The term uncertainty defines the experience of many of my clients and many more who are living an expat experience, including myself. If we look at the synonyms of the term uncertain they include unpredictability, unreliability, riskiness, chanciness, precariousness and unsureness. Further to this, feelings of uncertainties include descriptives such as doubt, qualms, misgiving, apprehension, quandary, dilemma, niggle….. It is not surprising then that living with uncertainty can be very unsettling.
Throughout life everyone will experience different periods of uncertainty, for example waiting for test results, job interviews, buying or selling houses. Often these periods of uncertainty are relatively short lived, some might find them exciting, others may find them highly stressful. However, living in a prolonged state of uncertainty can be mentally draining and place strain on families and relationships. Currently among my peers and clients there is a high degree of uncertainty with the highly volatile job market particularly in industries such as mining, resources and finance. Many families are unsure how long they will remain in Singapore. This makes it very difficult to plan ahead further than a few months. Living as an expat family can mean rapid and dramatic change of circumstances. Loss of employment in Singapore often results in cancelled permits whereby families are required to leave the country. Sometimes this means returning to country of origin and sometimes it means taking up an entirely new expat posting. Each scenario involves significant adjustment and many unknowns.
When living in a transient and uncertain state it is helpful to consider what you can do as an individual and a family to develop a greater sense of control.
Working Together As Team
First of all it is important to communicate effectively on decisions. Whilst one person’s job may be driving decisions, ultimately it will effect all members of the family. Therefore it is important as a couple to brainstorm all options and consider the pros and cons of any new move. Doing your research can allay some anxiety, this includes, researching schools, opportunities for work, living conditions, access to health care. Considering whether or not your families lifestyle is suited to the new environment. Also, put some plans in place in the event of a sudden move e.g. emergency saving fund, decluttering, staying on top of admin tasks and taxes. Being organised is a great way to reduce anxiety.
In addition it is important for both partners to be supportive and feel supported. Having empathy for the impact of expat life on each other is imperative. Whilst one partners career may be flourishing another’s may be suffering, this situation may pose challenges for both partners and must be treated with empathy and respect. Appreciation of the new experiences and acknowledgement of sacrifices are equally important and sustaining a cohesive relationship. Value each other’s contributions to the overall functioning of the family.
Build Transferable Skill and Activities
Wherever you are currently situated it can be helpful to invest time and energy into developing skills and activities that are transferable. If you are unable to work, engage in volunteer activities which develop new skills that can be used in different environments in the event of a move. Encourage this for your children as well, i.e. get them to pursue one activity consistently, even if they are trying out lots of other activities. This can provide a sense of stability and consistency in any environment and help develop a solid sense of self. The ability to continue with an enjoyed activity following a move can be a great way of becoming connected with like minded friends. This applies for both adults and children.
Strengthen the Family Unit
Focus on developing strong bonds as a family unit, creating comfort in the knowledge that you have each other wherever you go. This may mean that some of your holidays are just with your immediate family. Or that you have some family traditions that can be replicated anywhere. Weekly routines can also have a calming and bonding effect on families e.g. Sunday night board games, Saturday afternoon bike rides, Friday night movies. Choose something that fits with your family and try to make a point of doing it. If one partner travels a lot it may mean having something you do if they are in town, e.g. Sunday brunch, family pool time, dumpling night……
Focus on the Present Moment
Daily mindfulness check-ins are helpful. Creating some space each morning to check-in with how you are feeling can be great way of gauging how well you are coping. Ask yourself if there is anything that can be done to improve your feelings, e.g. talk to a friend, go for a run. Observe you body as well, noticing if you are tense or tired. Respond consciously to what you observe.
Lastly, enjoy the here and now. Try to avoid spending too much time focusing on the ifs, buts and maybes, if there is nothing you can do in the present moment to effect change. Connect with what you love today. Be kind to yourself and give yourself credit for managing the change and uncertainty.
Writing this made me think of the wisdom of the serenity prayer which can be comforting to bear in mind in uncertain times. Remember, if the uncertainty and change feels overwhelming, reach out for help.
Written by: Dr Rachel Upperton Registered Psychologist SACAC Counselling