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The Expat’s Gremlin Called Shame

As Brené Brown puts it, “shame is the gremlin who says, ‘Uh, uh. You're not good enough.’” I firmly believe that our own very special expats’ gremlin is particularly creepy. It is small enough to fit into our luggage when we move around, so we cannot escape, no matter how fast we move around the globe.

Unfortunately, the insecticides they spray on fields don’t kill this parasite.

We all left home, sometimes quite young, and knew how to build a life somewhere else without asking anybody for help and, in the end, we made it! We are from that species of self-reliant people who don’t like to complain. We are strong and most of us are survivors!

When I first went through a shame workshop during my psychotherapy training, I thought “This is not about me. I am fine. I don’t feel any shame!” Now it makes me smile…yes, as you can probably guess, I quickly found out how much this is about me as much as about anybody else who's not a psychopath.

Why Expats Feel Shame

One of the most powerful triggers of shame is the feeling of being different. “Different” is dangerously close to “inferior”, “wrong”, or “damaged”. The very feeling of being somehow different is an intrinsic part of an expat’s emotional existence. How many times a day do you shiver thinking “Oh, here we are again…I didn’t know that because I am not from here”? It happens to the most integrated of us not to understand a joke, or to pronounce a word in a funny way, or to be the first or last to arrive at a party. When we come to a new place it is so easy to not fit in somehow, to stick out.

Putting Up the Defenses

Even if it has been ages since we arrived in the country and we tend to think the shameful struggles of the first days are over and behind, we can feel like sinking again, overwhelmed by a desire to disappear. The triggers can vary: a new job, a new fitness club, or a new flat share with somebody we don’t know or trust yet. The situations where we come into an established group of people are the perfect settings where unconsciously our historical shame story is replayed on a new stage. The characters are different, the set is changed, but the feeling is the same.

Often, because we went to these dark places already so many times, we know how to hide our shame. Our defenses are perfectly up and running, and at any moment we are ready to joke about our own clumsiness or to minimize what’s going on. We find ourselves standing there as perfectly trained little soldiers, shaking inside and shining outside in our glamorous armor. We are warriors after all, aren’t we?

Did you already find yourself feeling righteous or compulsively blaming somebody else (“the others”, the locals, for example)? These reactions as well are only natural defenses from feeling shame.

Frozen in Time

Our own historical shame experience often goes back to our preverbal stage of development. As grownups, when we feel shame again, we tend to regress to these old places and, as result, to remain speechless. So, when any of this linguistic shame is triggered, we freeze, losing our ability to speak the local language. When it happens, and we are slowly sinking in the middle of these perfectly articulate adults, we feel as if we were three or five years old, so how on earth may we be fluent in any foreign language?

You Are Not Alone with Your Problem

Feeling shame is a painful and lonely experience. Therapists and researchers who specialize on it insist that the only antidote to this poison is contact or empathy. And, good news, they are available to everybody, and free. This is one of the reasons why getting together with fellow expats helps. When you meet somebody whose background and experience is so similar to yours, sharing normalizes and alleviates the feeling of shame.

As Brené Brown reminds us at the end of her TED talk: “The two most powerful words when we're in struggle: me too.” The gremlin doesn’t like to hear these simple words pronounced by others in his presence.

So, I will go first, and say: me too! I often feel awkward, inadequate sometimes and so painfully unable to fit…

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