When I moved abroad as an expat wife 19 years ago, I experienced a range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviours that I had never anticipated. Only later could I see how moving overseas affects a woman’s identity. 

Life as an expat wife remains a modern-day fairy tale. Most of us choose to accept the adventure to move to foreign lands, supporting our partners, without thinking much about the realities behind the fairy tale.

I was not different. My son was 5 months old, when our opportunity arose and I had been dealing with my (conflicted) feelings of leaving my baby to return to work full-time.  I saw the move as a way to sidestep these difficult emotions and embark on the fairy tale. I said yes, without thinking much at all about what this new life would really be like.

Overnight change of Identity

Back then, the Internet wasn’t as advanced as today and I couldn’t read fluently in English.  Without the necessary support and resources, I was clueless about what was happening inside me. I just knew something was terribly wrong. Overnight, I had become, not only an expat, but also a trailing spouse, the “wife of” and the “mother of” and I remember feeling great regret and sadness.

Fortunately, I am a psychologist and I have a very supportive husband who said: “You need to go study something in your area of expertise!” Specialising in Gestalt therapy (a type of therapy which focuses on present life and challenges, rather than the past) saved me from depression. And with my English improved, I studied the effects of expatriation on women’s identity.

Time for reflection

Our identity comprises four elements: 

  1. the way we see ourselves
  2. the way others see us
  3. the roles we occupy in society
  4. the relationships we have with others

When we move to a whole new place we lose so many familiar signs that make us unique and our world changes.  We can suffer from a loss of identity and as a result experience depression, anxiety, adjustment issues, and even marital conflicts. It’s important to be aware that this can happen to you.  

If you want to help avoid this possibility, you need to take time to reflect on 3 elements 

who you were, who you are today, and who you want to become.

It’s important to understand that wherever we move to, the new culture as well as the country’s rules will also affect us.  To adapt well to this new life, we need to integrate into this culture but at the same time recognise our new identity. Only in this way, can we move forward to form a successful expat life.

Keep your dreams alive

I invite you to reflect on these four elements and investigate what makes you who you are. You may already have a good sense of yourself, but with a move abroad changing so much, you need to consider how you define yourself now – thinking about your new roles as well as the ones you’ve lost – as well as who you want to become after this experience.

For me, it took some time to understand that losing my professional identity and becoming a mom 24/7 for a while, didn’t mean that I had to forget that very important part of me – being a psychologist; even if in that country I wasn’t allowed to work.

And today, 18 years after I finished that specialisation, I am once again a practicing psychologist. I realised that I did not have to give up who I am forever. I could fight to keep and revive those parts of my identity that are important to me.  

And how about you? Are you going to give up, or fight for what is important to you?


Insta: @odalea.counselor

The Hub Geneva