This one is a particularly special interview for me.
After several months of getting to know the ins and outs of how expats and repats have battled with the question “Should I stay or go?”, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the personal and professional experience with this question from Wiebke, an intercultural trainer, expat coach and founder of Chameleon Coaching.
In fact, Wiebke is the person who, unbeknownst to herself, helped me reaffirm my decision to become a repat, after I had individually done the inner work and self-reflection I needed to do to find clarity within me.
She helped me address the fears, both real and imagined, that I had about repatriating, which have a whole other flavor to them when you’re an Adult Third Culture Kid without an anchor in the world.
As Wiebke is an Adult Third Culture Kid herself, with a colorful expat journey and who also chose to return to her passport country, she knew exactly what I was talking about.
With all that in mind, I hope you’ll enjoy learning about Wiebke’s personal and professional take on how to decide whether to stay or go.
Please introduce yourself – who are you and where has your expat journey taken you so far?
My name is Wiebke, I live in Northern Germany with my husband and our two teenage boys. In terms of expat “terminology” I am an Adult Third Culture Kid, former expat, multiple repat and passionate global citizen.
I am also very dedicated to my work as Intercultural Trainer and Expat Coach which gives me the possibility to build bridges and support others on their personal journey across cultures.
I grew up in Belgium (11 yrs), USA (1.5 yrs) and Spain (5 yrs) where my dad’s job as a cotton trader took us.
Even though my parents as well as my passport are German, I moved to Germany for the first time at age 18 – what a culture shock! I attended the Euro Business College in Hamburg to become a “European Executive Assistant”.
After a few years of working in Hamburg, adventure called and led me to work for a German bank in Santiago de Chile. After an unforgettably wonderful year I decided to return to Germany to be with who later became my beloved husband.
A few years and a wedding later, my husband got an expat assignment in Puebla/Mexico for 3 years. We were thrilled as we already had a few friends there and we had heard so many good things about Mexico. I was able to get a local job as an executive assistant. It was in Puebla where we had our first son who was 1 year old when we returned to Germany.
The following 2 years were a crazy phase with short term stays in Paris (where we were assaulted), Santiago de Chile (where I was very pregnant) and Miami (where we had the luxury of staying on Key Biscayne) due to my husband’s work. In the midst of this back and forth, our second son was born.
The family was growing and we needed more stability and a safe place to raise our boys. We decided to move close to my parents’ house near Bremen. It was what I had always hoped for, to have the grandparents close by so they can enjoy each other and for me to get some family support! It worked out wonderfully and we are so grateful for it on many levels.
Five years later, my husband had to change jobs and we moved to a small town near Hannover/Germany 9 years ago where we are all integrated but never 100% settled. We keep dreaming of another adventure abroad and I’m sure this will not be our last station.
Time flies! We can’t believe we managed to stay in one place for so long! We are very grateful for how everything has worked out so far. Especially now during Corona we are glad to be here, close to our families, in a rural area and our nice house.
What has your experience been with the “Should I stay or go?” question?
As a child I didn’t have the possibility of choosing whether I wanted to stay or go. I just had to follow along wherever my parents decided to go.
This “powerlessness” is something many Third Culture Kids struggle with as adults. I believe it is one of the main reasons why I expatriated to Chile at age 25 – to prove to myself that I am truly free and my own boss now.
Another aspect that I have observed in the generation of my parents, is that the decision-making process to move abroad was mainly in the hands of the husband who in 99% of the cases had the job.
The wife was financially dependent and expected to follow along and support the husband. As a consequence, many expat wives ended up unhappy, resentful or depressed.
Fortunately, things have changed and nowadays the decision to move abroad is made by both partners on a much more equal level.
Even if it was my husband’s job that took us everywhere, I needed to know that it was just as much my decision as his. In fact, I was the one that pushed for Mexico and I was also the one that pushed for coming back after three years.
Throughout our marriage, we have had to make quite a few complex decisions. What has helped me the most is knowing that we both have an equal say and a veto right in case something is a total no-go.
We are both always open to talk and rethink our work-life-balance when something is not working out. I think this is crucial for any good relationship.
As an intercultural trainer and expat coach you have also witnessed the decision-making process of should one stay or go from the outside. I’d love to hear about your observations on how the expats you’ve supported have come to a decision.
When you are single, the decision process whether to stay or go lies entirely within yourself. It is less complex than when you have to consider your partner’s and your children’s needs as well.
Either way, it’s not easy to resolve that inner conflict between different values and needs that people may have.
“To make it even more complicated, our priorities and preferences change over time and each life phase comes with its own set of requirements.”
On the one hand, we have our pride that we want to make it work abroad and not give up. We don’t want to admit that things may have turned out differently than expected and we feel the pressure of being responsible for uprooting the family.
Or we are addicted to all the thrills, pleasures and benefits of life in that country, are inspired by the new friends that we have made, proud of the language we have learned under great effort or the great career steps we were able to make.
On the other hand, we might miss the deep relationships with our good old friends and our family at home, the ease of doing things in our native language and habitat, better career options or health care.
We might long for stability/safety/climate/food but also the feeling of home and belonging. A place where we can just be – without having to make a big effort all the time. We might crave simplicity and peace.
I’m sure there are even more sides to it the more people you ask.
So how does one marry so many different, and potentially conflicting, needs and desires?
What should people base their decision on?
Personally, I cannot count the number of pros and cons lists I’ve made in my life. But the problem with these lists is that each item seems to have the same importance. Of course that’s not really the case.
What’s more, our fears, hopes, values, gut feelings are not well reflected in such a list.
In the end, my best compass has always been my heart and what really matters the most to me.
What also always helps is to talk about it with the people who are involved or who it affects. In my case, my husband and my children.
But I have also found great support in the conversations with my best friend.
“It is good to get out of your own head and look at things from different perspectives.”
That said, I have found it very important to get clear on what I wanted and find a balance that felt good.
Something I personally could have done better was to listen to the signs earlier. Being more aware of how things may be going in the wrong direction.
“That said, to be able to do that, I would have needed more self-awareness and confidence to be able to listen to my needs and voice them before things got too bad.”
When you are stuck in your decision-making process, what you need is clarity.
- why you went abroad in the first place
- what your most important values are
- how to live a life in alignment with those values
How can one find clarity? We all have different strategies and preferences. Some need to run a marathon, others dig up their garden, write, meditate or paint their way through.
I like digging in the garden, literally working on the “root” cause of my problem. And I’ve turned to a coach on several occasions. A coach is a wonderful sparring partner who listens actively, summarizes, structures and takes you step by step through the decision making process.
A coach can help you take on a different perspective, reframe your situation and come up with completely new solutions.
“One of my first coaching clients tried to decide whether to stay or go and was indecisive between plan A and B and ended up considering plan C only to go through with plan D.”
She was surprised when she realized that there are more options than she originally thought.
I very much encourage seeking an “as well as” approach as opposed to an “either/or” decision.
The “Inner Conference” or the “Inner Team, by Friedemann Schulz von Thun, a renowned German psychologist, is a highly effective tool for this.
It’s a wonderful way of letting all your inner voices speak up, even the shy and shameful ones. They have an honest and lively discussion, listen to each other, acknowledge each other’s points and then seek a solution where you can stay in line with your values, hopes and dreams.
The method has proven itself highly effective over and over again, and not just with expat-related questions, so I created a freebie around it with self-coaching instructions and a template that you can download from my website.
When was the last time you had to make a tough decision?
The last time I had to make a hard decision was actually not related to the expat context, but it is a great example of how I felt stuck and my pros and cons lists just did not help one bit.
I was struggling in a new job that I had taken on 18 months earlier. I truly enjoyed the work itself, it was a job in tourism and involved travelling, something which I had always dreamed of. But the team I worked in just wasn’t a very good fit, we didn’t connect and the collaboration drained much of my energy.
Additionally, the work hours didn’t match our children’s after school care, the pay was low and I was in constant conflict between my family’s, my company’s and my own needs. When I started to experience health problems, I knew I had to change something.
I tried seeking dialogue. I tried mental exercises. Nothing worked. Then I made a list with pros and cons, should I stay or go? But it didn’t work.
I had to hit rock bottom. My default coping mechanism is a very unhealthy one: perfectionism.
I tried to prove myself by working even harder and tried to deliver 120% perfect work, somehow hoping that they would then accept me in the team. Which of course didn’t work because the root cause of the team’s problems were completely out of my control and had nothing to do with me.
It wasn’t until I was battling with insomnia and depressive episodes that I finally understood that I had to make a decision. I had tried talking with the boss. I had tried to work on myself by meditating and practicing self-coaching, but nothing really helped. It was important for my peace of mind that I had tried everything that was in my power.
You would probably think it’s a no brainer so why was it such a hard decision to make?
But I had other voices in me that held me back.
“I am not a quitter. I fought so hard to get here.” “Don’t let them win.” “You are old enough to have more self-esteem.” “This was your dream job, don’t let them ruin it.” “I’m a failure.” “I will never find a job that fits.” “Maybe they’re right and I wasn’t any good at what I did? I’m a fraud.”
In addition to finally making a decision, working with my inner child helped me become more aware of these thought patterns and transform them into more helpful positive affirmations.
Finally, how does one know that they’ve made the right decision?
I think it’s a myth that anyone is able to make a 100% right decision. How can we ever know?
The most important thing is not to get stuck – “paralysis through analysis” won’t get us anywhere.
Sometimes it’s better to just make a decision, even if it’s only a 60/40 decision. The feeling when you’ve finally made a decision is a great relief in itself. And besides, nothing is set in stone.
“Still, as easy as that sounds, we are often afraid to make decisions that we might regret later. We are afraid to have to sacrifice one thing for another.”
Adventure and change in return for more safety and continuity. Or independence in return for relationships. Or vice versa.
We all have our personal preferences and struggle in different areas to find that right inner balance.
What’s more, our fears have a lot to do with our negative beliefs, as in the example I made earlier.
What I found most helpful for me personally is meditation, self-compassion, deep conversations, journaling, coaching, laughing and not taking myself so seriously… It’s important that you allow yourself to experiment with different methods until you find what works for you.
I’d like to close with my favourite life motto: Always expect the unexpected!
It might just take some of the pressure off your shoulders and remind you that you cannot control everything in life, including the consequences of your own decisions.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.