The Intentional Expat

Living Your Best Life Abroad

Are You Ready to Go Abroad?

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In my recent blog post, “Living a Story Worth Telling,” I encouraged you to remember that you only have one life to live and to consider “what do I want to include in my own life story?” I ended the post with two exercises that are helpful for identifying specific things you want to experience during your lifetime. But imagine that you’ve written a letter to your closest friend five years from now and to your surprise, you’ve told him/her that you’re living somewhere different than you are now. What if, you’re living in your home country now, but you’ve realized that in the future you want to live abroad and/or travel extensively? There are many steps involved in helping to get yourself from point A (identifying a vague dream or goal of living abroad) to point B (making this dream a reality after having identified all of the details of what it will look like), and while it can be really exciting to start exploring possible options, many people get stuck along the way because the truth is that making our dreams become a reality involves CHANGE, and change can be really hard.

Psychologists have done a lot of research on people’s ability and willingness to change. Specifically regarding what helps some people to make positive lasting behavior changes, while others stay stuck at a standstill. This is a concept I’ve studied a great deal while working with patients with Eating Disorders. They’re notorious for having poor treatment outcomes, which can be really frustrating to a lot of therapists (as well as to their families and the patients themselves). One concept that I, as well as many other psychologists, have found to be useful in understanding the lack of change in eating disorder patients and thereby providing us with empathy towards them is that of DeClemente and Prochaka’s Stages of Change Model, and I think it can also be helpful in understanding why, despite having known for years that you want to live abroad or go travel, you still haven’t actually done so. Take a look at the infographic below to see what the model looks like:

stages of change2

That’s a lot of info to look at all at once without having more of a context, so let’s look at an example.  I’m going to proceed with explaining the model, phase by phase, continuing to use myself and my real life experience as an example. You’ll see that as the infographic says, change is not a linear process (that’s where the green arrows come in, do I decide to move forward or do I move back to the prior stage?)

1) PRECONTEMPLATION PHASE: In this phase, I don’t even realize that there’s something that needs changing. Some of my friends have told me that I seem unhappy and have even said, “you sure seemed happy when you traveled to Europe, have you thought about going back?” However, I’ve got my eyes set on getting a job in the field of psychology and building up my resume to get into grad school. When I go to work at the psychiatric hospital or volunteer on a crisis hotline, I perk up at chances to talk with my coworkers about their experiences living abroad and talking to patients and callers in Spanish. But I’m not thinking about making any changes. (In this stage it could be that you don’t want to consider exploring your goal of living abroad or traveling because you’ve tried before and it was unsuccessful…maybe you gave up searching opportunities, or you went abroad and have a negative memory). 

2) CONTEMPLATION PHASE: In this phase, I’ve realized that something needs to change. I’m not 100% convinced that I want to work in the field of psychology, or at least maybe I don’t want to pursue my PhD in Clinical Psychology. I’ve realized I feel really ambivalent about committing the next five plus years of my life to living in one place, and being in debt for many years to follow and thus unable to travel. I start considering other options. Should I take a year off? Teach English in Spain? Travel to South America? Volunteer in Costa Rica? I weigh the pros and cons of grad school versus living abroad. I come face to face with a lot of fears about taking the more “irresponsible” route of going abroad.

3) PREPARATION PHASE: By starting to explore specific programs for going abroad, I’ve entered into the next phase. I apply for the Ministry of Education’s English Teaching Assistant program in Spain and I’m accepted! However, ambivalence strikes again and I decide to turn down the offer and stay in Seattle and apply to PhD programs. By doing so, I move back to the precontemplation phase (like the infographic says, change is a nonlinear process!). However, the next spring I learn that I’m didn’t get accepted into a program and I quickly pass through the contemplation phase again and find myself back in preparation mode. I once again apply to be a teaching assistant in Madrid and get accepted. I pop back into the contemplation phase many times in the months and weeks leading up to my departure, but I apply for my visa and…

4) ACTION PHASE:  On September 15th, 2009 I board my flight to Madrid, definitively entering into the action mode of relocating abroad. Dealing with being homesick, committing almost daily faux pas as I adjust to living my life in another language and coming face to face with culture shock, I frequently pass back into the contemplation stage asking myself if I’ve made the right decision, and if I shouldn’t consider going home.

5) MAINTENANCE PHASE: By spring 2010, I’m feeling adjusted to life abroad and considering staying another year. I’ve got a great group of friends, I’m comfortable in my job, my Spanish is improving, I’ve found a volunteer opportunity in the psych department at a university in Madrid and I’ve recently started dating a Spaniard. However, with the ups and downs of life in Madrid in the years to follow (saying goodbye to friends year after year, the stress of the master’s program I’d end up pursuing, comments from family and friends back home regarding when I’d return, etc.), I find myself back in the contemplation phase time and time again, asking myself “am I sure I want to stay here?” “what am I missing out on back in the states by staying?” “what will I lose by moving back home?” Even now, five years after having moved abroad, those thoughts do cross my heads sometimes, but for now, I’m confident saying that I’m in the maintenance phase in terms of my decision to live abroad, and I can call Madrid my home.

Hopefully, this example of my own experience of deciding to move abroad helps to illustrate how the stages of change process can work. The important thing to remember is that just because you don’t make it all the way to the maintenance phase of the process, don’t give up on your dream of living abroad or traveling. Overcoming fears, getting the logistics together and ultimately pulling the trigger can be a long, nonlinear process. However, check out the right hand column of the following chart to see specific strategies  to help you to move along the process:

stages of changegraph

If you want even more info on the research behind behavioral change and how this can help you to take the steps to go abroad (or start to exercise more, eat healthier, be more grateful, etc.), check out this awesome video from Dr. Mike Evans.

 stages of change

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When I first moved to Madrid, I put photos of my past travels up all over my room to remind me of why I had made the plunge

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Author: Melissa

Born in the rainy, green Northwestern corner of the United States, Melissa relocated to the almost-always-sunny city of Madrid, Spain five years ago. After getting her master's degree, traveling to places her friends at home drooled about, falling in love with a Spaniard, and having her heart broken by said Spaniard, it's safe to say that she's learned firsthand about the less than glamorous side of living abroad. Thankfully, she gets to use this experience, along with her professional expertise, in her work as a mental health therapist in Madrid where she helps other expats learn to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of living abroad. This blog is designed to be informative and is in no way intended to serve as a substitute for therapy.

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