Emotional aspects of being an expat
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
Indeed, there's the German bureaucracy, there's the difficulty of finding place in schools and Kitas, as well as the nightmares of finding an apartment. With so many challenges right at the start, getting used to a new life in Berlin can be a demanding task. But there's also a more subtle, less tangible, yet also very real aspect of why becoming an expat can be a difficult process. There are deeper emotional buttons that are pushed – understanding some of these, and becoming aware of one's inner dynamics is an important first step to starting to view things from a new perspective and start feeling better. In this post, I explore some of the deeper emotional aspects of becoming an expat – with the help of a Grimm fairytale. And I also provide some self-reflection questions, so by the end of the post you'll also have learnt about where you are currently in your own process.
Arriving to a new city that you'll from now on be calling your home is always an exciting as well as scary thing. And of course there are a lot of external factors that affect your experience at first, such as: are you arriving into a situation that's been pre-arranged for you (e.g. you have a visa, an apartment, your kids' schooling is sorted out...) or you need to start all of these yourself from scratch? Are you coming to a job, or are you hoping to find something asap? Coming here in a relationship, or are you single (or actually had to leave somebody important at home)? Already have established social circles in Berlin, or the bus driver from Tegel to Zoo is currently your closest acquaintance? These external factors naturally have a huge impact on how you feel about all of this change happening. On the other hand, they are not the only ones affecting your experience. In fact, in my counseling practice I quite often hear things like "I don't understand, I should be happy. I have a job and an apartment and I get to live in this awesome city. Still, I'm not as happy as I should be." That 'should' indicates that, not only are there emotional challenges in getting used to this new life situation, but there's also a sense of guilt about it (which of course, makes it even more difficult).
In my counseling practice I very often work with fairytales to discover some of the key emotional dynamics of a challenge. After having a chat with a person, I can of course understand the situation better and therefore recommend the fairytale that is exactly right for that person in that moment (and, to be clear: the stress of moving and starting something new can push a big variety of emotional buttons, depending on each person's individual sensitivities), so everything that follows will be a bit broad and generous, but still valid. In order to highlight a couple of the more general aspects of expat blues, I have chosen a fairytale that contains a lot of wisdom on the topic: One-eyes, two-eyes, three-eyes by the Grimm Brothers.
If you have a couple minutes to spare, than I sincerely recommend reading the full fairytale, which takes about 7-8 minutes. Clicking on this link will open a new tab and once reading it, you can just close it and come back here to the analysis. If you don't have time to read the full version, then read on here, and I will provide you with a 2-minute summary of the story (which really doesn't do it justice, but I realize I have to do it, given this fairytale is relatively less known). Once you get started, make sure you read the whole story. If it irritates you, makes you sad, or on the contrary, makes you happy, just read on – observe yourself. In fact, if you're an expat, or have been in the past, there is a high likelihood that you will emotionally resonate to one or some of the themes that the story introduces. The post continues after the summary of the fairytale with some self-reflection questions, which can perhaps facilitate you learning something about yourself.
One-eye, two-eyes, and three-eyes (Grimm)
There was once a woman, and she had three daughters, one had one eye, the other two eyes, the third one three eyes. The girl with two eyes was not liked ("not endured") by her mother and sisters, as she was seen too ordinary. So she did not get enough food from her mother and was constantly hungry. One day, while shepherding her goats, Two-Eyes came across a wise woman who wanted to help her and so taught her a magic spell that made the goat set a table for the girl with unlimited food, and another one to clean it all away, once she's had enough. So from that day on, Two-Eyes is again well fed. But the mother notices something strange about the girl, and sends first One-Eye with her, to observe what happens to Two-Eyes when she is out in the pastures with the goats. But One-Eye falls asleep and doesn't notice anything strange. Then Three-Eyes is sent along with the girl, and she discovers the secret of the goat (only two of her eyes fell asleep, the third one didn't), she tells the mother all about it, the mother is angry and reprimands her for wanting to "fare better" than the others, and kills the goat.
As Two-Eyes is crying, the wise woman appears again, and suggests that Two-Eyes buries the entrails of the goat next to the house. She does that, and the next morning there is a wonderful tree with leaves of silver, and fruits of gold, that grew overnight out of the inner organs of the goat. The mother would like to get some of the golden apples, but One-Eyes and Three-Eyes cannot reach them, the branches keep avoiding them. Only Two-Eyes can pick fruits from the tree.
Some time later, a young knight appears and is amazed by the tree. He requests the ladies of the house for a fruit, but they cannot offer that to him, as the branches keep moving away from them. Finally Two-Eyes, who was until then hidden in a barrel by her sisters so as not to shame them, rolls a few golden apples to the knight, and is then discovered. The knight asks her what he can do for her in return for the apples and she asks him to take her with him. He does that and also marries her. The next morning, as they wake up, they find Two-Eyes' wonderful tree next to the castle, as it has somehow followed her: it vanished from the mother's house, and reappeared at Two-Eye's new home overnight. They live happily afterwards – a few years later, Two-Eye's sisters come to the castle begging, and she greets them with kindness and generosity.
Having read the fairytale, take some mental notes while thinking about the following:
1. How do you feel in general about this story? Was it boring, weird, sad or happy? Was there something about it that you found particularly interesting?
2. Which was your favorite scene? Did you have a favorite location?
3. Was there a character you particularly liked? Or particularly hated? Or who you felt was totally blah?
(4. Once you read the below analysis, if you realize that there are characters, or parts of the story, that you totally forgot about or didn't notice, or which you misunderstood, it is worth noting that as well).
As you read the below, keep your answers in mind. Every time a topic comes up that seemed interesting/good/bad based on the above, it is an indication that there is something in there that is worth taking a closer look at. Try thinking about it in the context of your life. Where is this theme present in your own life? And why is it particularly important or interesting right now?
This fairytale gives us a wealth of themes to explore, many of those connected to the general feeling of instability and insecurity, the feeling of "uprootedness" (which is going to be a particularly good expression when we get to the part with the tree), and I will try to focus on the ones that are perhaps the most often occurring ones in the lives of fresh expats.
The family setup at the start already gives us an opportunity to observe two distinct dynamics. The mother-daughter relationship is my relationship to my home. The feeding aspect (primarily emotionally, but also of course physically) is connected more to the feminine nature of my land (vs. the 'mythical membership to the nation', which is more of the masculine aspect, as seen in expressions such as 'Vaterland' in German, 'Fatherland'). So the fundamental problem becomes clear: the protagonist is hungry, as she is not fed properly by her home. Which home are we referring to here? The old one or the new one? I think the tale itself allows the interpretation of both, and instead of answering that, I would encourage you to give it a thought: in your case, which home would be represented by this mother who is not feeding her child properly? In our everydays, we are "fed", nurtured in many invisible ways: by friendships, by belonging to various communities from colleagues to church members, we're fed by having familiar places, by knowing how things work, by having reliable structures, institutions that protect us, etc. When that sense of being nurtured is not there with us, then we get an uneasiness, even if just subconsciously, that the world may not be as safe and as reliable as we might have thought before. Please also note that later in the story, the mother will scold the daughter for trying to "fare better than the others". Did your old home appreciate your initiative, your desire to grow, to develop to your full potential?
The relationship with the sisters is a dilemma of belonging. Where do I belong? Am I in or am I out? Two-Eyes views the world in her own way, but she seems to be alone with that perspective, which makes her feel like an outcast. Expat life has this strange transition phase in which I suddenly have to reconsider where I actually belong. A first, I am only physically separated from my friends at home (but that's okay, we'll keep in touch, there's Skype, we'll visit each other often, etc.). Then, after a while, I start noticing that we understand each other less and less, and the emotional distance starts to grow as well. Their life continued in a certain way, but I got away, I'm experiencing new things, I'm changing, it becomes difficult to share all those after a while. So, at first subconsciously – and then after a while, I became consciously aware of it as well – I realize that I am losing that sense of belonging to my friends. On the other hand, my new connections in my new home are not yet as strong, not yet as intimate, not yet as deeply rooted in shared memories, experiences, shared laughs and tears, as my old ones used to be, so all of a sudden I feel myself in-between the two worlds, and that feels very isolated. That's what Two-Eyes feels like in-between her two sisters.
The 'where do I belong?' question has many implications, one of it going as deep as questioning one's own sense of identity. In short: 'Where do I belong?' can very easily lead to 'Who am I really? What do I want?' and that is not an easy question to answer, especially not when at the same time we're in the process of sending in our 20th apartment application or standing since 5am in front of the Ausländerbehörde. But it is a very valuable, and very important question, one that will ultimately encourage us to look deeper into ourselves and gain a more complete understanding of who we are. But at first, we're trying to avoid the transformation, we're afraid to change, so we do our best to subconsciously resist the inner change that is definitely going to happen (the soil that the plant grows in always has an effect on the plant, how could I stay unaffected by my new environment?). The magic spell and the food provided by the goat is, in my interpretation, a symbol of all the attempts in which I try to resist unfamiliarity. At first, I may spend all of my free time catching up with people "at home". I may seek out the Berlin community of people coming from my homeland, enjoying that I can talk in my own language and share the same cultural reference frame. I may try to travel "home", or watch TV or listen to radio "from home" as often as I can. The list continues – we all find ways to maintain our old sense of belonging, even within the new context. And in some instances, this can even prove to be a solution that is sustainable on the long term – some people stay perfectly happy at this phase. But to many, this is only a temporary fix, and there are deeper forces that have woken up inside of us, demanding a more fundamental change to happen (the sisters' spying on Two-Eyes is perhaps a good representation of the factors that are trying to attack our blissful state of not being really either her nor there, but still, feeling kind of okay about it).
→ Read here about how fairytale counseling works and why it's worth giving it a try: click here.
The scene in which the mother kills the goat is of course, a brutal one. The separation hurts, it feels like being rejected, it is scary that there is no turning back in this process. Still, it is a necessary step, that umbilical cord must be cut, because without letting go of some of the old, we cannot let in the new (and this equally applies to you if you've come to Berlin only for a short time, or if you're planning to spend the rest of your life here). And this creates a major inner conflict, one which seeks to be resolved in any way possible. The burying of the goat's intestines is the peak point of the transformation: burying is saying good bye, the girl finally manages to say goodbye to something that up until then provided her with comfort, that fed her, that gave her a sense of security. At the same time, she is also burying a layer of her own identity, she has shed a skin and is ready to finally notice her shiny, new skin, that is already there. This saying of good bye, and not only to some of our old acquaintances, but also to old customs, old ways of thinking, old routines is also saying good bye to a part of ourselves, or, rather: a perceived part of ourselves. It is often painful and we can resist it as long as possible, but the fairytale teaches us that it is a process that we can actually trust. On one hand, the essential components of the old self are not lost, they are there deep down, providing an inner source of energy (the goat's intestines), and on the other hand, the new that is born (the tree) is strong and shiny and can not only adapt perfectly to the new environment, but can also thrive, producing golden fruit.
The tree is a representation of the girl's new identity, and no wonder the branches keep moving away from the sisters, only the heroine who has gone through this process has access to the golden apples, the fruits of the transformation: to the sense of strength and vitality, to new opportunities opening up, new ideas and strategies. There is no shortcut here, this transformation is a path that needs to be walked by each of us for ourselves.
One of the key conclusions of the fairytale is that perhaps the truer answer to the question of 'where do I belong to?' is not just finding another circle to belong to, but to develop a sense of self that is more independent, more resilient than any literal or emotional membership: the tree with silver leaves and golden fruits follows the girl, even when she moves, and is able to grow roots even next to the castle, a symbol of her drastically changed living conditions.
There are many other symbols and themes and details in this fairytale that could be important to you individually (as each of us will resonate differently to the story – this is why the fairytale counseling that I facilitate is highly individualized), but this post has already turned quite long. In closing, I would like to share a thought about the male character's arrival. I encourage you not to interpret it in terms of gender, this is not at all about the female character finally being saved by the male. Much rather: every character in the story is a representation of your own soul, and the female and male characters symbolize different parts of your soul. Whichever gender you identify with, you will have a more feeling, sensitive, vulnerable side – and you will have a more doing, actioning side. This is what is depicted in this fairytale. So whichever gender you identify with, you will have something inside that is vulnerable and that is hurting. And that hurting will eventually take you through a process of letting go of something, and discovering something new. And when – and only when – that transformation happens, that's when you will truly start actioning, creating real change in your external reality: your newly found self will start taking shape in your life, your relationships, your work, your overall happiness and wellbeing.
Ultimately, being an expat is a little bit of symbolically dying, and then a little bit being reborn on the subconscious level. And if reading this, you feel irritated and frustrated, and are thinking 'that's not what I signed up for', then trust me: I know. It's tough, and it feels out of our control. But I think there is also a lot of good news. For one, this fairytale gives us hope by showing just how wonderful and resilient that new tree is, and how valuable the golden apples. On the other hand, don't forget that there are at least about half a million other people in Berlin, who are probably going through some stage of the same process. And soon there will even be expat fairytale groups, where we can explore these themes in the context of our lives even deeper!
Going back to your self-reflection: fairytales always take us though a process. Which scenes you found particularly interesting or emotionally important may be a fair depiction of where you are at in your own process right now. The character that annoyed you may show you what is your strongest pain point, and the part of the story that you didn't notice or forgot may show you something that you are subconsciously trying to block or disregard – all in all, try interpreting these indications in the context of your own life, and finding practical next steps, ideas for how to move forward. The path that the fairytale shows is quite long, and it is perfectly normal to feel stuck at any point. In my fairytale counseling sessions, both individual as well as group sessions, we identify the causes, and then also find ways to help you move along that path. And most importantly: find ways to help you feel better grounded and happier in your everydays. If you're interested in some of the practical methods we use in these sessions, you may find this post interesting. And if you'd like to give it a try, I encourage you to get in touch with me and book a first, free consultation.