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Coping with transition to life abroad

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Life has a beginning and an end, but the path that connects them is not straight. It involves many ups, downs, beginnings, endings, and changes. Each of these periods are buffered by a period of transition, a period where we are shifting from the old to the new. It is in these transition periods that things can get a little rough.

How can we manage these transitions? One of the easiest ways is to think about change as three simple steps. Unfreezing, the Neutral Zone, and Re-freezing.

These three steps are attributed to a famous social psychologist named Kurt Lewin. They capture the natural process of letting go of how we currently think, feel, and act, moving into a period where we adapt and recombine attitudes and beliefs, and finally reaching a new way of living. Sometimes we even become a whole new person.

We begin the process of transition by encountering new conditions or experiences that force us to let go of our old ways of thinking or living. This Unfreezing stage opens up the opportunity for us to change. We become more aware of our need to adapt and become more ready to change. But this change does not come without a period of struggle, confusion, and learning.

Part of the problem is that the so-called Neutral Zone is often not so neutral.

The next stage, the Neutral Zone, can be full of stress, worry, confusion, disorientation, conflict, and turbulence. Sometimes we feel a sense of imbalance or vertigo as we lose our familiar landmarks and pattens for living but have not yet developed new ones. In a sense, we are caught in the middle. For a while we are like the traveler in Dante’s Inferno, who says, “I found myself with a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Periods of change always have that quality. They are periods of danger as well as opportunity.

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Expats understand Lewin’s Neutral Zone and the worry of Dante’s traveler because they live it. I would say because they have lived through it, but we are never really finished with adaptation and change. This brings up another insight into the three steps of change. The three steps of change begin and end with the concept of freezing, implying that we lock-in our way of thinking and living. But do we?

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Are we ever really finished with change?

There is no end to our experiences so there is no end to seeing, learning, and adopting new ways of thinking. We can change, but our changes are essentially temporary, even if they last for a long time. They are contingent on what life has in store for us next, good or bad. But this is welcomed since a lot of the adventure of life comes from its variety and unpredictability.

We can be so busy looking at the changes around us,

that we overlook the changes within us.

We share many of life phases and transitions with others. Yes, we are each unique, but our lives follow a similar pattern of birth, maturing, aging, and death. Erik Erikson, a German-American psychologist, developed a theory of psychosocial development. His theory characterized our lives as a set of stages and tasks that occur as we go through life. For example, he proposed that roughly between the ages of 18 and 40 years old, our primary task is to find love and intimacy. This need to define meaningful relationships with others involves a tension between intimacy and isolation that must be resolved. So, in addition to adapting to outside circumstances, sometimes the need for adaptation and change springs up within us.

But what happens when it all converges for the expatriate who lives abroad? When a transition to life abroad intersects with a new culture, when we are adapting to the demands of daily living in a new environment, and while we are working through our own stage of life all at the same time?

It is no wonder that coping with transitions is difficult. They have many layers, some of which we may not even be aware of. Expat transitions are not as simple and linear as many people would believe. Some expats compare living abroad to a roller-coaster ride. But, like a roller-coaster, our lives do not follow a straight line and we get to enjoy a few twists and turns along the way.

I talk about these approaches in my book Coping Strategies for Living Abroad: A Self-assessment Workbook to Reduce Stress and Live the Life you Want.

For a list of all my books and my blog, see

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit Photo by Alexander Ramsey is licensed under the Unsplash License)

(Image credit Photo by Vladislav Babienko is licensed under the Unsplash License)

(Image credit Photo by Markus Spiske is licensed under the Unsplash License)

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