Can living abroad clarify your sense of self?

The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling once wrote that the shortest path to oneself leads around the world. Almost 100 years later, one research team is vouching for his theory.

Self-concept clarity

A team of social scientists in the US has found that time spent in another country increases people’s “self-concept clarity”. It doesn’t happen overnight and might not be universal – the researchers recruited participants from an international MBA programme – but this research suggests living abroad can help people to see themselves more clearly and more consistently defined.

Confronting new norms

While there’s a lot to be said for having a “clearer sense of self” – benefits include greater life satisfaction, decreased stress and improved job performance – we must stress again that the study polled international MBA students, not expats and/or their partners. However, much like the participants, expats living abroad also grapple with different cultural values and confront ‘new norms’, and it stands to reason that these experiences, which trigger “self-discerning reflections”, could also increase their self-concept clarity.

Learning to thrive

Through our community of members, we have certainly seen plenty of expat partners, after reflecting on their values and gaining an increased clarity about what they really want to do, thriving over the years. Of course, if an expat immediately retreats into an expat bubble, where they can mostly avoid adapting and integrating, they may not experience much self-reflection. Their time abroad might be pleasant but it would seem unlikely they would start to see themselves more clearly and more consistently defined.

The heart of the matter

So while more research is needed in regard to the impact of living abroad on expats and their partners’ ‘self-concept clarity’, the study should still be of interest to Global Mobility. When looking to recruit foreign talent, we always urge HR departments to highlight the opportunities that will be created by an overseas assignment. Expat partners can also be reassured that they will never be left to their own devices (and self-reflections). With our personalised support, we can help expat partners get to the heart of who they are and what they want – something which will also be of immense benefit to them when they eventually repatriate, too.

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