Waves of identity

Wave Crashing on a Beach Many of the expats I train these days are high-tech engineers and managers working in the Silicon Valley. They are immersed in a fast-paced, rapidly changing culture, which is known for embracing more uncertainty and risks than most corporate environments. This part of California receives international assignees from all over the world who often have their self-identity challenged. A pre-departure or post-arrival intercultural training program addresses culture shock as part of orienting assignees to manage these potential shifts.

While these executives are quick to welcome change in the workplace, I’ve noticed that many don’t seem to accept inner change as easily. Why would they? Inner-change often means facing old patterns and suffering! Also, aren’t their diverse cultural backgrounds likely to perceive inner-change differently? These are all fair questions. This blog offers food for thought about identity, specifically: How do you define identity in the context of international relocation?

First, let’s look at the definition of the word identity. The American Heritage dictionary defines identity as: 1a. The condition of being a certain person or thing. b. The set of characteristics by which an individual is recognizable. c. The awareness that an individual or group has of being a distinct, persistent identity. According to these definitions, constructed social and cultural identities have a place to land. Race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, religion, geographical location, level of education, amount of professional experience, and functional identity, all qualify as distinguishing factors. They are extremely useful in pointing out external elements that compose aspects of one’s identity.

The following definition offers a different view on identity, called the essential identity.

The Essential Identity means the identity with Essence, the identity with Being. It is the true sense of identity. When we feel the Essential Identity, when we’re being it, we feel we are being ourselves truly and authentically. And there’s a sense of identity, a singular sense of “I” that is definite, uniquely self-existing. You’re there, present as you, without that “you” being defined by any constructed concept. ~ A. H. Almaas

The above quote captured my attention and triggered some refreshing thinking about identity. The power and influence of social and cultural constructs such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, and religion can’t be denied. Any relocation – whether international or national – affects how we perceive ourselves, others, and how we are perceived with respect to these aspects of identity. All of them are powerful and real players when we talk about identity. The idea of an Essential identity though, implies that underneath these social and cultural constructs is a “dormant,” ever-present identity which has little to do with the color of our skin, how many languages we speak or how old we are. Somehow, the essential identity feels more real and deeper to me than the other ones, without dismissing any of them.

Let’s go deeper into an underlying characteristic many assignees share: The desire to maintain their identity while living internationally. Some of them struggle to keep social status, preserve professional identity, material comforts, job prestige and buying power. These are all achievable and fair goals to aspire to. At the same time, inquiry into the driving forces behind these goals reveals a great deal about the personality. Do you want to hold a certain status in order to keep an image of who you took yourself to be in the past? Which part of you is clinging to that old image? What if this is happening at the expense of allowing a new version of you to emerge? By closely observing these personality dynamics while change happens, we can minimize them without being overwhelmed by them. The process becomes a path of becoming increasingly aware of the forces of our personality, rather than being subject to them. This, in turn, helps us in time to connect with our deeper nature, or what A. H. Almaas calls the essential identity.

We well know that nothing is permanent, change happens constantly, and so life flows. The capacity to welcome the unknown for the sake of innovation aligns with Silicon Valley’s business culture. In this same light, identities aren’t fixed entities. My sense is that the labels we receive from society can take a life of their own and end up obscuring the essential identity. The metaphor of an iceberg is often used to explain culture. For the sake of this blog, consider the iceberg to be the socially and culturally constructed identities, and our essential identity to be the ocean. It may be that we’ve been focusing on the iceberg and overlooking the ocean.

What to do? Inquire within, watch your personality patterns, and allow your identity to shift in time.

Grounding a global body

iStock_000005066220SmallHaving a physical body doesn’t necessarily mean fully living in that body. Our untrained minds and emotions often take over and this is a high cost for expats, who want to experience a new land and culture. Many of my clients have intense work schedules, which leave little room for body awareness, self-care, and relaxation. They often struggle to find time to be present with the very thing that carried them across the globe: the physical body.

What parts of your body do you sense right now? One, two, more than that? Were you aware of their presence in the moment you started reading this blog, or was the question a reminder? Try this experiment: Read the next paragraph sensing your right arm. Then, read the following paragraph sensing both arms. Include another body part to finish reading this blog. See if this creates any difference in your experience.

There are many ways in which our bodies change due to an international assignment. I am going to discuss two of them: Eating and exercise. One of the most common is engaging in a different diet in a new country either by choice or “compulsorily,” depending upon the food system in that country. Choosing what to eat and drink is an active part of co-creating your body. Bodies are intelligent and constantly communicate. Most global executives seem surprised when I say that the change they are undergoing is happening on a cellular level.  The fuel that you need for high performance comes directly from what you eat, so choose carefully.

Another important consideration is how often expats exercise. Beyond fitness purposes, some of the benefits of exercising are to get us in touch with our solidity, our muscles, flexibility and physical strength. Otherwise, the mind is developed at the expense of the body being neglected. Without conscious intent, many of us go throughout the day being carried around by bones and flesh. Sporadically, we notice parts of our bodies mostly for functional reasons.

So, what are the practical implications of eating well and frequently exercising to your daily routine at the office? For instance, the choices you make about building your body relates directly to the way you show up in business meetings. Just take low and high-energy as an example. Both are directly related to the amount of sugar one consumes and how sedentary or active one’s life is.

A grounded body starts simply with a deeper breath. Expansion and contraction are both happening all the time through breathing. Furthermore, by practicing going back over and over to body parts and sensations you become aware of inhabiting a form. This planet, our countries, and our bodies are all temporary homes. Whatever your geographic location may be, dedicate time to create a healthy environment for your body. Do the best you can and be ready to receive feedback from your body and from people around you.

Inner development for intercultural competence

professional swimmer underwater after the jump in abyssWhy does inner growth matter to your international assignment?

Imagine: This is your first week of work in a new role. It is time to meet your supervisor and colleagues, who are from a culture different than yours. You’ve done your homework: diligently read about the new country, took an cultural assessment, attended a cross-cultural program, talked to others who live there, and downloaded an App with business tips on your smartphone.

You started working with your new team and, despite being sensitive and understanding that their culture is more comfortable with uncertainty, you personally are not at ease with it. Your discomfort with uncertainty triggers thoughts and feelings that negatively impact how you show up in meetings.  You feel confused.

What went wrong? Nothing went wrong. Your learning, until this point, has been just partial.

The intercultural training you’ve done to date has focused on competency development. This is called horizontal learning, which builds upon what you already know and increases technical skills. In this case, you developed functional knowledge (e.g., learned how the country’s educational and political systems work) and intercultural skills (e.g., increased awareness of different communication styles). The focus was on enriching your intercultural toolkit in order to become a more effective global executive.

What you haven’t engaged in yet is vertical learning, or learning that results in mindset transformation. Vertical learning creates sustainable change in how a person makes sense of the world (e.g., increasing her level of tolerance with uncertainty). The focus is on internal shifts that develop mental complexity and emotional intelligence. This, in turn, results in advanced leadership capacity.

Vertical learning is customized for each individual. It requires daily practice. It addresses your unique developmental needs. You might say that this is not for busy executives. Think again. In order to develop genuine empathy and behavioral flexibility towards another set of cultural values, you need to recognize and reshape deep structures within you. Rushing through the learning won’t take you there. Without committing to diving within yourself, you won’t find out what is underneath current behaviors. Leading-edge research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that vertical learning is a must for anyone interested in lasting change in areas meaningful to them.

Integral relocation: An exterior & interior journey abroad

integral-imageNo matter what your motivations are to accept an international assignment, the moment you agree to relocate with your organization, you are signing a contract with yourself and your growing edges. You commence a path that will challenge deep assumptions, trigger psychological shadows, expand perspectives, and shake the ground for change to happen to you and those around you.

What really influences your relocation? There are visible and invisible factors. What are visible to the eyes are all the external factors that lead to the excitement and the stress of the relocation. What are unseen are individual and collective deep structures that play a fundamental role in the creation of your future. Wouldn’t you want to be aware of these structures given how much they will influence your international relocation?

Most assignees I work with arrive in the training room unaware of the connection between what is going on inside themselves and the life they want to shape. Their focus and energy remain, most of the time, concentrated on challenges with intercultural communication, culture shock symptoms, the logistics of relocation, dos and don’ts, and many aspects of cultural differences. These areas are all important. Yet rarely does someone discuss the impact of his or her own perspective and inner world on the transition. Why?

Traditional intercultural programs mainly address cultural, behavioral and systems influences on international assignments. A fourth perspective is needed in order to include the interior realm of human beings. Here is a quick glance into the dimensions influencing your intercultural experience:


The quadrants: Adapted from Ken Wilber

Cultural: culture (e.g., team, organizational, or societal culture), shared worldviews (e.g., philosophical or religious), shared mindsets, shared values, ethics, joint meaning, communication (or lack of it), relationships, language differences, symbolism, etc.

Behavioral: your own or another person’s behavior, performance, actions, technical knowledge, competencies, skills, physical health, degree of physical energy, etc.

Systemic: systems, structures and processes (e.g., environmental, social, economic, financial, political, legal, technological, technical, educational, informational), as well as from shared actions. This includes the areas of strategies, goals, metrics, and policies.

Psychological: your own or another person’s mindset, attitude, awareness, emotions, denial, beliefs, commitments, intentions, personal values, degree of cognitive intelligence, personality style, degree of emotional intelligence, etc.

These four aspects of your relocation must be taken into account in order for you to successfully navigate the territory of an international assignment.


The following books, articles and organizations are intended to help you to go deeper into the content discussed during our program together.


ifgic-logoInstitute for Global Integral Competence


icc-logo2Integral Coaching Canada


dimensions-bookInternational Dimensions of Organizational Behavior by Nancy J. Adler and Allison Gundersen


intercultural-marriageIntercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls by Dugan Romano 


third-culture-kidsThird Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken