge wads of almost worthless franc congolais. Some months there was no salary at all. 

What on earth am I doing here?, I thought. Ok, I know a thing or two about Human Resources and personnel selection – at the time I was working in HR in the Belgian government administration. But how absurd is it to explain these people how they should set up objective and standardized recruitment procedures if they are not even paid a decent salary?

Yet, after a few days, something touched a nerve in me. The eagerness of the Congolese civil servants to make the best of it inspired me. The fact that they saw me as the “expert” was flattering. Even though the task was gigantic, it appealed to me. I had gotten a bit bored in my job in Brussels and here was this incredible, exotic adventure waiting for me.

After some back-and-forth missions, I got a more permanent role in the project and moved to Kinshasa permanently. The start of a whole new exciting life.

Now I still look at this as one of the highlights of my career. An experience so rich that it feels to have been much longer than it actually was.


Enriching and challenging at the same time


Most expats that I speak with share that feeling: almost nobody regrets it. It’s a time of adventure and intense personal growth.

At the same time, being an expat poses some serious challenges and I believe it is more than necessary to admit and address them.

The obvious challenges are to be found in the external circumstances – especially if you are living in a developing country. You have to navigate a different culture in which you may not always feel very welcome. Simple things like getting a new phone or getting some administrative thing settled can turn out to be a tiresome and surrealistic bureaucratic process. The gap in income between you and the local people creates difficulties to build up equal relationships. Climate conditions can be harsh. There can be security issues and political instability.

All this can easily wear you down.


Typical expat issues


On top of that, there are some typical expat issues that can bring extra stress. Not only you but also your partner and/or family have to adapt to the new context. If you are living together, they face the same intercultural difficulties, and each person has their own way of coping, and their own speed of adapting. Which can lead to tensions.

If your partner and/or family stays at home, continuing a “Skype” relationship with them is a challenge on its own.

Expat life often comes with a lot of travel as well: business trips, trips to visit relatives. Visiting relatives back home can sometimes replace holidays and can be pleasant but perhaps not as relaxing as a regular holiday. Especially if you have relatives in different countries. I once met an expat couple whose both parents had divorced and some of those parents had moved country as well. They were expected for Christmas in 4 different places in 3 different countries.

Then of course there’s the whole issue of career planning, which is a topic that merits a discussion on its own. How do you plan your career if you depend on short term missions? Or if you depend on your partner who is stationed somewhere else every few years?


Underlying psychological challenges

However, I think there is still a deeper, underlying level of psychological challenges that is not often addressed: the impact that being an expat has on your identity.

There is still a deeper, underlying level of psychological challenges that is not often addressed: the impact that being an expat has on your identity

First of all, being an expat almost by definition is about work. If it weren’t for work, you probably wouldn’t be an expat – except maybe when you retire to a sunny country. Even when you are a travelling spouse, it still is about work: the work of your partner – and perhaps at the same time trying to build your own career as best you can.

Work can easily become the core of your identity. And this identity can be a fragile one.

Most expat jobs come with a high responsibility, otherwise organisations or companies wouldn’t pay an expensive expat. This means that the pressure to perform is high, and you may set the bar high for yourself. This is already stressful in itself.

Failing to live up to the expectations – especially your own – may leave you wondering: am I really worth all the money and advantages that come with being an expat? 


Your dark side


On the other hand, it can be difficult not to let your exceptional status go to your head. How do you stay with both feet on the ground if everybody is seeing you as the international manager or expert, having come to tell them how to do things, or even save their lives? How do you explain the huge gap in wealth between you and the local people?

Especially when you are living in a poor country, you can be confronted with some dark sides of yourself. A sense of entitlement may blur your vision: deep down, you may start feeling like it’s natural that you are worth more than others. Of course you are never going to admit this to others, maybe not even to yourself. But if you are being really honest with yourself perhaps you recognise some of this? Maybe there’s some kind of internal struggle going on. One part of you enjoying the glory, the other trying to reason it away. This kind of internal struggle can weigh you down.


Tribe of nomads

Something else that can have a major impact on your identity is the fact that you are going through some very intense experiences, that the people you left back home cannot even begin to imagine. This may increase the feeling of loneliness that you already feel because your friends and relatives are so far away. Even when you speak with them, it seems like they live in a different world. 

You may feel like you don’t truly belong with them anymore. More and more, you belong to a tribe of nomads, always on the move.

A lot of questions arise over time: who am I, deep down? What am I worth? Where do I belong? What should I do with my life? Questions you can easily get stuck in.

A lot of questions arise over time: who am I, deep down? What am I worth? Where do I belong? What should I do with my life?

The golden cage

The ultimate consequence of this changing and fragile identity can be that it becomes very difficult to return to a “normal” life. In my coaching practice I often speak with expats who feel trapped in the “golden cage”. On a superficial level they experience difficulty letting go of all the material benefits that come with their expat status. But when you dig a bit deeper, they fear they have changed too much; they might not fit in again.


Psychological tools

Of course, it’s not all misery, far from it. Expat life is filled with heart-warming, soul-touching, hilarious and exciting experiences. It’s an endeavour that can bring a deep sense of meaning to your life. 

However, you need some psychological tools. Precisely because being an expat is so challenging and can leave you with a fragile and vulnerable identity, you need to develop a strong and at the same time flexible identity. You need to know, deep down: what is meaningful for me, what do I stand for? And you need to apply this in a flexible way, even up to the point of questioning yourself completely again and again.

These are tools that you can learn, and that is what I want to help you with. In upcoming articles I will write more about these tools. Or, if that would be helpful for you, we could work together in a personal coaching programme.

If you would like to explore how I can help as a psychologist and coach, get in touch and we’ll set up a first online meeting. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!


This article is the start on a series of articles about the psychological “tools” that can help you flourish in expat life.

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