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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The expat happiness factor: How our baggage weighs us down

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Brian D. Mahan, SEP
Brian D. Mahan, SEPhttps://briandmahan.com/
Brian D. Mahan is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner who lives in Mérida. Brian is a teacher, lecturer, and the author of I Cried All the Way To Happy Hour —What To Do When Self-Help Or Talk Therapy Haven’t Really Helped. He specializes in breaking patterns and changing limiting beliefs by healing shock trauma, developmental trauma, and toxic shame.
Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

“No matter where you go, there you are.”
— Confucius

It doesn’t matter if the baggage you carry is Louis Vuitton, it still shows up in a U-Haul. 

Oftentimes, drastic changes bring to the surface our underlying issues that need our attention. You may have left your country of origin, hoping that you could embrace more of your true authentic self in a new environment. A fresh start in a new land can offer all kinds of opportunities and possibilities for your personal learning, growth, and healing, which, by the way, do not occur within your comfort zone.

“Although immigrants come from countries with very different levels of happiness, their reported life evaluations converge towards those of other residents in their new countries,” said Professor John Helliwell at the University of British Columbia and a researcher with The World Happiness Report. “Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose.” 

Based on the same research over 11 years, “positive relationships keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer. Period,” write Marc Shultz and Robert Waldinger for CNBC. In 2022, Finland ranked No. 1 in happiness out of 146 countries, while Canada and the U.S. held the 15th and 16th rankings, respectively. France is No. 20, and Mexico came in at 46. 

So this begs the question: As an expat, how can we increase the likelihood of our happiness in a country with a lower ranking on the happiness scale?

As a stress and trauma specialist with a hyper-focus on healing shame, allow me to share with you the fundamental and foundational earmarks of what I call re-tribalization. Humans are, by nature, tribal creatures. We thrive in groups, and we wither in solitude. Think about it; the worst punishment, save the death penalty, that we inflict upon our fellow man is to put them into solitary confinement. 

We are hardwired neurologically with an instinctual longing for belonging. As infants and young children, we perceive the threat of falling out of favor as a matter of life and death. We will most likely die if we are neglected, rejected, abandoned, shunned, or cast out of the tribe.

Shame is ubiquitous in the human experience. Shame exists anywhere there is a sense of difference. Shame is used in every culture since the beginning of time to socialize children, form and protect the tribe, establish power, and maintain hierarchy. And we want healthy shame. Without it, we would all be sociopaths, and there would be no rule of law. Perhaps an even more nefarious outcome lies in how past shaming experiences inform and form our personalities and, consequently, how we engage with others or withdraw into ourselves.

Most of us have experienced the devastating consequences of losing our tribal groups (workplace, school, friend groups, religious communities, and simply sharing time and spaces with others like in restaurants, sporting events, and concerts) during the COVID-19 lockdown. And as restrictions were lifted, we all had the opportunity to call into question with whom and how we want to spend our time. 

As expats, we face the same double-edged sword. On the one hand, we are strangers in a strange land, and on the other hand, we must discern which of the local tribes we want to belong to and how to be embraced by those tribes. Most will find a nearly overwhelming welcoming into the fold by those who have blazed the trail before us. 

Expats tend to be community oriented and extremely helpful to the newer members, recommending real estate agents, contractors, and household help, and steering them towards restaurants, cultural events, and sites to see. And they are also helpful in sharing inherent obstacles and potential struggles that we may face while matriculating into our new environs. 

Too often, humans try to change their external environments in an effort to change their internal environment — the way they think, feel, and consequently behave. However, at best, it is only a temporary fix. But one universal truth is that the external environment has to reflect the internal environment. A chaotic mind is often reflected in a disorganized home. And old limiting beliefs will always win even if you are not aware of them.

To increase the likelihood of finding your joy and a sense of trust and safety within the tribe, look for evidence of collaboration and support for one another. Seek out friends, co-workers, and neighbors who share common interests and offer a sense of inclusion and meaningful face-to-face interactions. Engage in purposeful work, volunteer, and behave benevolently toward members outside the tribe. Get involved in altruism and/or volunteer to support worthy causes and give back to your new community. 

So yes, it is true that no matter where you go, there you are. And there is always the possibility for growth and personal transformation.

Brian D. Mahan’s book, I Cried All the Way To Happy Hour —What To Do When Self-Help Or Talk Therapy Haven’t Really Helped, is available at Between the Lines or wherever books are sold.

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