Several of my recent posts emphasized the ‘dark’ sides of expatriation, namely the psychological difficulties of repatriation, loneliness when moving without family, and insecurities when adjusting to life abroad. Whether these are self-doubts, extensive tensions, critical thoughts or negative feelings that arise in challenging situations, we can all agree that such undesirable states are quite uncomfortable to deal with and unfavorable to our performance. That is why the majority of global mobility industry surveys and scientific articles look into the challenges that cause undesirable states and suggest different coping strategies to eliminate them.
Indeed, we know that expatriation is psychologically difficult, so companies try to provide cross-cultural training, host-country mentoring, and family support, while expatriates themselves establish supporting relationships with other expats, try to immerse themselves in what is beneficial of being abroad, and attempt to ‘fix’ everything that goes wrong. So, we seem to be prepared for these difficulties, we act upon and fight them. Yet, going for or returning from an international assignment remains psychologically difficult (and any expat forum is a living would proof of that). What do we do wrong?
Maybe it is the fighting against and acting upon these undesirable states that cause the problem? Isn’t it devastating in itself when we try our best not to feel bad, but still do?
Well, as Susan David and Christina Congleton from the consultancy Evidence Based Psychology argue in a recent article in Harward Business Review, it is not the negative thoughts and feelings that make a difference, it is the fact that people get hooked by them. In other words, being sad is not the problem, but rather trying to ‘fix’ being sad, not succeeding in it, and as a result ‘feeling sad about feeling sad’. The main ideas discussed in the HBR article stem from the premises of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which although originating from clinical psychological consultancy is an approach that is currently quickly spreading to a broader range of topics around performance psychology.
First of all, ACT emphasizes that negative, doubtful and critical thoughts and feelings are a normal part of human nature and an inevitable part of everyday life. Using this idea, it becomes clear that feeling lonely when going abroad, feeling anxious during the first weeks in a new and unfamiliar workplace, or being very self-critical when trying to master a host-country language is what it most probably should be like in these situations. It is part of the package, so to say.
As such, another important notion of ACT is the willingness to be in these difficult situations and the acceptance of the experience as a whole, including all the undesirable states. In other words, if all the uncomfortable states are a normal and inevitable part of our lives, then we should start feeling comfortable with these uncomfortable states.
Finally, ACT is about commitment to one’s values, and behaving in a way that supports these values. For example, in the case of a young employee, who undertakes a developmental assignment, we can assume that the employee will value personal development to gain new knowledge and experiences. Now, being the first time abroad, lacking trust from host-country employees, and missing the social network back home, this young expatriate will most probably feel distressed at first. Here is where choices for actions come into play. One option is to fight or avoid feeling distressed, for instance, by communicating less with ‘unfriendly’ colleagues, reviewing one’s assignment priorities (I will just have fun abroad, and get less engaged with work), or returning back home earlier. However, none of these actions would support the initial values of the employee. Another option is to engage in value-driven behavior in spite of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, through accepting them. In this case, the employee can explicitly try to engage in behaviors to gain the trust of host-country colleagues, and use the time away from family and friends as a valuable experience to learn from, which aligns with his/her values.
All in all, I see this approach as valuable, because it is a mindset and way of being that can help successfully performing no matter which life adversities one faces. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the prominent advocates of the above ideas, puts it, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Maybe there should also be a place for this approach in expatriate training and support initiatives? After all, expatriation is certainly not an experience in calm waters!