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5 Greatest Challenges Expats Face and How to Handle Them

By Dhyan Summers, Licensed psychotherapist

Summary: In an informal sampling of my expat clients around the world, I asked what bugged them the most about being an expat. Here are some of their pet peeves in no particular order, and my suggestions about how to deal with them.

Expat Advice - 5 Greatest Challenges Expats Face and How to Handle Them

1. Missing folks at home

For those who have close ties with friends and family in their home country, this is an extremely difficult part of being an expat. Parents with young children miss the fact that their parents cannot watch their grandchildren grow up. This is especially difficult for a non-working spouse who may not have wanted to live abroad to begin with.

Single people and married couples without children can feel alone and isolated, particularly during the holidays. And single people who are re-posted every few years report how difficult it is to establish close friends in their host countries, as they'll soon be moving on. Taking a trip to someplace new and exciting, especially during holiday time can be a good way to deal with missing loved ones at home.

Fortunately we are living in the age of Skype, so it's possible for grandparents and their grandkids to connect and actually see each other, so expat children can know their grandparents up close. And this is important for adults as well. Of course it's not the same as actually being there, but it's a close runner up.

2. Making new friends

This is a natural segue from #1 above. You miss friends and family at home, so what to do? The answer is to establish a support system as soon as possible once the dust settles.

For non-working spouses, this is especially important. I tell my clients to find something they feel passionate about doing, whether it's learning a language, volunteering, taking up an old hobby or forging a new one, taking an exercise class, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that the activity involves others, as there's nothing like bonding over a shared interest to build a new friendship.

Working singles (and married people too) can sometimes find a support network among their colleagues, and while this might not be ideal, it does offer support. I suggest that my single clients, particularly single women, try to find out if the city or country they are considering relocating to is 'single friendly.' There's a lot of talk in the expat community about postings being 'family friendly', but 'single friendly' is rarely considered.

It can be helpful to ask if there are groups or clubs for single people that involve something you're interested in, like hiking, for example. And of course for single women, how safe it is to be out alone.

3. Dealing with government bureaucracies

It surprised me somewhat to see how much this one showed up, no matter what country the expat lived in. It seems that as expats we deal with a whole different set of red tape than we do in our home countries. We're constantly applying and re-applying for visas, work permits and residency status, depending upon the country. Expats report that rules change so frequently that what worked the last time no longer holds true the next time. This can be frustrating to say the least.

When I find myself in this situation, I try and use it as an opportunity to practice patience, which does not come naturally to me. Sometimes I sit down, close my eyes, and take 10 breaths before I say anything I might regret. When I next approach the person behind the counter, at least I am more relaxed and present and my level of tension has been reduced.

I also come fully stocked with water, something to eat, my pre-loaded Kindle, and of course my phone (if allowed). My expectation is that I'm there for the long haul, which helps me be more patient.

4. Doing any kind of business in a foreign country

This is a bit like #3 but different as it doesn't always involve dealing with a government agency. For some expats, it involves actually setting up a business in a foreign country, which isn't always a piece of cake, particularly in developing nations.

For others, it may mean managing a work force that doesn't share the same work ethic, and having to communicate this to people in the home office who don't have a clue about the cultural differences.

The suggestion I make to my business clients is firstly to have realistic expectations. If you have an expectation that work will be done in the same amount of time in New Delhi as in New York, you are setting yourself up for failure, and somehow this needs to be communicated to the people above you. Invite your superiors to come to your host country and see for themselves the reality on the ground.

If this isn't possible, the only other thing you can realistically do is deal with your own level of stress. This is where my 10 Breaths technique comes in handy. It goes like this: Sit comfortably on a chair and close your eyes. When first practicing this, put both hands on your belly, just below your belly button. Breathing normally, just notice how when you breathe in, the belly expands and when you breathe out it contracts. Do this for a few breaths till you get the feel of it. Next, you're going to give one count to each complete inhale and exhale. So, it's one, inhale/expands, exhale/contracts, two, inhale/expands, exhale/contracts, and so on until you reach 10 complete breaths. If you notice your mind wandering off in thought, just gently bring it back to your belly and your breath and the count.

I've been told by many teachers that it's not how often the mind wanders, that's a given, it's how many times you bring your mind back to the present, and in this case the breath. I suggest this as an antidote to any of the above pet peeves.

So the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, sit down, close your eyes and take 10 breaths. I promise it will be worth the time, no matter how stressed or rushed you're feeling. If it's not possible to close your eyes without drawing attention to yourself, I suggest you go into a bathroom, sit down on the toilet and breathe!

5. Stress at home and work

This is a HUGE challenge that almost all career expat families face at some point. It goes something like this: The working spouse is usually at a new job when first moving to a new country. He (and more and more she) may have increased responsibilities, particularly if working in the corporate world.

There are often different work ethics, particularly in emerging markets, than in a western home country. The working spouse is frequently in the unenviable position of trying to explain the realities on the ground to a boss at headquarters, who just doesn't get why the work isn't getting done fast enough. This can often be coupled with phone calls at all hours of the night. All of which puts an inordinate amount of strain on the working spouse.

At the same time the non-working spouse may be feeling lonely without her or his usual support system in place, and wondering what his or her new identity is without the career that they may have left behind. She may have gone all day without speaking with another adult. When her spouse comes home, she just wants to talk, while he may have been talking all day and just needs some quiet down time.

This results in the couple 'missing' each other, and not being able to communicate. For different reasons, neither spouse may have much to give their partner at these times.

When I see expat couples in my psychotherapy or coaching practice, I suggest that the non-working spouse seek out a support system as soon as possible. It can be scary to reach out in a foreign country, but in most major cities in the word, there are fortunately today, expat groups that exist just for this reason. And if the employer is the Foreign Service department of one's home country, or a UN organization, such as the World Bank, there are systems in place for spouses to get this much-needed support. Please refer to # 2 above, for more suggestions.

If this pattern of non-communication persists beyond a coupe of months, it may be helpful to seek out professional help. Often just a few sessions of marriage counseling can work wonders to put your marriage back on track.

What bugs you the most as an expat? Please shoot me an email and let me know at

About the Author

AS Expat Counseling and Coaching OnlineDhyan Summers is a licensed psychotherapist and director of Expat Counseling and Coaching Services. To book a free session, visit and hit book a free session.

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Comments about this Article

Jan 19, 2015 06:10

Hits the mark on experiences I've had and heard about from others. Suggestions on how to deal with these issues are helpful and do-able. Good article for everyone to read prior to taking on an expat role or retiring overseas.

Jan 19, 2015 23:15

Thanks Craig and Micki, appreciate your feedback. Dhyan Summers

Jan 23, 2015 10:09

As a Life and Stress Management Coach, I so agree with your suggestions for managing stress and the situations that may trigger it. The breath is one of our greatest allies. Conscious breathing helps us to slow down the mind and heightens our awareness, allowing us to be empowered and choose how we respond, i.e. do we choose to react or breathe and respond? Great article!

Jan 24, 2015 10:51

Thanks Teresa, I see we're on the same page.

Oct 31, 2016 10:20

More than red tape, the biggest stress is not knowing from year to year whether you are going to be allowed to stay (Ireland). Even though we bought a house planning to retire here for good, we are reluctant to put down too many roots with our future so unclear. Makes you feel more like a visitor than a resident. Just trying to appreciate every day we are here.

Feb 23, 2017 06:52

This is the first time to use the service of dr.mac@yahoo. com and even if I was a bit skeptical at first, I highly recommend his service to people who need an extra help. It felt good to have my husband back. i never crossed my arms waiting for him to come on his own

First Published: Jan 14, 2015

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