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Multiple Realities: Expatriates Using Art to Explore & Recreate Personal & Professional Identities

By Jennifer Bradley, Ph.D. and Natalie Tollenaere


Summary: Understanding what influences both who you are, and how you want to be in a new environment is essential to adapting as an expatriate. Read this article and try the exercise below to discover new perspectives.

Expat Living - Art Therapy

Who are you really? What do you want from your life? How do you want to make your living and make a difference in the world? As an expatriate you may find yourself asking these fundamental questions. Exploring your personal and professional identity can be unsettling. However understanding what influences both who you are, and how you want to be in a new environment is essential to adapting as an expatriate. Read this article and try the exercise below to discover new perspectives.

Transition and Confusion

Asking these deep questions about who you really are can be particularly stressful in a new location without the support of your familiar social network. As an expatriate, you are between worlds, and can no longer rely just on the knowledge and skills that you already have. In fact, your existing ways of perceiving may hinder your ability to adapt to a new culture with different values and ways of communicating. How do you deal with the uncertainty and confusion of this "in-between" stage?

Learning from Surrealist Art Methods

Lessons from the history of Art can both inform and inspire transformation. How is art relevant to transition? Art provides us with tools to explore and make sense of our experiences. In the early 20th century, surrealists moved away from the realistic approach of their peers. Influenced by the work of Freud, Jung, and others they realized that human beings are not only bodies, but also psychological beings. Surrealists let go of the need to create a final product to please the eye of the observer, and focused on the process, one that could lead them to access the mind. They created art work that, although it might look odd to the external eye, revealed their inner thoughts and feelings.

Art provides tools and processes to support you to take those first steps to build bridges between your old and new realities. Inspired by the surrealist approach, you can use art to question your subconscious mind. Why access your inner self? Because often this is where the answers lie. Only you can answer questions such as "Who am I?" and "How can I contribute?" You can use art as a starting point to make friends with the transition process.

William Bridges, author and transition expert, says that letting go is the first necessary step of transition. But letting go is not a one-time event. It is more than a cognitive decision. It involves our emotions. Transition is an ongoing process that entails moving back and forth while you explore and experiment with new perspectives and develop new skills. As part of this process, you discover and integrate new realities and recreate your identity.

Apply Art to Your Own Life

Try out the Creative Reflexion exercise below to begin this process for yourself. Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem to make sense at first. Follow the steps one-by-one and just observe your present experience. You don’t need to be artistic to do this exercise. You already have the skills you need to create an image using lines, signs, and colors.

What you need:

  • At least three letter size blank pages (white or colored)
  • Coloring pencils, crayons, or felt pens.
  • Choose a quiet place where you can be alone for about 30 minutes.
How to proceed:

Draw a total of three images. Simply follow the instructions below.

Image 1: A drawing of today.

Take the first paper and draw on it how you feel today. It can be just color dots or stick figures. Represent on the paper whatever makes up your environment right now. What is making your day? Who is around you? Who are your friends, if any, yet? How is your relationship to your family? How is your professional life, your creative or cultural life, your house, the country you live in? Include everything that makes your present.

Image 2: An image of earlier life.

On the second piece of paper, draw how you were feeling in your previous life before expatriation. What was making up your day? Who was around you? Which friends, colleagues, family members? What space did you have for your personal growth? Whether positive or negatives, just draw what comes to mind on the page. What was making you the person you were? What was influencing your identity?

Review Image 1 and 2.

Now take some time to observe your two drawings. What do they tell you? What are the biggest changes? How do feel about these changes? Sad? Happy? Angry? Disappointed? Let all these feelings come to your consciousness.

Image 3: Your life in your future.

Now you can create a third drawing. Represent yourself how you would be if you would feel completed, happy, balanced. If you would recover an identity that reflects the real "you", how do you see it? Who would be around you? What would you add to your life? What would you take out? Take what you want from the previous identity and leave what you don’t want.

Next Step: Action

Keep your drawings. From the third drawing, take one idea that you would like to start working on TODAY. Just take one step at a time. One step after the other will help you to move in the direction of your new identity.

About the Author

Jennifer Bradley, Ph.D. is a certified coach and registered occupational psychologist. She specializes in helping people navigate work life transitions in ways that are personally and professionally rewarding. She provides distance career and work life individual and group coaching for expatriate accompanying spouses. For more information, visit

Natalie Tollenaere is a bilingual (English and French) life coach and art therapist specializing in services for globally mobile families. She practices "the art of coaching through art", and is the author of The Art of Possibilities: Creating our path in an internationally mobile life. ISBN 978-1-904881-24-7. See

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Comments about this Article

Feb 8, 2012 12:05

Very interesting approach, great tools for expatriates! Thanks for sharing

Feb 8, 2012 14:24

Thanks for your feedback. Glad you found it helpful. Feel free to contact either Natalie or myself through our websites if you have questions. Jennifer

First Published: Apr 03, 2010

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