Expat Expectations

Often frustrated, disappointed or angry? Learn how shifting your expectations can create more peace and wellbeing

Let’s talk about expectations. You’ve recently moved to a new country, or perhaps you’re an expat already well adjusted to living abroad. Do your expectations influence your day-to-day experience? Do your expectations impact how you respond to the daily difficulties and joys of being human in a new culture? The answer is probably, yes, of course they do.

When people in a new country stare at you because you look unique or different, does that bother you? Did you expect this not to happen? When you get asked 10 times a day about your job, or if you’re married, how do you respond to that? Were you expecting people to act differently towards you? Where did that expectation come from? Maybe you are a student, and your peers are relating to you much differently than they did back home. Can you adjust your expectations to make room for this new reality?

I think it’s important that we examine how our expectations are playing a part in our daily responses. Another way to frame this is looking at our reactions versus our responses. When we react, we are operating from our past conditioning and our expectations that people/conversations/ events play out a certain way. When it doesn’t happen like that, we can become frustrated, angry or disappointed. Is this response beneficial? Maybe yes, probably no.

On the other side of the coin, when we respond, we are taking a moment to choose how to proceed. The response is usually more thoughtful, skillful and wise. Taking a moment before responding allows us to consider how our expectations might be influencing how we perceive this moment. Thus, one might even decide that not responding is the best response in this situation. We might think about this through the lens of becoming a ‘pauser.’ Taking that extra moment to pause, soften and relax around this experience, so as to make emotional room for it to exist just as it is, not how you think it should be. In fact, if you notice yourself often using ‘should’ as you think about things, this is your red flag that your expectations may be ruling your experience.

William James, who some consider the founder of American psychology, has said that “the art of being wise is the ability to know what should be ignored.” This connects neatly to how we might think about expectations, and that is the key- thinking about/being mindful of our own expectations. Here are three simple (but maybe not easy) things we can do to play around with how our expectations might be influencing our experience:

  1. Notice any patterns related to people, events or situations that seem to trigger feelings of disappointment, frustration, anger or any other feeling/ emotion. This includes “should”-ing. Often just noticing that pattern can be enough. For example: Ohhh, I often get frustrated with the teenage girl on the motorbike who cuts me off in traffic without looking where she’s going. She “shouldn’t” be driving like that! This is one of mine, but you can think about what triggers you in your life.
  2. Reflect on your expectation. For example: I believe that the person/event “should” be other than it actually is. Is that realistic? I grew up in America, where people are taught to drive cautiously, and more often than not, yield to others in the name of safety, and certainly look over our shoulder when driving to check the blind spot. However, in Asia, at least in Vietnam, people don’t drive that way. Can I make emotional room for that reality? Can I expect to be cut off when driving, and adjust my driving style accordingly (more defensive driving)?
  3. Practice shifting your expectations once you’ve noticed and reflected on which expectations are impacting your sense of peace and wellbeing. You might take a moment each morning to set the goal to become a ‘pauser,’ or to respond instead of react when your triggering event inevitably takes place. For example: Ok, when I get cut off today, I’m going to take a deep breath, try to remember that is the norm here in Vietnam, and that this teenager wasn’t taught how to drive safely and considerately.

In psychology, this is called “response flexibility.” We are training ourselves, when appropriate, to think about things and respond to people and situations that are more beneficial for us and others. William James said, “the art of being wise is the ability to know what should be ignored.” This can mean having the ability to mentally re-frame a situation, by noticing the “should” thought, and learning how to choose to let that thought go.

One final note, it is not suggested here that we need to learn how to let go of all expectations surrounding events and people that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes the wise and skillful choice is to take appropriate action so that our (or other’s) health, wellbeing and safety is the priority. If you feel like you could use help managing the expectations and challenges of being an expat abroad, you can contact me.

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