You’ve made the enormous decision to move to a new country, but you just aren’t finding the success you know you’re capable of. This situation can also lead to feeling inadequate or unworthy of love—fears underlying the feeling we know as shame. Join me in this article to discover how to cope with expat shame and even find its advantages.
“Shame cannot survive being spoken.” -Dr. Brené Brown, Ph.D.
Have you ever felt like you want to curl up in a ball under the covers and never come out?
Such a feeling is one response to the sense of shame.
Shame can affect us is by controlling our decisions. Fear that someone will find out what has happened to us or that embarrassing thing that we did can be debilitating. It can lead to unhappiness, anxiety, and even depression.
We have all felt shame at some point in our lives. It can come from different sources. Many times, it rears its ugly head as a reaction to a single incident. For example, a momentary blunder in which you accidentally asked for a bombacha de helado instead of a bocha de helado. In which case, you just asked the poor teenager behind the counter to serve you a scoop of ice cream into some panties (bombacha) instead of a cone (bocha)—true story from a german expat living in Argentina!
Or, maybe it’s an ongoing situation like the client I mentioned in my post about Expat Envy. You’ve made the enormous decision to move to a new country, but you just aren’t finding the success of which you know you’re capable. This situation can cause envy toward others. However, it can also lead to feeling inadequate or unworthy of love—which are the fundamental human fears underlying the feeling we know as shame.
How familiar is this feeling when you live abroad? Studies show that feelings of shame are quite common among expats.
When you move away from your home country, you meet many new challenges. Cultural and language barriers are the most talked about, but changes in everyday life are also hugely impactful. Getting used to a new professional environment, maybe changing jobs, missing family and friends while starting to build a new social circle, figuring out the dynamics of a new relationship amid all the other changes going on in your life.
“I was someone back home. Recognized, had a great social life, and a comfortable financial status. Now I have to start all over again, and I feel so ashamed!”
“I left everything and here I’m nobody.”
“It doesn’t matter how many degrees I have or languages I speak; I’m always reduced to “the partner of…” “the foreign woman from that country.”
Those are typical phrases from my clients. All of them have experienced constant shame at some stage of their expat life. And, paradoxically, they are embarrased to admit and recognize the shame they are feeling.
The good news is that if you feel shame about some aspect of your life as an expat, it is normal, and you are not alone!
Many expats feel shame in connection with their competency as a professional. Maybe you were very successful in your home country, but in this new country, you are not finding the success you had hoped. Similarly, an intelligent and accomplished person may feel ashamed that they cannot articulate themselves well in a different language. Another common reason for feeling shame is the failure of a relationship, in the case that you moved for love.
In each one of these situations, it is essential to recognize your feelings are valid. It is important that you put the focus on being aware that emotions are not necessarily “good” or “bad.” Instead, if we can step back and observe them, they have much information to offer us.
Advantages of Expat Shame
Wait; what? Advantages?
Yes! Like any emotion, shame can be a powerful source of information about what we think the others expect and want from us. Again, expectations!
1.- A snapshot of your self-imposed demands
This emotion can be an invitation to revisit and evaluate your self-imposed demands and ask yourself… are they real? Reasonable? Or are you assuming what the others want from you, without even ask them if they do?
2.- Overcome and let go of those impositions.
When you evaluate your self-imposed demands, you can also change and even say goodbye to them, when you find out that those demands are that: SELF IMPOSED.
Like Brené Brown says (read all you can from her!), vulnerability leads to deep and meaningful connections. And shame is the ultimate sign of vulnerability. If you can see and recognize what causes shame, you will be more open to connecting in a more profound and meaningful way
How to Cope with Expat Shame
According to Brené Brown, shame that infiltrates our lives feeds on three things: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Unpacking this insight can tell us a lot about how we can cope with shame and take away the power it has over our lives. Now that we know what nourishes this emotion, we can get to work on sorting through it. It may not be an easy process, but talking to someone about it, especially a professional, helps immensely.
1.- Identify what you’re feeling.
Just being able to put a name to emotion is incredibly powerful. Once you can identify that knot in your stomach’s pit, you can start untangling it to set yourself free.
2.- Talk about it.
Because secrecy is the primary food for shame, we know it cannot survive being spoken. The second step and the most critical thing you can do to regain clarity is to talk about it with either a friend, a family member, or a professional.
3.- Empathy and Self – Compassion.
Silence is deadly to us emotionally; but empathy kills shame. When coping with this emotion daily, caring self-talk comforts us and preserves a positive, healthy state of mind. Imagine a friend came to you with the same problem. How would you speak to them to show them empathy? Speak to yourself in the same way and stop being so harsh on yourself. Remove the harsh judgment that we so often reserve for self-criticism, even when we wouldn’t hold others to the same standard. When engaging in that self-talk, use encouraging words and practice detaching your identity from actions and situations, which are only temporary.
If you want to reach out and talk to a professional about your experiences, or if you would like some help processing and overcoming feelings of shame that come with being an expat, I would love to talk to you. As Brené says, “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” Don’t let it burden you any longer. Remember that you have someone by your side.
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By your side,
Gabriela Encina is an online psychologist specialized in expat women and supports them with the guidance and tools they need to feel confident, make the best decisions for their lives, build and maintain meaningful relationships and prioritize their well-being.
Her approach is practical, solution-oriented and focused on the present.
Gabriela offers counseling to expat women in Spanish, English and German.