Why New Expatriates Are Always So Tired (and Other People Are Not)

“I’m tired and overwhelmed. My energy is totally drained out. I even feel dizzy, completely worn out.

I wonder whether it's normal that I'm so tired...

I wonder whether it’s normal that I’m so tired…

You must think that I’m out of my mind: feeling exhausted

  • because I struggled for 3 hours to make a dentist appointment,
  • because my doctor reacts differently than in my home country,
  • because my son’s friend is not showing up on Skype,
  • because I’m invited for afternoon tea by 2 other moms for the first time.

But seriously, all this affects me a lot!

How will I find the energy to move on? I’m so exhausted that I’m wondering at that point what’s wrong with me.”

These are some of the messages I’ve been receiving in the last couple of weeks from recently moved expatriates. Maybe like you.

This lack of energy (provided you’re not suffering from a physical disease) is normal for recently moved expatriates. And I’m going to explain you WHY.

You’re tired but this is not your fault

 

The first thing you need to understand is that you are not less of a person compared to other people: this is not your fault, because it happens to all recently moved expatriates.

By understanding the reasons governing your exhaustion,

  • you’ll be able to develop your own customized coping strategies.
  • You won’t beat yourself up for hours.
  • You’ll even be more tolerant, patient and supportive when other family members show similar symptoms.

To unveil the reason why you feel so exhausted, let’s have a closer look at how your brain works.

Consider the following example. Suppose you want to lose weight. You know that you should mainly eat fruit and vegetables and avoid fatty donuts and whipped cream. Because you want to look great on the beach this summer, you resist for 2 weeks. And yesterday, while walking along a bakery, you smelled the fresh bread, the delicious coffee, you looked at the tempting patisseries: you couldn’t resist any more. You stormed in the confectionary and bought 4 macadamia cupcakes that you ate on the spot. Mmmm, it felt so good!

Does it sound familiar? I believe it has happened to all of us. We make a lot of efforts because we know rationally that it’s the right way to do it but then the temptation comes and we can’t stop it!

The French philosopher, mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal illustrated this very principle, the dichotomy of our minds, when he stated:

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” (Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point)                        Click to tweet

 

It comes from your brain: the story of the Elephant and the Rider

 

There are 2 parts in our brain:

1. the emotional side: responsible for all our feelings, desires, frustrations, emotions, intuitions, aiming at looking for pleasure, satisfaction, contentment.

2. the rational side: the serious inner voice who knows what’s best because it has been scientifically proven, because it’s common sense, because it’s logical.

A psychologist named Jonathan Haidt explained this division of our mind by a powerful metaphor.

Imagine that the emotional side is an Elephant and the rational side its Rider.

The rider is in charge of guiding the elephant, he supervises. He knows what’s the right thing to do. Well, he’s supposed to.
The elephant on the other side is doing what the rider is requesting from him. Well, that is, when he wants to.

Can you imagine what happens when the Rider wants to go to the right and the elephant to the left? Can you guess who is going to win the argument?

Sure, it’s the 6-ton elephant who will have the last word!

The natural conclusion of this matter of fact, is that we work best (most efficiently and less painfully) when Rider and Elephant are aligned. It’s the time where we feel in harmony.

 

But how does it translate in your daily life?

 

Every day, you have a sequence of tasks that you perform automatically, without thinking: breathing, beating eyelids, brushing your teeth, putting your shoes on, locking the door, driving to work, picking up the children from the daycare…

And this is good because the Elephant knows what he has to do: he’s been properly trained to repeat again and again those daily actions and he likes stability. In this case, the Rider doesn’t need to spend any energy on his companion… He’s on autopilot mode.

But when this routine is modified, you can’t rely on the autopilot any more. The Elephant does not recognize his familiar surroundings any longer, he gets confused, lost or scared.

The Rider then needs to work hard. He has to get and process new information, to be focused, to react quickly. And if the Rider hesitates, procrastinates, does not know where to go, the Elephant is puzzled. He stops, goes to sleep or starts to run in the opposite direction!

Now, back to you.

After 9 houses, 6 schools, 5 towns, 4 countries, 3 continents, 9 jobs (3 for you, 6 for your partner) in 15 years, how many “routines” have you created?

Each time, you change house, country, culture, job, you have to rely heavily on your Rider. Compared to a local person who already knows the language and customs of her surroundings, you have to process in a very short time a tremendous amount of information! Your Rider has to work extremely hard to keep the elephant moving. And preferably in the right direction. But this does not happen without trial and error. Which consumes even more energy.

 

This is why change is so tiring.

 

And it affects the entire family. My 13 year-old daughter got headaches when we settled in Australia 18 months ago. She recalls being exhausted during the first months of our arrival. She had to adapt to a new school, a new way of teaching, a new language. She had to recreate a routine taking the bus every morning instead of riding her bike. She had to build up a new network of friends. It was so tiring: she used to go to the library during each lunch break, to please her elephant and get some fun reading. There, alone, she could relax and release some of the tension. She would not be under scrutiny.

Does it all make sense?

Now that you know how it works, you can develop your own strategy to guide the Rider and motivate the Elephant.

I’d love to hear your findings in the comments below.

* This article has greatly benefited from reading “Switch”, a book from Dan and Chip Heath.

** Credit image Wikimedia Commons, Credit music pianosociety

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Comments

  1. For me it gets more tiring with the later moves, cause my expectations to get back on track are higher towards myself 🙂

    • Thanks Liga for your input. I understand the fact that you set yourself
      higher expectations with each move. The more experienced you are, the
      smoother it should be. But the fact is: even is you know the process,
      the practicalities (language, culture, geographical environment, people)
      are always different. Still a lot of new information to process from
      the Rider 🙂

  2. I agree with Liga: ironically, each move is more tiring – it shouldn’t be, as our Rider should know by now what to do with no problems!

    • Thanks Carla for confirming this tiring trend. But it seems to me that
      even if you become more experienced in the moving process (packing,
      unpacking, dealing with relocation agency), all the practical aspects
      differ from country to country. Setting up a bank account in Switzerland
      must be different from The Netherlands, renting a property must follow
      other rules. And you have on top of it to adapt to the local language,
      another culture, different people… There is also another factor which
      comes to my mind: because you already know what’s ahead of you in an
      international move (stress and fatigue), your elephant might even be
      very reluctant and slow you down!

  3. Ute (expatsincebirth) says:

    I think it also depends on the circumstances. If you have time to prepare your move – practically and emotionally – you’re more balanced and you can be more flexible. You won’t suffer this change of routine. I agree with Liga Krist Solima, if our expectations to go back on track as soon as possible are hingh, we get more tired. I think companies do have to understand that a relocation can be made in a weekend or week (!) and especially if you have children, you need time. Our Rider does know what to do, but we have to give him the time to do it 😉

  4. Ute (expatsincebirth) says:

    Sorry, there is a typo in my last reply: companies have to understand that a relocation CAN’T be made in a weekend…

    • Definitely Ute. Thanks for your input and for the clarification. Sorry for my late reply. I thought I had answered you but it must have fallen to the cracks! Apologies 🙂

  5. martha kristine Aandstad says:

    Time is essential I guess, I have given myself a lot of time. Mostly becouse I’m staying at home with my child who didn’t have any daycare untill now. Then playground and daily routine has been the most and (almost) only important thing Let’s see how I will fell in a couple of weeks having daycare and are supposed to get things started for real;-)
    But I do feel exhausted after throwing a birthday party today, realising that Í don’t know the costume for being a host here, and realising in the midle of it all that I’m doing a lot wrong, and even not being able laugh it off explaining how things works in my homecountry, becouse I don’t have the language that.
    But what I’m most suprised by is how fast time goes, or maybe more how much time you use for getting so little done.

    • Thanks a lot Martha for your comment and your detailed story about the birthday party. It illustrates perfectly the cultural aspect of all the changes we go through. We can’t rely on our habits and the slightest details are under scrutiny. This can be very demanding, tiring, confusing, frustrating and time-consuming!

  6. Marion says:

    This is so on the button we moved from the UK to Australia 9 years ago, I use to hate listening to the TV until one day I laughed at an Ad and said wow I understood that, it takes time to adjust and not being able to buy the things the you can get in the UK and having to use the car instead of walk. But now we are moving again and already I feel exhausted just thinking about it and sleeping is already a problem. thanks for sharing the light.

    • Dear Marion, thanks a lot for sharing your experience. Hope that with the explanation of this “exhaustion effect” you’ll feel better about yourself. You’re not the only one! And very often knowing why a problem occurs, helps to better cope with it 🙂 All the best with your new move!

      • Marion says:

        Thanks Anne, we went for a walk in the rain which is always nice and talked about your article and helped talk about how we felt about the coming move and where most people find this at moving – we feel we are at this place waiting to move strange, but helps to have it written down to make any sense.
        Thanks Marion

        • Oh Marion, I’m so glad you found the article helpful and that it sparked an expression and a deepening of your feelings. Always very important to care for the elephant 🙂 And thanks for taking the time to add this comment! Much appreciated.

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