Expat Psychology: Interview with Paula

expat  phycology

In today’s interview, we chat with Paula Vexlir, a clinical psychologist and founder of the website ExpatPsi, an online platform for psychological support and information for Spanish-speaking expats.

What is ExpatPsi?

Hi Paula, thank you for accepting to do this interview. Can you explain to our readers a bit about what  ExpatPsi is and the services you offer?

Thank you for inviting me. ExpatPsi was the result of many years of work helping expats and immigrants. I am a clinical psychologist and around 2002, I started to specialize in this field. I started to notice issues that repeated and faced with the lack of literature on the subject, I began research to evaluate the differences in the immigration of Spanish speakers.

ExpatPsi has three important aspects. One is its online psychology sessions so that people living outside of their country of origin can access a space in their native language with someone who understands their specific problem well. The second is a blog on which I share information, tools, theories, etc. with the end goal of helping through preventative care. Last of all, this year I also started to create courses and books to be able to help more people.

I imagine that facing the “expat” problem from a psychological point of view is very interesting. In general terms, can you tell us about what types of people contact you and what the most common consultation is?

Yes, of course. On top of being very interesting, I also have the luck to have a job in which I can see my contribution daily. The reality is that my consultations are very varied; they include people who moved abroad for work or for the company they work for, others who traveled looking for new opportunities as well as students living outside of their country of origin.

Sometimes the person contacting me is the person sent by the company and other times its that person’s partner. It might surprise you to learn that the majority of consultations are not specific to immigration. I mean that while they are going through aspects inherent to immigration/expatriation, the majority of consultations are for other reasons. Here it is very important to specify that understanding the “expat” problem is crucial when you are working with someone who lives abroad, because otherwise there can be many diagnosis errors or listening errors.

This is how while a consultation can be for a couples issue, a work issue (or due to the lack of a partner or a job) to give examples, if you listen to that person without listening to their specific expatriation experience, there is a lot of room for diagnosis errors or errors in evaluating what they say.

Expat psychology

Reading some of your articles, you talk about the stages of culture shock. It looks like this is a subject which is not at all resolved, as the clearly separated stages of the theory (honeymoon, initial culture shock, initial adaptation, real culture shock and adaptation) don’t always happen. Personally, I identify a lot more with Allison McCue’s graph, as when I lived in China, I could swing from love to hate during the same day at times. Do you really think that true adaptation exists when you are an “expat”?

I totally agree with you. I think that the stages of culture shock, mourning or any other process end up diffusing due to our necessity to feel like we can control things. What we see here are not exact stages. Becuase of this, Allison’s graph seems very useful to me, as more than once I have listened to someone worried because their state did not follow the stages. It’s one thing to standardize emotions and feelings and another thing to establish a plan of how we should feel. I think that what happens over time is that the love and hate become less intense and end up appearing less times in the same day and therefore bit by bit adaptation is achieved. It is also true that even if we didn’t move, we wouldn’t have the same emotions all the time, and some cultures are much more difficult than others for Spanish speakers, as we are Latinos.

In my “unofficial” experience, I have seen that sooner or later, many expats end up in a stage in which they are stuck denying that anything related to the country in which they live seems unpleasant to them. I have seen this attitude much more often in expats with poor skills with the local language or who come from countries with a strong national identity. Do you think I am mistaken in my analysis? Why do you think this situation happens?

Well, the first point is the decision to learn the local language or not. Here it is very difficult to generalize, because there are languages which are truly very complex. I’m not saying that you absolutely have to learn the local language, but I undoubtedly think that you have to understand that if you don’t speak the language, there will be differences between you and the people that do speak it, and this is inevitable. Not all cultures are equally open to foreigners and I think that it is always important to understand the consequences of our actions.

It is also true that it is not the same when you immigrate to a culture that you admire as opposed to having to be somewhere you consider “inferior” to your culture because you couldn’t manage anything else (this sounds horrible, but I know that many people feel this. In general, what you were saying often happens in the “expat bubbles” that exist in third-world countries. When this happens, it implies a very arrogant idea of what is the best way to live, to put it one way.

I don’t know if it has to do with strong national identity or the idea of knowing everything. They have an idea something like that the people in their country of origin or culture are the people who really know how to do things, “not like these people here who do everything wrong” (or in a strange way, or however). I would also like to specify that it is very human to believe that there is a correct way of doing things, and only one correct way. In addition, sometimes the distance between someone’s culture of origin and the culture in which they live is so large that it is hard for this not to happen, but almost always when someone has this so-called “position” in life regarding different things, you can also see it in other judgments on various subjects.

One of the things that surprised me the most was reverse culture shock; in other words, when it’s hard for you to adapt to your own country after having lived abroad for a long time. In my opinion, reverse culture shock can be much more devastating than culture shock itself. Do you have any advice for people like me who despite being back home, don’t feel at home?

I totally agree with you. Reverse culture shock tends to be more devastating. I think that this is largely due to the fact that you don’t expect it. You believe that everything will be the same as when you left and it is never this way. The first thing that I would have to say is that you are not going to be the same person anymore. It would be impossible to be. So, it is as if “home” can no longer be “home” because it is missing something, no? Something that is from the other culture. Sometimes I think that it is something that they should warn you about before leaving, and that a sign in the airport should say: “If you’re going to live in another country for a few years, you will no longer be the same person as now when you are leaving and you will never be able to feel at home 100% when you come back.”

The globalized world allows us to access products from the other place that we might miss but at the same time, does not fill this emptiness. A part of our identity has remained, in the best of cases, in the culture that welcomed us. I believe that if managed properly, this is a gift, as it is an expansion of horizons. This is because now you can look at your own culture and aspects of it catch your attention – generally the contradictory ones – which you couldn’t have perceived before. However, what’s sure is that now your sense of belonging has changed and because of this, I like to say that after an experience like that, you are no longer the same; you are living as if in limbo, a sort of I’m not from here or there or I’m from a bit of everywhere, no?

Moving for love

I imagine that many of the people that contact you have decided to leave everything in their country to be able to accompany their partner to their new work destination. While these people have the time to be able to adapt to the destination more quickly than their partner, then tend to be the people who have the most difficulties when adapting, and this ends up having an impact on the relationship. What do you think is the most important thing to avoid coming to this situation?

In reality, it is surprising to see that consultations are split 50/50 between people who have immigrated for their own job and people that have accompanied their partner to a new destination for work reasons. Like you say, while they do have more time to adapt, they tend to be the people that show the most difficulties. One question to keep in mind is that who, upon arrival, has a secure job already, and has everything already organized: where to spend the majority of the hours of the day, a group of people with whom to interact and organization in their life. On the other hand, people who travel under other circumstances, for example, to accompany the former, tend to “produce” their day to day, to put it one way. They have to find the way to generate social bonds and activities.

Often, these are people who had a job in their place of origin and it’s not always easy (and for some people, it is impossible for legal reasons) to get a similar job. I am clarifying this because the majority of people who were very self-sufficient in their place of origin and who have difficulties in their new destination also feel very poorly about themselves because they are not managing successful adaptation exactly because they have a lot of free time.

Today, the difficult position of the person who leaves everything to accompany their partner is greatly minimized. The outside view of them is that they don’t have anything to complain about, that they have an easy life and everybody would like to be in their place. Reality tends to be very different, between anxiety and uprooting, and to the loss of identity implied by expatriation is added the social pressure of needing to feel great about it because they don’t have to go to work. This is when in the majority of cases, what they want the most is to be able to work and go back to feeling good about their day-to-day life.

A key issue is what I like to call “finding yourself once again.” This is because often these people end up an appendage of their spouse, and at other times, feel asphyxiated and useless. If you manage to find yourself once again, focusing on your interests, worries, and the things important to you in life, that is when you can start to sketch a plan to take advantage of the international experience as best as possible. Sometimes ideals, expectations or bottled up grief are what stop someone from being able to go through this process. Another key issue is to remember our free will which generally, in these cases, we tend to forget, feeling like the prisoners of decisions made by others.

One of the effects of globalization is that every day, there are more mixed couples (that is, from different countries). When they decide to establish themselves in the country of one of the two, I think that it is very common for the person who is in their own country to try to overprotect their partner so that they aren’t alone when facing the day to day problems that come up. Do you think that this affects the partner’s adaptation? Do you think that this may end up generating conflicts?

Wanting to take care of the people we love is on one hand, inevitable. Your question seems like a good one to me because this can also happen with children. Sometimes, by wanting to take care of others, we are preventing them from developing independence. I think that the greatest challenge of setting up in the country of origin of one of the two is that the person who has moved does not go through the classic adaptation process. That is, they tend to go out with the friends of their partner and to not worry about a social group, which they would do if they had immigrated on their own.

The main problem is when the couple comes to a crisis, which is also inevitable, as it happens with all couples, expats or not. One of the two has all of their support group and the other realizes that they have not established their own spaces or connections. I think that this is the most complicated part, as overprotection can decrease once one person sees the other adapting or being able to get by on their own. However, if the person that has immigrated does not search for their own spaces, this has an effect, often on the type of connection they can establish, and this level of dependency causes many conflicts.

Expat and third culture kids (TCK)

I believe that one of the main worries of parents before moving to another country is how to tell their children. In the end, many of them make the mistake of telling them at the last moment. What do you think are the most common errors made by parents in these situations?

It is very difficult to know what to do when you have to tell your child that you are leaving everything to go to another country. In addition, we all have our own conflicting feelings and it is therefore inevitable that we make mistakes. A common mistake is to say it at the last minute or, on the other hand, tell a three year-old that you are going to move in one year, when at this age the notion of time is very difficult to understand. Another typical difficulty among parents is helping them to say goodbye and to put and end to a stage. Once again: the parents have their own conflicting feelings over leaving, and they may therefore believe that avoiding goodbyes makes things less painful. However, things are never like this. For a good start, we need to have properly ended things, which is painful.

Another mistake that they sometimes make is to not give the child the space to talk about what worries, scares or hurts them. As parents, it is very difficult to listen to these things because obviously, the adults make the decisions and when we hear this, we may feel very guilty.

As a result, we hurry to say that everything is going to be OK and that the child shouldn’t worry, and we don’t listen to what they say. Moreover, there are the cases in which the children don’t say anything to not make their parents uncomfortable, and in the background, internalize everything they feel. What is certain is that if it is difficult to listen to them, the ideal thing would be to ask for help. This help could be a professional or also another member of the family who is OK with creating this space for listening without having the need to revolve the problems. Rather, they will actively listen to what the children have to say, allowing them to express themselves.

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, I am currently writing short stories to help children process these emotions without having to talk about them with their parents so much. This is because the protagonist of the story is living in the same situation they are going through, which helps the children to normalize feelings, emotions, etc.

Last of all, I would say that in the majority of cases, we tell children that change is good because they are going to have more money or better financial conditions, but this really isn’t relevant to them at all.

I have often seen that children who have lived the majority of their lives in a country different from their country of origin deny their original culture in an attempt to integrate where they live, and even may go to the extreme of refusing to speak in their parents’ language. How do you think parents should behave in this situation? Do you think that if this situation is not corrected, it may create identity problems in the future?

As parents of TCK Third Culture Kids or kids with international childhoods, as we prefer to call them, it is crucial to understand that our children are not going to have our culture. That means that TCKs have a bit of their parents’ culture and a bit of their host culture. They live between cultures, so to say. Therefore, to respond to your question, I think that if they are denying a lot of things, it may be due to a large amount of parental insistence or social rejection of their culture of origin by their peers or surroundings.

During adolescence, groups can have a lot of importance – we have all gone through this – but later in adulthood people begin to make their own decisions more freely. The reality is that these kids are not 100% from their host country either. As a result, when there is less pressure towards one side or the other, young people will have more freedom to find “their” way of integrating into both cultures.

Life as a TCK implies difficulties with identity; this is inevitable. You are not 100% from any particular place and we tend to need to mark and categorize things and of course, you never know how exactly to respond to the question “where are you from?” Third culture kids, to put it shortly, have their roots in relationships, in links. So, the more their parents know how to help them deal with this “between” cultures that marks their identity, the less rejection and the better integration they will exhibit.

What do you think will be the advantages and disadvantages of TCK kids in the future?

In such a globalized world, I would say that if they have been helped to process goodbyes and have been truly accompanied in their processes, being a TCK has more advantages than disadvantages. To be able to naturally move between cultures, naturally accept and understand differences, being able to adapt to any situation quickly, and knowing how to generate bonds easily are some of the advantages. The disadvantages are more related to not having had help during the experience, especially during the goodbye process.

They may be people who are afraid to make commitments, especially long-term ones, and who have difficulties rooting themselves in a specific place or for a specific project. They may be very afraid to experience sudden losses (for example, afraid that everything they have achieved will disappear soon). They may have a large amount of anxiety bottled up within them and be very proud. I insist, all of this is quite preventable if you allow them to express their feelings and to go through mourning, except the fact that they tend to not feel “at home” in any culture.

Thank you for answering my questions and good luck with your project.

paulavexlir2Bio Paula Vexlir: She is a clinical psychologist who is passionate about inter-cultural subjects. Since 2002, she has specialized in helping expats and immigrants to make better transitions, to go through them with children, to resolve work and couples problems and to deal with distress and anxiety.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License The Expat by The Preiser Project

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