Moving abroad is a complex undertaking. It requires coordinating many aspects of your life and restarting this life in a new environment.
You have to think about visas, taxes, packing your goods and moving them from one location to the other, closing up various things in the current location, find a new apartment, help your family settle, say goodbye to some people, get trained for the new job abroad, set up new bank accounts, figure out how your pension plans would work abroad — and still be productive at work. Phew! That’s a lot...
Did I miss something? Oh yes, probably a hundred other things go through your head at the same time as well: Is this a good decision? What if my family doesn’t adapt to the new place? What if I struggle to meet the demands of the new job? Is it forever? When will I see my friends and family next? How often can I afford to fly home? Where is home even, actually…?
And on top of your own worries, needs and logistics, there are needs and emotions of other people to consider. They will impact you for sure, without question. And it’s ok that they sometimes influence your decision making process – if your partner is struggling with something or is emotional about certain aspects of the move, then of course you want to acknowledge this and continue having a great relationship.
But also: it’s important that you know how to set boundaries to protect your own mental health during and after the move. The thing is, first you need to be clear on what you want as well.
Culture shock process is just one, internal, side of the equation. There are also other challenges many of us face. Setting boundaries is basically about learning to protect your own mental wellbeing when you start slipping into the habit of always putting others’ needs first.
You can identify that this is happening when you start noticing that you:
- get irritated more easily,
- perhaps are not sleeping that well,
- are tired most of the time,
- get anxious over the questions or requests that you’re going to get from your friends/family.
So… what are the three common questions expats are being faced with regularly?
Why did you have to leave? When are you coming back?
It’s a common one. Especially in times of uncertainty, like the one with Covid, but also others (terrorist attacks in your location or natural disasters). These questions start popping up in your family and friends because they worry, because they would prefer if you were around more often, because they would like it to be ‘like the old times’.
And it’s ok. But it is also ok for you to take action if you feel overwhelmed by this type of questioning.
You may know the reason for why you left, you may be happy where you are now despite being far from ‘home’, or you might actually be wondering whether you’ve made the right decision. In either case, if this gets too frustrating or draining, you may need to react to protect yourself and stop those guilt trips the family is sending you on.
If it’s so difficult and horrible there, why don’t you just come back home?
Oh dear, this is a tough one, a one-way ticket for the guilt train if you don’t manage this properly. It’s like anything that goes wrong in life was caused by you moving abroad. But is it? Is it really?
People have all the different types of struggles whether they live in their home country or elsewhere in the world. Living abroad may make some of those more difficult, but not necessarily. Sometimes you need to remind your friends and family that it could be the same challenges you would be facing while living in the home country and what you need is support and compassion within the context you’re currently in – you may simply not want to add another layer of complexity to what is already difficult for you.
Would you mind doing this?
A common one many expats hear is along the lines of ‘Would you mind…’. It could be: “You’re staying in the city for the weekend, right, so would you mind taking John’s shift?“ And it can go on to say “He has three kids so I hope you understand…” or “He is visiting family in the countryside, you know”. And sure, once or twice is fine, people cover for each other, no problem. But why does you not having the family to visit in this country every weekend or not having kids of your own are the default to ask you for those favours all the time? If it’s the default for the manager to stick to, then perhaps you may want to raise it with them, if you can.
The ‘Would you mind’ scenario can also show in other situations though. It could be “Would you mind translating this for me quickly? It’s just a few sentences.”. You’re bilingual, maybe a native speaker of the language, and it’s fine if it’s something you can have a look at quickly. You want to help your colleagues and it’s completely understandable. But if the requests start piling up on top of your usual responsibilities, and they simply become too much, perhaps it would be time to push back and encourage people to hire a translator?
Or “Would you mind doing an earlier call? It’s just that you’re the only one in this timezone and it’s difficult to find a different time that works for everyone here”. We can be flexible with time zones at times, no problem. But why would it always have to be you taking the early morning or late night calls, just because you’re the only one outside of that timezone. Perhaps a happy compromise would be taking it in turns?
Any of these sound familiar?
Expressing your worries and needs in a clear but non-confrontational way
If you do decide to push back on any of the above, let’s face it, these may not be easy conversations. But it’s like they say on the planes – put your own mask first before helping others around you. If you don’t look after yourself first, then you will not be able to give to others!
Here’s where some of the concepts of non-violent communications can come in handy. In difficult conversations especially, when there is a big emotional engagement, it can be difficult to stay non-judgmental and factual.
The below framework can help you formulate your thoughts to minimise the risk of triggering your conversation partner. It is all coming from yourself – your feelings, your needs – which is hard to dispute, because people can’t tell you that you’re not feeling certain things if you are indeed feeling them. This puts the conversation on the compassionate level where you’re trying to understand both perspectives, rather than a confrontational one.
- Observation/Fact – you can start with describing the fact, a behaviour or a situation or a request that came through,
- Feelings – then you move on to describing your emotions around it, how it made you feel,
- Needs – you can follow this up by describing your current needs
- Request – you end with formulating a request which describes what would work better for you, perhaps offering some potential solutions
Let’s try it out on an example! It could be as follows:
When you ask me that question about when I am going to come back home if it’s so horrible here, it makes me feel a bit annoyed, because I feel like I could be facing this issue regardless of where I live and it has nothing to do with the fact I left. I could really use some support right now just to handle this work situation. What would you respond to my boss if you were in my place? I know that you had a similar situation so perhaps you could give me some advice?
See how all this paragraph is about you, how you feel and what you need, followed by a specific request to the other person? Such phrasing can empower you to take care of your own feelings and also help the other person understand what’s going through your mind. A lot about the response would depend on how self-aware the other person is, but as long as you stay true to the facts and your feelings around them, you give yourself the best shot to have a proper conversation rather than a fight.
A more confrontational version could look for example like this: Oh gosh, you always ask me that whenever I have any problem while living here. Can’t you understand that this has nothing to do with me being abroad? I just would like you to help me through this work situation rather than accusing me of leaving.
Do you see how big a difference this can make? This second version makes it almost impossible not to dispute it by the other person and get defensive 🙂 ‘I don’t always say that, don’t exaggerate!’, ‘I do understand, but perhaps it would be easier for you here? I’m worried about you that’s all!’, ‘I’m not accusing you! I’m just saying that perhaps if you came back it would be easier for you career-wise’.
Simple (but not easy) phrases you can use to protect your boundaries
No, thank you
I don’t feel comfortable with…
Please, don’t do this in my presence
Please, stop asking…
I don’t want to talk about this now…
I need time to think it over…
I feel overwhelmed right now with…and wouldn’t like to talk about…
We can come back to this soon
I don’t like this form of…
I will happily help you but not until…
I feel…when you…, and this results in… . Could you please … instead?