Losing My Identity: An Expat’s Journey to Self-Discovery

Living abroad changes you, whether you realize it or not. It’s inevitable. But the question remains is this transformation good? It’s a complex question that has eluded me for many years, until now.

My Journey to Self-Discovery
My Journey to Self-Discovery

It all started in 2016 when I moved to the UK on a work visa.

I remember the first day I arrived in the UK. It was easy. Everything was in English and I found comfort in the few cultural similarities between the US and UK. But that was as far as it went.

My first day at work was a disaster. I had this overarching feeling that I had robbed a citizen of their job. And, I was constantly reminded that I was a foreigner in their country. Granted my first day in France was similar, but over time, as I adapted, this barrier dissolved. I assumed the same would happen here. So, I absorbed the comments, the looks, and the forced isolation.

Then, a month after my arrival, the UK voted to leave the EU. And, the day after the vote, one co-worker said, “What a relief! We can finally get rid of all those foreigners.”

I froze and said, “Well, I am a foreigner.” She looked stunned. She had not realized who she was talking to. She said, “Oh, I mean the foreigners who don’t speak English. The non-native speakers.” Flabbergasted, I said, “Oh, like my fiancé?”

No response.

An awkward silence fell over the conversation. We both turned away and continued working.

I knew we were living in a precarious time and decided not to judge her. But her words were unsettling.

There are so many challenges you face when you move to a new country. From setting up a bank account to making friends, it’s like navigating a minefield. Now, add to that a rising sense of nationalism. It would be another obstacle I would have to overcome.

But, rather than give up, I resorted to tactics I had developed while living in other countries. I watched TV shows, read newspapers, and joined sports clubs.

And that helped. It gave me a glimpse into the culture and enhanced my understanding. I realized that English people were more reserved than Americans. So, I tried to be more mindful of my extroverted personality. Rather than dominate a conversation, I would let others have their time to speak. I also spent more time talking about other people’s interests and tried to find commonalities with my own.

By doing these things, I was able to develop a few positive relationships both at work and in my personal life.

It Takes Time to Adapt when You Move to a New Country
I needed to Give Myself Time to Adapt

Then, one day during a coffee break, a co-worker mentioned that I was too positive and happy and it was not appreciated.

I had been making so many efforts to moderate my personality and adapt that I was heartbroken.

I never thought that my positivity would be viewed as a negative trait. That was the very core of who I was, and, now, I was being told that it’s (I am) not accepted.

From that moment on, without even realizing it, my self-confidence vanished. I retreated to my inner shell and became quiet and shy. I did everything I could to go unnoticed. Oddly enough, the more I withdrew, the more I was accepted.

On the outside, it looked like I had become more reserved, but on the inside, I was depressed.

I, eventually, found myself in front of an identity crisis. I was unable to communicate who I was and present myself in a way that reflected the true me.

Up until now, my outgoing positive personality had defined me, and now, I had no idea who I was.

Discovering My True Self Through My Journey as an Expat
Putting Together the Pieces of My Identity

My first instinct was to quit my job. It was having such a negative impact on my life that, in my mind, it was the only solution. But this proved to be more challenging than I anticipated.

I had to remain at my company for two years or I would have to repay my visa fee, €6000. And let’s say I was capable of paying such an amount, if I quit my job, I would have 60 days to vacate the country. And, despite the fact that I was paying income tax, I was not entitled to unemployment benefits.

So, then, I thought I would look for another job.

After my first interview, I received a job offer. I was elated. I could finally rid myself of all the negativity. But, as I was signing the contract, my new employers realized they could not hire foreigners. An important detail they forgot to check.

Many countries, especially those within the EU, prioritize nationals for work. If a foreigner is hired, the company needs to show it made every effort to hire a national.

Then, there is the visa. Work visas in the UK are non-transferable. If I were to change jobs, I would need to reapply for a new work visa and repay the fee. I could only change jobs if I had a permanent resident card or a British passport. So, I would have to wait for a total of five years from the date of my arrival.

All these factors complicated my situation. I felt helpless. So, I tried to focus on my hobbies and the positive things in my life.

I frequented a boxing gym, where I met other expats. Many of whom had faced similar situations. It was reassuring to know that I was not the only one. In fact, it was a welcomed relief.

Then one day, while I was warming up, my boxing coach asked, “When are you going home?”

I stood there staring back at him with a stoic look on my face. I had no answer. I had been living in the UK for three years and it was obvious that I was no closer to fitting in than the day I arrived. At that moment, I had a revelation. No matter what I did or who I became, there would always be someone who would not accept me.

After what felt like an eternity, I answered, “Not soon enough.” I could have answered more diplomatically, but I was at my limit.

After class, I returned home, looked at my fiancé, and said “I can’t be something I’m not.”

The Long Journey to Self-Discovery
The Long Road to Self-Discovery

In the beginning, the excitement of living in another country overshadows everything else. But, once this initial feeling disappears, it’s easy to become disorientated.

You begin to feel like the ‘eternal outsider’, and you long for the life you once had. And, as you attempt to navigate the cultural barriers, you find yourself exploring different versions of your identity.

The more you experiment, the more you question which version of yourself can you accept. You become caught between exploring and committing, and, it’s this state of limbo that leads to an identity crisis.

While it’s only temporary, it can be jarring, uncomfortable, and, at times, depressing.

This was the case for me during my time as an expat in the UK. I was so desperate to fit in that I lost my identity. I changed my core beliefs and lost sight of what defined me as a person.

With that, I return to my first question. Is the transformation we make as expats good?

The answer is without a doubt, yes!

It was my transformation as an expat in the UK that solidified my identity. I was able to discover my true self and realized that I can’t change the core of who I am, no matter where I am. I became a stronger person, more self-assured and self-aware. I, actually, needed to lose myself to find myself.

Change is inevitable as an expat, but it’s important to remain self-aware. It can be a long a difficult process, but if you are able to find a balance between assimilating and keeping to your true self, this process will be exceptionally rewarding.

Coping with an Identity Crisis while Living Abroad

So, how do you cope with an identity crisis while living abroad? Or what can you do to prevent it? Here are a few tips I took away from my experience.

1. Read about the country and culture before you arrive. There might be some similarities and differences that you are not aware of. Before arriving in France, I read a book about an American in France. It prepared me for the cultural differences and gave me insight into expat life in France. I did not do this before arriving in the UK, and I regretted it. And, if there are cultural innuendos that you don’t understand, ask about them. Most locals will be more than happy to provide an explanation. Of course, it’s important to remain respectful and polite.

2. Exchange experiences with other expats. There are so many forums (some are listed below) where you can meet other expats. It’s a great place to build a support network and share experiences.

3. Practice a mindful lifestyle. Don’t forget to check in with yourself and reflect on your current situation. It will give you a chance to re-evaluate where you are and if you are happy or not.

4. Remember it’s a temporary feeling. This feeling of the ‘eternal outsider’ is only temporary. It’s important to keep this in mind. You will have bad days and you will have good days. And you will change. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time to adapt and settle in.

5. Ask for help. If you find yourself struggling, consider talking to a professional. Don’t wait until you are so depressed that you don’t know what to do. There are professionals that can help you work through your identity crisis.

6. Build a support network. You need a group of people (friends, family, other expats) who can act as a sounding board and provide you with emotional support. This is by far the most important tip.

Expat Resources

  • Meetup – A great social networking platform to meet other expats.
  • Expat – A community of expats helping each other out.
  • Facebook – You’ll find tons of expat communities dedicated to cities, regions, and countries. It’s a great place to connect with other expats living in your area.

Read More Moving Abroad Articles

I hope you enjoyed my article on my journey to self-discovery as an expat and found it useful. Here are some more articles about moving abroad that I think you might find interesting.

Jen Ciesielski
Jen Ciesielski

Jen Ciesielski is the creator of Dabbling in Jet Lag. She has lived abroad for over ten years, traveled to more than 50 countries, and speaks French and English fluently. Her areas of expertise include moving abroad, learning languages, and travel planning. Originally from the United States, she now lives in France, where she has been for more than six years. She has also traveled extensively around the country. She shares her experiences as an expat living in France and helps thousands of people plan their trips every month.

Articles: 141