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How living abroad changes you

A new survey by Aetna International shows the impact on expats’ personal identities when they move abroad.

It is understood that settling into a new country isn’t a straightforward, gradual process, as the graph below describes:

Table detailing how others feel about their personal identity since moving abroad Table detailing how others feel about their personal identity since moving abroad

For expats and the globally mobile, culture shock can have a significant impact, meaning that people need additional support from friends, families, work or professionals. Aetna International understands that moving to a new country can have a profound effect on people, but we also wanted to quantify the impact as well as drill into specific topics, from personal identity to priorities. We want to use this information to help better support our members, and help employers and individuals better prepare themselves for life abroad.

2018 Aetna International survey

In April 2018, we asked 500 expats: ‘has your sense of identity changed since living abroad?’, ‘do you like yourself more?’ as well as other questions related to the psychological impact of settling into a new culture.

Key findings:

Our survey included people from a broad range of places, living in a broad range of places. The key findings include:

  • 35% of expats surveyed said their sense of identity had changed
  • 31% said they felt like a better person
  • 40% said their priorities had changed since living abroad

Within the international sample were regional patterns. We found that:

  • British and Polish expats’ ‘sense of self’ is less affected by moving abroad than other nationalities
  • American expats’ ‘sense of self’ is more impacted by living abroad than other nations
  • Singapore and Thailand have the biggest effect on expats feeling better about themselves and making them re-evaluate their priorities.

Clearly, moving abroad can have a big impact on people’s identity, and this article explores ideas of identity in the expat community — what affects the sense of identity and its impact on people relocating for work or lifestyle opportunities.

The article will arm you with more detailed knowledge of what expats face when moving to a new country and help those charged with supporting them on their assignment — parents, employers, governments — can aid them as they settle in.

What is identity?

What metrics or factors do humans use to identify themselves as individuals and/or members of a group? And which of these are changed by living abroad?

  • The list of things that inform our sense of self and personal identity is long, but some key ones include:
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Sexual orientation
  • Political outlook
  • Profession
  • Interests and hobbies (sport, music, crafts, interests)
  • Social class
  • Values
  • Character

Most of these don’t — can’t — change.

While things like ethnicity don’t change, we can feel differently about them when living in another culture. For example: gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion becoming more important to us in another country.

This is important. When we’re within our home culture we may not even notice or think about certain factors because they’re the norm. It is only when we become the outsider — when we are contrasted with something different — that these factors become important. For example: If everyone in your community is religious you may not think about the role it plays in making you you, but if you move to a more secular country or one with a different religion, you may start to think about it and think about the role it plays in making you who you are. 

While many of these are immovable objects, what are the changeable factors? What has changed for these 35% of expats? This is a list of things that make up our personalities that can change:

  • Self-worth, self-esteem, pride, value
  • Career
  • Marital status/family status
  • Interests
  • Lifestyle choices
  • Subculture
  • Happiness
  • Beliefs
  • Values
  • Ambitions and drivers

If you’re an expat you may well be thinking of your own examples of things from this list that have changed since living away from home. It’s easy to imagine that living in another country might change your interests, boost your career or help you find love.

A variety of studies have examined factors affecting personal identity as relate to international lifestyles and associated factors. A few key findings include:

  • 1 in 8 expats moved abroad for love (InterNations 2017 Report)
  • 56% of expats are in intercultural relationships (InterNations 2017 Report)
  • 41% of expats say the move has given them a more positive outlook on life (HSBC 2017 Report)

Our own Third Culture Kids (TCK) study shows the impact of international living with many respondents saying they found it hard to build a strong and/or clear identity — while others said it gave them a sense of being a “global citizen” and gave them immense “pride”. While the challenges facing TCKs are far more acute as they try to build a sense of self, they still hint at the things that might affect an adult’s identity when they relocate.

A key thing to address is the reasons people move as this may affect the change in identity – even drive it. For example: 15% of expats moved abroad to find purpose in their career. We might therefore conclude that if they did so, their sense of identity might have been impacted. By their very nature, are expats prepared for — or even inviting — a change in their identity? [source:]

Feelings of ‘homelessness’

Aspects of this challenge do face adult expats, however. Many expats feel that they will never be Swiss/Chinese/Iranian etc. but they also feel what a BBC report calls ‘reverse culture shock’ — feeling like an alien in your home country, often feeling homesick for your new home.

A sense of ‘being from somewhere’ and ‘belonging somewhere’ are clearly important factors in personal identity.

Some expats even report being told ‘you’re not Polish/Australian/French etc. anymore’ by people back home — which probably doesn’t help…

Self esteem

While our survey didn’t ask about specific identity metrics, it did show that 31% of respondents said they were a better person — and surely this is a key factor in our sense of self. 40% added that their priorities had changed — again, a key factor in personal identity: beliefs and values and how they drive our behaviours.

Infographic answering how much expats like themselves, if they feel they are better people, if their sense of self/personal identity changed and whether they've re-evaulated their priorities since moving abroad Infographic answering how much expats like themselves, if they feel they are better people, if their sense of self/personal identity changed and whether they've re-evaulated their priorities since moving abroad

Self-concept clarity

A study published in 2018 by Hajo Adam, an assistant professor of management at Rice University in Houston, Texas, found that ‘self-concept clarity’ (a scale used to measure how well people know themselves) was particularly high in people who were living abroad. The study explains how expats have more opportunities to “find out what is most important to them” because they are free from the “restraints and expectations associated with their own cultures”.

From his own experience, the expat author (originally from Germany) said “While living in France, [I] discovered how much [I] valued being on time”, because in France it’s customary to arrive at parties late. “Sometimes it takes moving abroad to fully understand what’s important to you. And repeatedly going through these experiences forces you to contemplate your values.”

National differences

How were people from different nations affected by moving abroad? Are there any patterns?

Our study asked: To what extent do you agree with the statements “My sense of self and personal identity has changed since living in a foreign country” on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is ‘Disagree Strongly’ and 5 is ‘Agree Strongly’

It is interesting to note that living abroad did not seem to impact British people’s identity, while Americans seem more prone to changing theirs after living abroad. Germans are an even spread of changed, unchanged and neutral while the Poles didn’t seem to have much of a view on the subject. Chinese expats’ identity seems to be deeply impacted by moving away from home.

Does this imply that Americans have a stronger sense of identity or are more aware of the concept of identity and are in-tune with their sense of self? Does it imply that Polish people aren’t hung up on ideas of identity? The fact that Indians mostly said they had no opinion might imply that it’s not that important to them. A simplistic reading of this might be that America has a reputation for driving the individualism of modern liberal capitalist democracy (in which personal identity is important), while community (family, religion, caste) is the dominant identity in India; that identity is not something created, but defined by family, religion or caste – so why worry about it? Certain religions such as Buddhism have specific lines on identity and self which may also affect this.

Nationality is of course a key factor for expats and expat identity, as many expats seek citizenship in their new home. Many first and second generation Indians identify as British or both British and Indian.

Countries that’ll change your life

Looking at self-esteem metrics against destination, we found that:

Nations that change people’s sense of personal identity most and least:

  • 46% of people who moved to the US
  • 27% of people who moved to Dubai

“I have become a better person”

  • 46% of expats living in Thailand
  • 11% of expats living in Dubai

“My priorities have changed”

  • 54% of expats living in Singapore
  • 16% of expats living in Dubai

In summary: moving to the UK doesn’t affect you as much as moving to Singapore, Thailand or the US. And while moving to India might make you rethink your priorities, it won’t make you feel like a better person.

What is it about Dubai that means it makes so little impact on people’s identity? Is it something to do with the city itself? The expat community hindering assimilation or contact with local culture? Or the nature of the expats who go there? For example: if you move for your career you may be less likely to change your sense of self than if you move to a country to raise a family of Third Culture Kids.

Mental health

Inextricably linked to the impact that living abroad can have on one’s identity, psychology, and sense of self is mental health — and mental health issues are a growing problem for expats.

Derek Goldberg is Aetna’s managing director for Southeast Asia and Hong Kong and he says: “There are many challenges that expats face which can result in debilitating mental health issues if ignored. Often, they have to adjust quickly to new and sometimes very different cultures, languages and work responsibilities, and without the usual social support networks back home.”

Read the rest of our expat survey


The challenges of moving abroad will impact everyone differently, and opportunities will be viewed differently depending on an individual’s cultural background, sense of family and self, and reasons for moving. Expats’ need for support to adapt and settle in shouldn’t be underestimated. Culture shock can impact individuals relocating for work as well as those relocating for a change in lifestyle — the shock of moving can affect those who are moving specifically for it, as well as those for whom a new culture is simply a by-product of a career move.

As such, it is important that there is support and guidance available for the whole family, whether or not they’re relocating as well.

Be prepared to:

  • Appreciate the opportunity to experience a new country, culture and lifestyle
  • Learn about your new home
  • Share your cultural heritage with new acquaintances
  • Be open-minded about discovering and building a new life and new viewpoints to become a better version of yourself
  • Talk to a support network about your experiences and feelings
  • Consider which aspects of your personality and values you are or are not prepared to have influenced.

Click here to see the full survey results.

The challenges of expat life

Relocating abroad comes with many challenges, from family and finances to language and health care — all things that can affect our bodies, our minds and our loved ones.

Aetna International understands the expat experience and what people relocating need to thrive in their new home. That’s why we offer so much more than just pay-to-play health insurance: comprehensive pre-trip planning and in-country support from logistics to advice as well as health care, from condition management to treatment. We offer coping mechanisms for people moving abroad to ensure that they maintain their mental health and wellness to make the most of their foreign assignment.

If you want advice and guidance on anything to do with living abroad, mental health or planning an international assignment, give us a call.

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