Psychology and expatriation: challenges for the expatriate and their family

Even if living abroad is often a rewarding experience, it can still be challenging for the expatriate and their family who have to cope with unprecedented psychological problems.

Life as an expatriate requires significant effort to adapt to new social and cultural environments.
Expatriation means a break with home – where you come from and your mother tongue - it requires a mental readjustment to meet the demands of your new life which is often governed by specific rules to which you need to adapt and familiarise yourself.

A number of real difficulties...

The difficulties involved in the effort to adapt to new codes of conduct and social norms vary depending on the country you are in and the symbolic references which shape social life. These may vary in their degree of rigidity or flexibility but will, to some degree, confine the expatriate to their status as a foreigner and proportionally increase their effort required for them to reach out.
This is all the more important as it can seriously affect the success or otherwise of the venture, very often for professional reasons. Obstacles can be encountered at various stages of the period of expatriation.

Becoming well integrated into the host country requires preparation based on: 

  • knowledge of the language: a determining factor in integration,
  • socio-cultural and economic differences: depending on the continent, the "cultural gap" can sometimes be considerable. In addition to the spoken and written language, religion, thought patterns, habits and customs, moral values, behaviours and social codes should be considered. Ignorance of attitudes, habits and reactions in the host country and unfamiliarity with its culture can be a major handicap,
  • the family aspect: the integration of the spouse can be difficult because they do not have the relationships which the expatriate has at work. Mood swings which sometimes develop into depression have been observed. The feeling of isolation may be greater. Non-integration can lead to situations of social isolation or exclusion with increasingly phobic attitudes exacerbating the tendency to withdraw.

... Can be overcome by careful planning

Before moving abroad, the expatriate should be prepared to address any psychological difficulties which they and their family may face locally, to find ways of coping and quickly adopt aid and assistance mechanisms.

In short, the destabilising aspects of expatriation require substantive work revolving around the notion of adaptability:

  • Physical: climate, illnesses,
  • Habitual: gestures, looks, emotions, 
  • Symbolic: linguistic, conventional.

The majority of failures or “bankruptcies” amongst expatriates are linked to difficulties in adapting to a different environment, an underestimation of the difficulties inherent in a change of psychosocial environment, what the Americans call "the ecology of mind". (G. Bateson).

Raja Safouane
Consulting psychologist

"Psychological support" abroad

Moving to a new country is a source of displacement for any expatriate who is sometimes faced with moments of discomfort or distress, during which active listening is a first line of support.
For this purpose, Psya offers a service of telephone calls or exchange of emails with a team of qualified clinical psychologists who are accessible 24/7.
www.psya.fr

Date of publication May 11 2012

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