Career in Your Suitcase
A practical guide to creating meaningful work... anywhere

Coping with change

This is a preview to the chapter Coping with change from the book Career in Your Suitcase by Jo Parfitt.
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A portable career is perfect for today’s mobile dual career family. But if you are mobile then you are inevitably going to have to be able to handle change. Galen Tinder investigates.

A well-known rating system measures the amount of stress a person has experienced over the course of a year by assigning a certain number of points to several dozen common life events. The more points accumulated, the more likely you are to suffer from physical illness and emotional deterioration. Some of the events on the lengthy list are ‘positive’, such as marriage and having a child, while others would widely be considered ‘negative’ – losing a job or landing in jail, for example. Relocation, which can have both positive and negative features, ranks third in the number of stress points earned, following hard on the heels of the death of a close relative and divorce.

Whether stress-inducing events on the list are considered positive or negative, they all share a common feature – all involve change, a change in personal circumstances. It’s not just that negative events are stressful, but that change itself makes heavy demands on our coping resources.

The concept of ‘managing’ change may be a misnomer. It’s not as though we can manage change to the point of eliminating its sometimes painful and undesired effects on our life. Managing change is rather like herding cats – even the best of intentions and maximum effort do not guarantee pleasing, much less perfect, results.

So, by managing change we don’t mean conquering or nullifying it, but facing it with courage and openness and thus using it to further our own growth and betterment. The external events that affect our lives may sometimes be desirable and sometimes not. The feelings these events elicit may be pleasurable or painful. But whether our management of change has a positive or negative affect on our lives depends on whether or not we integrate it into our lives in a way that enhances our personal, emotional and spiritual advancement.

Relocation and Change

Relocation is one of the most common and also disruptive sources of change in contemporary life. We have so accepted moving as a routine feature of our global society that we often forget how emotionally exhausting and challenging it can be. But to appreciate the stress caused by relocating we don’t have to mine any source of knowledge more sophisticated than our own common sense and experience:
  • It’s hard work – the selling or renting of a house, securing housing in the new location, packing and transporting family goods and the endless but necessary tasks of ‘settling in’. This is to name just a fraction of the nerve wracking logistical details that accompany relocation.
  • If there are children, they need extra attention of various kinds, depending on their age and the nature of the move.
  • It is a time of saying goodbye to friends and to familiar and beloved places – a time, in other words, of loss.
  • The entire family needs to adjust to everything being different in the new location.
  • Nearly every aspect of common family life changes: daily routines, schools, community associations, friendships, even the physical landscape.
For the majority of people, this multi-faceted upheaval is tackled while moving within the borders of a single country. But for some, it’s an international experience. People who have made both kinds of moves agree that foreign relocations make the heaviest demands on a person’s emotional resources. Here are just a few of the challenges facing expatriates:
  • Communicating with people who speak another language.
  • Adjusting to the myriad differences in every day life.
  • Learning native customs and manners.
  • Discovering how public entities and organisations work, from the library to the police force, from the food store to the traffic authority.
  • For the expatriate partner: finding fulfilling vocational and non vocational pursuits.
In an expatriate family the accompanying partner may shoulder more stress than the employee. She (only about 15 per cent of international accompanying partners are male) is in the more exposed and vulnerable position. Although the employee too must negotiate much that is new, he has the advantage of being grounded in his profession and the familiar disciplines of his work, and of spending most of his waking hours with people who speak the same language he does, both literally and figuratively.

The partner, on the other hand, is initially both more isolated and more exposed. She has no band of colleagues with whom to huddle – but as the captain of family logistics, she interacts daily with a world dismayingly unlike the one she came from. She may not have her work, so there may be no refuge there. On the contrary, she may have resigned from a fulfilling position back home and feel partly the victim of the corporate advancement practices of her husband’s company. For these reasons, the challenges posed by international relocation changes are often unusually stressful.

Change and stress go together. How many people have we heard say, ‘I just love change; it’s so relaxing’? External events don’t themselves produce stress. But they do trigger a cluster of feelings that constitute stress. Stress consists of an unruly combination of strong and unprocessed feelings, usually including anger, fear and anxiety. When these feelings run around in our systems untamed they consume nearly all our energy, to the point of interfering with our daily life and perhaps to the point of overwhelming us.

But we don’t need to be a hapless victim of change and its emotional byproducts. Our key question, then, is this: How do we manage all the changes of relocation, especially international relocation, in a way that enriches, rather than diminishes, our lives? You can find many tips on handling stress in Chapter Eight.
‘In a country like Egypt you need to have unlimited reserves of patience, as things simply don’t happen overnight or in the way you expect. Whatever your time-line is, it’ll be best to double it! It’s also crucial to have someone who has the ability to speak the language, preferably a local, as misunderstandings are inevitable if you do business in English only.’
Diane, Canadian in England,

Change and transition

William Bridges, an organisation psychologist who has studied and written on how people react to change, differentiates between change and transition. Change consists of external events, while transition is the set of internal processes we go through in adjusting to change.
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