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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

Do you find the expat life challenging? Maybe therapy can help

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

I haven’t met a single expat person -myself included- that does not, or did not at some point, struggle even slightly with expat life; in the Netherlands in specific. But why is that, and what can we do about it?

After all, we all made the choice to move abroad, for work or study reasons; no one forced us to do so! Life circumstances in our country of origin, and the golden promise of a better quality of life elsewhere, shaped this decision. However, after -and even during!- the exciting honeymoon phase that marks all new beginnings and relationships, stress and panic can kick in. Moving is officially listed as one of the five most stressful life events – along with death, divorce, major illness and job loss. That refers to moving houses, therefore moving countries must be even more substantial!

Let’s first define the concept of expat. An expat is considered someone who is born outside of the Netherlands , does not have the Dutch nationality, is 18-75 years old, and earns a salary at the upper end of the norm in their sector (15-35% highest salaries). In 2015 there were between 39000 and 75000 expats in the Netherlands! This number is likely even higher now. So the main characteristic to define someone as an expat is the higher socioeconomic status. The total number of first generation immigrants – people with non-dutch nationality that have moved to the Netherlands- amounted around 11% of the total population in 2015.

So if you’re also one of those that find themselves in the uncomfortable position of wondering how to cope with aspects of life in your new country, first thing to do is take a deep breath and know that this is absolutely logical and expected.

Being an expat means transitioning, and change is both exciting and frightening at the same time. Realistically, there are just so many challenges to face: nostalgia of what we’ve left behind, doubts on whether this was the right decision, the inevitable culture shock, developing a satisfying social life, starting and maintaining new relationships, language barriers- and the list goes on and on.

Additionally, identity issues and feelings of grief and loss may soon become central, as many of us will sooner or later confront existential questions such as “Where is home for me?” “Where do I belong?” and “Should I make the choice to adapt?”.

It can feel as if we are constantly in a state of having one foot in our new country and one back home, while the people we’ve left behind may sometimes judge us as runaways or fail to understand why we’re struggling, as they falsely believe we should not complain at all, since our quality of life abroad is objectively better than at home. The combination of the above and the practical challenges of everyday life can cause a feeling of loneliness.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

You’re not alone. All of us internationals are in this together!

What can you do about it? Can counselling help?

You have probably often heard the phrase “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are” (Anais Nin). It may sound cliché, but indeed it is a matter of perspective. By developing the right mindset and attitude, we can eventually adjust and start enjoying this adventure called “expat life”.

I would like to borrow a much-respected concept from Zen Buddhism here, often applied in different forms of counselling and therapy. Radical Acceptance. The first step towards change is to fully accept the situation as it is! You decided to move here; therefore it’s you that’s required to change, adjust, adapt, compromise to this new environment, not the other way around.

Perhaps complaining about the Dutch culture and people is among expats’ favorite topics. If you do that too, why not try turning your perspective around by accepting reality as it is? Yes, their direct way of communicating can be challenging to handle. Yes, the weather is often a wet and windy nightmare. Yes, there are countless things about life here that are different to what we’re used to. And there are even more things that are beautifully worthwhile! The frustration is completely understandable; but let's try to move past it. Resisting to accept it as it is will actually bring more suffering. Of course it is easier said than done, but totally worth the effort.

Secondly, employing an attitude of positive motivation- “Yes, I can manage!”- is really powerful. In any given situation, we always have 3 options: Fight, Flight or Freeze. Everyone has their own rhythm of moving from one state to the next, however in the event of adjusting to expat life, after the state of emotional paralysis (AKA panic, helplessness, lack of motivation, no willingness to adapt) that is equivalent to the Freeze state, we either have to Fight or decide to Flight, leave the experience altogether.

Fight means take action. If the challenge feels too much to handle, perhaps counselling and psychotherapy can help. After 8 years of being an expat myself, I understand you. I am here to listen to you and your concerns, and I am committed to assisting you in this learning process that is expat life.

Therapy can become a useful addition to your support network abroad and most definitely a way to practice self-care. I offer my professional expertise, my undivided attention and a safe space where you can explore and discover aspects of yourself in an atmosphere of trust and confidentiality.

Sometimes even the mere act of sharing your thoughts with someone who’s offering you their full presence can be already enough, since the burden of whatever is troubling you will feel just a bit lighter.

In addition, together we can explore techniques and self-help strategies to manage stress and anxiety. I can be next to you as you apply positive changes in your everyday life, and gladly offer you an outside perspective when things just feel rough.

Therapy is sometimes challenging, but I can guarantee that this process will eventually make you stronger and more resilient. Just like adjusting to the expat life, therapy is a learning process that is undoubtedly enriching and will enhance your personal growth!

Interested in starting counselling? Contact me here!


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