You moved abroad. You experience all these various different (weird?) things. People tell you to adapt to the new culture. You feel uncomfortable, not even sure if you are you anymore.
Everyone else around you seems to know better what you should do, how you should adapt, how quickly you should do it (surely if you’ve lived there for a year you must feel like at home, right?), why you should be feeling certain way or what you should start valuing. But somehow you feel torn inside, not fully integrated with the new home yet, not quite where you were a year ago anymore.
When we decide to go abroad, the thing people often say to us is that ‘we will change’ and ‘we will never be the same again’. Like it is something wrong. But most of us look back and feel like we have changed indeed, but for the better and it was totally worth it. Of course you will change and adapt! But it makes it easier to be aware of who you are and how you’ve changed.
So…who are you? Which of the behaviours and values you’ve adopted from the home culture? Which of them you’ve adapted to the new culture you found yourself in? Which of them are your own? What makes you who you are? Seems like some really hard questions to answer on the spot. But don’t worry, we’ll now break it down to smaller chunks.
What are your core values?
It’s important to establish what you really care about or if you’re in a relationship – what you both really care about and what values you’re going to live. Figuring out what your core values are help you make decisions in the future. Thanks to being aware of what matters to you and what you’re willing to fight for you know which options to go for.
For example, if one of your values is health, you will be less likely to accept a job offer working 70 hours per week, including some weekends on an assignment based in Ethiopia. Even though it might be a great development opportunity you would probably choose to protect your health, keep getting reasonable amount of sleep, having time for sports and leisure activities and living in a country where the risk of contagious diseases is slightly smaller.
Take a moment to think of 3-5 things that you truly value and you’re willing to fight for at this given point in your life. What are the things you’ve identified?
What situations made you feel uncomfortable during your first weeks and months abroad?
‘Focusing on the negatives? Marta, shouldn’t we be embracing the positivity and gratefulness in our lives?’ – you might ask. Yes, I do want you to focus on the uncomfortable this time. The negatives, stress, feeling uncomfortable are not completely wrong or useless – they are there for a reason. What they might help you figure out in this exercise is what you value and what your natural responses are to various situations.
Think about situations where you thought “these people are weird”, “this is so strange”, “that’s just stupid”, “how can they accept this?!”. This will open up your mind to noticing what you were assessing these behaviours against. You assessed them against y o u r normal at the time. Y o u r norms. You will then start noticing which of these behaviours you have adapted to with least effort. These will probably not be of too great value for you. The ones you should reflect on are the ones that you’re still having troubles getting used to.
Let me give you my own example to illustrate this. I still struggle especially with one thing here in the UK, even though I’ve been here for almost 2 years now (and have learnt English for many years before that). Calling people by their first names if they are much more senior (in terms of their age or professionally) is a challenge. It’s not a visible one really as on the surface I managed to adapt this behaviour and linguistically it doesn’t pose a problem and I’m 100% capable to do this. It does pose a challenge in my mind though! In my mind, I often have to remind myself that they are still the managers or directors and not just colleagues in the way I communicate with them. In English you need to express this respect to authority in different ways and not take the first-name basis for granted, while in Polish there is this one easy extra bit that makes the conversation more formal – calling the person ‘Ms. Jones’ or at least ‘Ms. Margaret’. I shared some more thoughts and examples on this in one of the posts of the Culture Map series and I’d encourage you to read it as well 😉
What did I learn from my experience? First of all, I’ve learnt that although it requires some conscious effort to adapt the behaviour, it is not impossible. I’ve also learnt that I do value authority in more senior managers. At the same time, I knew that the managing style encouraged in my workplace is more collaborative, getting everyone to speak their mind and opinion, and a lot of decisions are made in teams. Combination of these two at the beginning made me judge certain managers too quickly, thinking of them as indecisive and a bit blunt. The awareness about where these judgements come from helped me understand their approach better and be happier where I am in the longterm.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
You’re probably familiar with a concept of an ‘elevator pitch’, a short introduction that you’d make about yourself if you’d only have 30 seconds to do that in an elevator (B.Eng.: lift). I’d like to now encourage you to think a little bit in those terms, but assuming you’ve only got 5 seconds.
Step 1. Think of the life roles that you take every day when engaging in all the various activities and hobbies. Below is a list to get you started:
wife, husband, friend, partner, mother, father, professional, specialist, manager, homelover, footballer, blogger, traveller, programmer, painter, decorator, jogger, fashionist, comedian, authority, coach, mentor…
There are many more options you can think of when describing yourself. Take a moment to write them all down. All of them. Are you responsible for looking after the house while your partner is on an assignment abroad? Write down that your roles include being a decorator, housewife and a cook. Got it? All of them.
Step 2. Now go back to the values you’ve written down as your core ones, remember the things that really matter to you and you are willing to fight for. Then look at the roles you have identified in step 1 and choose three of them that are most in line with your core values and the closest to your heart currently. They will be the ones you should be embracing and focusing your energy on as they define you. Especially in the moments when you start losing yourself in the amount of duties that you have to fulfill. They are also the ones you can leverage to try out new things, learn and grow.
Step 3. Look at the three roles you’ve chosen in step 2. Try to add adjectives to these three roles to make the description richer and more reflective of who you really are. Once you’ve done that you should be ready to write down your own affirmation.
Example: My name is Marta. I am an occupational psychologist, avid learner and loving partner.
This affirmation will be a reflection of what you currently believe is the best representation of you and your values. It will serve you as guidance when you’re in doubt when making any future choices. It will serve as a tool for reflection when you look at it in a couple of months, when you might want to change it a little bit to be in line with the current state of mind. For example, today you might define yourself as a manager, partner and footballer, but in a year it might turn out that a new role will prove to be more dominant, such as being a parent. This is why it is important to check in with yourself once in a while to align on your priorities.
You can also expand this exercise with step 4 – thinking about how you’d like to describe yourself in 5 years, what would you like to be the core of your activities and energy focus, and compare it to your present affirmation. What steps do you need to take over those five years to get there?
Finding time for self-reflection in today’s busy world can be hard. It can be especially hard when you’re going through such a difficult life transition as moving abroad. I hope you will find those three questions and exercises useful to discovering what matters to you now, in this given point in your life, wherever you are in the world. I believe that getting to know yourself better is key to establishing a fulfilling life abroad.
If you decide to do this exercise I would really love to hear from you, read your affirmation and get to know you better! You can either comment below or write to me at email@example.com