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Self-Actualization Needs


Self-Actualization Needs

“What a man can be, he must be.” - Maslow The same applies to a woman.

Let's take a moment and address the potential bias in Maslow’s framework. Having conceived it through the lens of his own cultural background, Maslow’s hierarchy cannot be applied equally to every person on the planet. For example, the need for belonging might be more important in communitarian cultures. The need for self-fulfillment takes different definitions in cultures driven by achievement or ascription, whether there’s a belief in destiny or personal influence. Still, I hope you found the pyramid useful as a reminder to consider priorities and potential pitfalls in international relocation.

What international assignments help us realize is that we usually function on the higher levels of what is important to us. At home, we have the basic needs covered and take them for granted. Finding yourself in a new country means you get a blank slate. A do-over. Go back to square one. And this can be quite disconcerting. Be patient with yourself, and with your family members, as they may progress through the stages at a different pace.

This fifth level brings together the main lessons for expats from the other levels of needs in a nutshell, as moving abroad forces you to confront critical questions:

1. What can you eat, how can you cover yourself, and where will you sleep?

Thanks wikimedia commons
Thanks wikimedia commons

2. Is it safe, do you have to look over your shoulder, and will your family grow up healthy?

3. Whom can you trust, who will support you, will you have a mate?

4. How do you feel about yourself, what is your contribution, is there respect?

5. What is your purpose?

An international relocation will change how you see yourself, because it gives you new directions. If you’re a spouse who has to give up working, it can interrupt your quest for achievement in your current career. But it can also open your eyes to new possibilities you never even dreamed of, put you in touch with your passion, and strengthen your relationship through shared experiences.

Most of all, it helps you practice patience, planning, and persistence. You’ll learn to choose your response to tough situations. You’ll be responsible for what you make of your time abroad.

There’s a sense of empowerment as you flex your resilience muscles, and all these are life skills that will easily translate into other areas of leadership and personal growth as well.

At no point are you asked to give up your unique identity or cultural background. In fact, bring your diversity to the table and enjoy the synergies that arise! Being mindful of your own biases will help you differentiate between what’s personal and what’s cultural.

Congratulations, you are an expat!

Image by Emilia Garassimo, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



Self-Esteem Needs - Confidence, Achievement, Respect

Copyright Bill Watterson, Awesomest Cartoonist Ever. This one's for accompanying spouses without work-permit in particular: If you are used to being employed, not earning a living changes your sense of self. America is the country of “what do you do?” and the common lack of spousal employment during international assignments is the biggest factor of discontent. Maybe you’re choosing not to work, maybe you’re planning on starting a family, maybe you’ve never worked, or maybe you didn’t get a work-permit: living abroad will burst open even the tiniest cracks of self-doubt.

Become aware of your limiting beliefs that affect your

self-worth. Many are tied to numbers: the scale, the bank account, or friends on Facebook. If you find yourself spiraling into negative self-talk, try a coaching process called cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive restructuring works for thoughts or beliefs that are causing you pain. It helps you examine them and find more helpful alternatives, one belief or thought at a time. There are resources like The Work or of course you can talk with your Coach to get a personalized solution.

There are many ways to make a difference, even if you’re not allowed to work. Learn something in the local college or through an online course. Immerse yourself in the language and culture, you’ll be building marketable skills for your return! Learn to measure your contribution not in money or numbers, but in happiness, or time spent with your kids, or memories created with your partner.

What plans have you always postponed that you could now make time for? Write a book, start to paint, let out all the creative energy you’ve been storing up.



It is often said, Western civilization tends to follow the “having” and “doing” path, where a person’s value is measured by achievement. Eastern civilization, on the other hand, subscribes more to the concept of “being”. Consider the cultural difference in the two approaches: “doing” implies a person is the steward of their own fate, there’s the potential of upward mobility. “Being” implies acceptance and is often tied to the social status you’re born into.

Respect is a two-way street. As an expat, you are walking, living, and breathing diversity. What were your thoughts on immigration back home? How does it feel to be a foreigner yourself?

The more you know, the more you’ll understand what motivates our behaviors. Learn about your own culture and the one you’re moving to. Recognize behaviors are influenced by our values and our different interpretations of the same. The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do to you” does not work across cultures. Apply the Platinum Rule instead: “treat everyone the way they want to be treated”.


Love and Belonging Needs - Friendship, Family, Sexual Intimacy


Love and Belonging Needs - Friendship, Family, Sexual Intimacy

Before you move, make sure you have a good-bye ceremony to take your official leave from friends and family. Of course you’ll stay in touch and God bless Facebook, but everyone will benefit from a moment of closure before moving on to the new home. It’s helps to mourn what you leave behind to fully appreciate what you’re moving toward.

Prepare some social circles to move into. Activate your networks ahead of time to introduce you to their connections. Go hit the online forums to announce your move and see who invites you to their meetings. Don’t be pressured into joining any group in your first week or even your first month; it’ll take some time for you to set up shop and acclimatize. But doing the legwork while you’re still at home will ensure a softer landing once you get there.

The assignees have their social group automatically built-in. When they go to work, they have someone to go to lunch or work out with. They also have a routine from day 1. The accompanying partners have to make their own, especially if they’re not working.

The cool part is you can reinvent yourself. You can edit out the embarrassing bits; nobody has to know your kindergarten nickname. You’ll get better at telling your story the more often you go over it. By the third time you’ll know when you’ve gone into too much detail because people’s eyes glaze over. It’s fun.

Re-activating your professional network upon your return follows the same lines. The secret is to keep in loose touch throughout, and get more involved at least six months before you move back, or to your next destination. Unfortunately, many expats experience the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon. Keeping yourself on your managers’ radar might help secure you a position to move back into.

If you’ve always had your family close, living more than a plane-ride away will take some getting used to. If your parents are getting up there in age, or if they always used to babysit, your involvement in each other’s lives is going to change. For many expats, their family is still the first line of defense, and certainly the first source of support.

Schedule dates and times for contact on a regular basis. When you live abroad, you may not always be able to call them at a moment’s notice. Maybe because there’s a power outage, maybe because the cell tower and internet connection are down, or maybe because of your time-zone differences.

Not every expat family relocates together. Depending on where you are in life, it may make more sense not to. I have worked with many empty-nesters who negotiated longer home-leaves and frequent visits when the spouse chose to stay behind. Maybe your children would benefit from a boarding school, or your company allows for elderly parents to accompany you - it all depends on your personal situation.

Every couple’s sex routines are different, but when you notice an interruption in yours, don’t wait too long before you address it. Multiple factors influence a change in sexual appetite.

Try and develop an understanding for your partner’s experience. Everyone is adapting to cultures differently, and while you’re working on higher goals, they may still be struggling with the basic survival needs.

Keeping a relationship alive and strong is difficult under the best of circumstances. International relocation takes stress and tension to a whole new level, so you have to communicate and discuss your needs and fears even more openly and pro-actively.

The two of you are a team, now more than ever. You’re in this together, and a fulfilling sex life will go a long way in affirming your commitment and improving resilience to tackle all the obstacles this assignment will throw at you. Make time for intimacy, schedule it if you have to, and spend quality time together, in and out of the bedroom.

Image by Lori Branham, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



Safety Needs - Security, Surroundings, Health

Thanks Wikimedia Commons People often talk about the difference between our pre- and post-9/11 world, and it’s true: the days where we could walk through an airport keeping our shoes and belts on are long gone. Whether you’re interested in politics or not, when moving abroad it’s a good idea to start watching the news. At least to be aware of the general history, political climate, and belief system, and their impact on the country’s culture.

For security details, you can google CIA fact files for your destination, look through Gallup crime statistics, and research information provided by local police offices.

Depending on your employer, your position, and your destination, you and your family may go through anti-abduction training. Make time in your schedules to take part in them as they may save your life.

Familiarize yourself with your new hometown’s layout and transportation options. Not all taxis may be safe to jump into, and the busses might not run during certain hours. Do you drive? Your GPS device may not always be able to connect, so make sure to carry a paper map. Once you know your way around, you can use it as wall decoration, pinning in every spot you’ve visited.

Don’t underestimate flora and fauna. I made sure I was able to tell a harmless Mexican male Black Widow spider from its more dangerous female equivalent.

This helped tremendously every time I stepped into our garden to water the plants or hang up our laundry. For the first few weeks, we also kept our shoes and boots wrapped in bags, because neighbors had warned us about scorpions nesting in the shoe-caps. Spraying chemical disinfectant at regular intervals around all windows and doors eventually made us feel calmer. This is where my need for safety trumped the otherwise ecological correctness.

All this research can still not fully prepare you for brain shock, aka culture shock. It’s emotionally challenging to live in a place where you are the obvious outsider. On the plus side, you may be more prepared for the culture shock because you are obviously different and come to expect it. It’s a lot sneakier in presumably similar countries, where everyone looks like you, but sounds and acts differently.

If you’re moving with a company, their benefits plan will guide your care options. Ideally, you’re not the first expat couple to relocate, so people who have gone before you might be able to recommend doctors once you’re there. If not, ask your colleagues and neighbors for recommendations, google the specialists, look for magazine or blogs’ top 10 lists, and visit more than one before making a decision.

Definitely have a final check-up before you leave, maybe even schedule follow-ups during strategically planned home visits. Depending on the country you move to, you may need vaccines to protect against infections. Be careful with prescription refills; while you may want to take a year’s supply, customs might stop and arrest you for intent to distribute. Investigate the regulations for the medication you use, how much you’re allowed to carry, and what the local equivalent would be.



Physiological Needs - Food, Clothes, Shelter

Aguascalientes_chuchesFilling even basic food needs in the first few weeks abroad can be tricky, especially if you don’t speak the local language. International hotels normally offer international cuisine, and many American chain restaurants have made their way abroad. If your destination is more rural, familiarize yourself with the most common food vocabulary ahead of time. Know how your favorite ingredients are spelled in the local alphabet, so you can recognize the labels in the shops, or print out pictures to show what you need. german foodNot every country is as abundant as the USA when it comes to special dietary requirements. If you have a gluten intolerance, for instance, do some research to see which products are easily available in your host country. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, find local practitioners in food forums who can help you set up and tell you where the best farmers markets are.

Word of caution: not every country has the same hygiene standards. Consider shops that display their wares in open containers: I have seen plenty of children who take those as an invitation to touch or sneeze on.

Let climate and cultural norms determine what you wear. Your first faux-pas may be forgiven because you are a foreigner, but I advise against knowingly breaking the unwritten rules. As an expat, you are no longer only representing yourself, you are an ambassador for your country. For example, if Italian church-goers expect your knees and shoulders to be covered, cover them. If your colleagues are uncomfortable with “casual Friday”, don’t try to force it.

Doris_snowgearHaving said that, if you have old embarrassing but comfortable work-out clothes or college sweaters you love, pack them. Even if you’re moving to a hot country, because a) it’s always sweater-weather once in a while, and b) the temperature change from outside sticky-hotness to inside frigid air-conditioning is hard on the immune system. Layers are your friend!

Ladies, don’t be dismayed if European dress sizes sound way bigger, or if finding shoes above an American size 8 is tricky in Singapore. It’s not personal, it’s cultural.

You’re probably most worried about the big-ticket item: the actual house. What neighborhood is it in, how about the school district, are there enough bed and bathrooms. What to do with the house you’re in now? Working with a knowledgeable real estate agent helps alleviate many of those concerns.

The challenge is turning a house into your home. What always helped me was putting up my pictures, using my bed linen, and decorating with choice knick-knacks and pillowcases that went with me everywhere.

If you have a favorite holiday decoration, bring it. Even if the country you’re moving to doesn’t celebrate that holiday. You may want to keep the tradition alive for your kids, and yourself. In other words, consider carefully what you need, and carry anything that is vital for your first month abroad instead of shipping it.

Your living space at your destination may be significantly smaller than what you’re used to. This is a wonderful opportunity to go zen and de-clutter! New technologies allow you to store countless mementos in tiny spaces to make them portable: If your important family photos aren’t digital yet, scan them. If your music is trapped on CDs, get an iPod to upload them. If you love books, now is a good time to embrace electronic readers. As much as I love printed books, being able to carry 3,000 of them on an iPad in my purse without breaking a sweat or having to pay extra at the airline is worth it.

On a bodily-functions-adjacent note: toilets are different around the world. Prepare to squat, hover, and talk to WCs in China, India, and high-tech Japan. For a while, many German companies favored recycled toilet paper that was extremely rough, but thankfully advances have been made into greater softness to the tush touch.



Maslow and the Expat Journey

Thanks wikimedia commons People have needs. According to American psychologist Abraham Maslow, you can categorize them into five levels. His argument is that as humans, we ultimately strive for “self-actualization”, but have to cover our basic needs before we’re able to concentrate on higher goals.

The Physiological level is that of basic survival needs: food, clothes, shelter, and things to do with bodily functions we won’t go into. Most likely, you have these needs covered, right up until you become an expat.

Maslow’s next level is all about Safety. Once you have your basic survival needs met, you can start worrying about the neighborhood. Is that rustle in the bushes a saber toothed tiger or a bunny? Today, you know which route to take to work, where to buy groceries, maybe you’ve even been with the same family doctor all your life. But what about that new place you’re moving to?

Then comes my personal favorite: love and belonging. Don’t underestimate what a lack of social circles, professional networks, friends, and family can do to your system.

Your international assignment can help you reach your self-esteem and self-actualization goals, but it can also drag you down. Depending on your personality type and essential motivator preferences, you'll have to have certain psychological needs met to feel good. Living in a new environment can be challenging until you figure out how to adapt your behaviors.

Maslow is also featured as the father of humanistic psychology in this book by Jessica Grogan, PhD Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (Harper Perennial 2013).

This week we'll examine all of his pyramid's levels and provide some coaching tips about how to approach them. Looking forward to your comments!


Career Planning for Expat Spouses


Career Planning for Expat Spouses

Looking at ways how companies support expatriate spouses, “the top three choices were language training, educational assistance, and company-sponsored work permits. Furthermore this year, “assistance with career planning” moved up from sixth to fourth position. (The quotation is taken from the current Brookfield Global Relocation Survey. For a link to the survey, please click on the image.)

Career planning, not having a job, or wanting a new one causes levels of stress that can be diminished by an appropriate coaching process. An international assignment often presents itself as the perfect moment to take stock and figure out what they truly want to do for many spouses.

The work we choose and why we choose it says a lot about ourselves and our attitude to work in general. We are more likely to accept a fulfilling and deserving position when we believe in ourselves and in our strengths. At the same time, limiting beliefs like “time is money,” “only the early bird catches the worm,” and “hard work never hurt anyone” influence our attitudes.

Both career and life coaching involve further dimensions and layers of complexity when dealing with change across different cultures. Taking the example of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, adults simply aren’t used to operating on the levels of basic uncertainties like security and belonging, but those are exactly the ones they find themselves in when moving internationally. Most expats experience that the understanding of one’s own identity is brought into question, be it due to change in roles within the relationship or the inability to communicate with locals.

If you have any question about adapting internationally and planning your career, please leave a comment, drop me a line or call me. If you’re interested in finding out more about how coaching can help you or your spouse adapt to a new culture while planning a new career, you can read some more about how we could tackle that together, here.

Thanks and til next time!


Image by Denis Vrublevski, Flickr, Creative Commons License



Thoughts on clothes

women-shopping-clothes_I was so tired and unmotivated yesterday that I decided to up and go for a walk around the community we live in. Said community is home to many shops, and like many women with a closet full of nothing to wear, I couldn't resist the huge display signs of "SALE! 50 % off!" Here's what happened.

First shop I went into had the sales racks in the back, and because I never pay full price if I don't have to, that's where I zoned in on. They weren't very busy during lunchtime, so a friendly sales assistant brought lots of stuff back for me to try, too. I must have tried five tops and three pairs of trousers, but nothing really fit nicely. This is why I hate shopping, it takes so long to find something that fits properly, is comfortable, chic, yet not too pricey. Five tops and three bottoms isn't that much, I hear you say? Well, I've no patience for the stuff, and don't even get me started on the lighting and the mirrors.

And then I tried on the dress. Knowing after countless trials and errors that I don't really have the body for a dress (I think I've worn maybe three dresses in my lifetime), when I slipped it on and it felt good that was the strangest sensation. Stepping out of the booth into the changing area with the big mirror, I still didn't hate what I saw in the reflection. On the contrary, thoughts of "statuesque" and "nice figure" came into my mind, and that's not something I've ever associated with my reflection or dress sense.

What I'm trying to express a little clumsily is how beautiful I felt in that changing room area with that dress on. As if it had some fairy dust on it to magically fills the nooks and crannies of my self-doubt with feelings of peace, love and balance. For the first time, I bought a piece of clothing because of how it made me feel. Yes, another thing I feel right now is silly sharing this, and I also wonder if it'll still feel the same the next time I put it on, and whether everyone's going to think "what hype, it's just a dress, and no it does not look good."

So I got to thinking: what influences the clothes we wear? How many billions of dollars are made and spent each year in the fashion industry? Do people really spend the better part of their lives pondering this stuff, like was explained in "The Devil wears Prada?" There must be a wide audience, otherwise what's the need for television series like "What not to wear" and "How to look good naked?"

I asked my twitter peeps, "When was the last time you dressed in clothes that made you feel awesome/sexy/professional/fill-in-your-adjective-of-choice?" to mixed replies. Michael said, "Today (three out of four ain't bad I guess)!" and Jerry said, "Never. Do people do that?" Curiosity piqued, I inquired further as to the purpose of his clothing. "Keep me warm. Prevent sunburn. Hide my skin to spare others." And this, dear readers, reminded me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and motivation, masks we wear, and the emperor's new clothes.


According to his theory, all people have needs and are motivated differently according to which of their needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs and motivation

have been met. He identified five different levels: physiological, safety, belonging, ego-status, and self-actualization. In very short, once your physical well-being is ensured through adequate housing, food, clothing and sex, you're free to worry about needs of the next higher order, safety. Once your health is taken care of, and you have a sense of stability and security, you can turn your attention to your needs of belonging. Once your social needs for relationships are met, you may be motivated to pursue fulfillment of the needs of your ego for prestige and accomplishment. The highest order of self-actualization motivates people to realize their potential through personal development. Like every theory, this one is being debated and criticized, but let's just go with the basic premise.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs and motivation

Applied to my clothing question, I can look at it from at least two angles. One, clothing is functional and serves a specific basic purpose, namely keeping us warm and protecting us, like Jerry said. Ever since our forefathers (careful, evolution talk now) started walking upright, built caves and lost their fur, bodies had to be shielded in other ways. Depending on the continent, our skin might have developed different pigmentation, but skin alone has not been sufficient to weather the elements since before the Puritans covered it all up.

Two, who's to say that functionality is all there is to clothes? I remember seeing brooches and belts in museums, documenting vanities from centuries ago. It appears to me mankind has started looking for ways to enhance basic clothing and looking to express their individuality many years ago. Wonder who the first cave person was to add a bone to their hair, and was it just to keep it out of the soup or a fashion statement? Just think of indigenous tribes and their tattoos, or piercings, colored feathers, teeth of animals slaughtered that are added as adornments. Clothing, then, must have become an expression of personality along the way, showing off status with how many hides you wear, and communicate an image of how you want to be perceived.

If your confidence and sense of self does are not influenced by how others see you or what image you communicate, you may grab whatever's in your closet and that will do the job and fulfill your basic physiological need. You may even go ahead and play with stuff and wear banana boots or zebra suits like my favorite Scotsman. However, there's a dress code for your hobbies, especially if they're sporty ones (Golf! Oh my God!), another for your job, yet another for Sunday afternoons lounging or going out with friends, and we haven't even touched on special occasions like funerals or weddings. Even though you may express your individuality and personal style through the clothes you wear and accessories you add, you're still part of the bigger picture, and that takes us back up the needs ladder to "belonging." A banker may not be taken seriously in jeans even on a casual Friday, and your geeky buddies may be less inclined to discuss the latest Star Trek movie with you if you show up in designer shades wearing gold chains and other "bling."

The way I see it, we're oscillating between the different levels of the pyramid, fulfilling needs of a higher order by embellishing the basic clothing one. What else could our sense of style imply?


I'm going to go out on a limb and say every culture has them. I'm thinking Africa, Asia, native Indians, even Europe with the Venetian carnival comes to mind. Whether beards and make-up also qualify I'll leave up to you. The purpose of masks are many, to deceive, to represent, to hide behind. Today, the clothes we wear function as a mask, sometimes to portray a certain image, sometimes to aid our self-esteem, sometimes to separate our private personality from our public persona, and in that respect we're not that different from the cave man with the saber tooth around his neck.

Business men wear suits, why? Because banks and other conservative establishments expect it. Suits communicate you're taking care of your appearance, and you're happy (oh well) to conform to the norm of your field. Some suits are better than others, but basically they're the armor of the contemporary manager. Personally, dressing in a suit influences the way I carry myself, not only as dictated by limited range of motion, but by what the suit represents. I walk a little taller and straighter, I'm a little more aware of what I'm wearing and how it looks, and yes, wearing one makes me feel more confident, professionally.

Women have been known to feel more confident or brazen depending on which underwear they put on. Silk feels sexy. Lace is uncomfortable if you ask me, but it looks nice. Anyway, well-fitting undergarments provide flattering curves, and flattering curves gain attention, and the confidence men and women exude used to directly influence their ability to procreate. To a lesser and more subtle extent, that's still the case today. Research has shown that strippers make more tips and are perceived as more alluring and beautiful during ovulation, and that's not even wearing but taking off their clothes, so I digress.

Creative types don't wear suits, and I'd probably count IT-ers into this category, too. Sneakers, t-shirt and jeans are fine! No programmer wears a suit, why? They mostly sit in front of a computer and have little outside contact to clients. In this case the image communicated through clothing is, "we're relaxed and comfortable, easy-going!" Work in the army, police force, firefighting or in health care and you're expected to wear a uniform. Your particular contribution, though highly appreciated and valued, serves the group and therefore the greater good. As part of a team you need to be easily identifiable as to position or rank, but your personality doesn't necessarily play into it.

Do you remember the punk movement of the 70s and 80s, people with spiky green hair scaring pedestrians all over Europe? Or the grunge phase where suddenly it was cool not to wash your hair for weeks? Rebelling against the establishments or their parents turned all of us self-proclaimed individuals into herds of sheep wearing the same things, looking alike. Not wanting to belong to one group makes every generation create their own, and sometimes that persona is put on with a lot of help by peer pressure. Which brings me to,

The Emperor's new clothes

Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale tells the story of an emperor who was conned by two tailors with a sense of humor into streaking (nude walking) through the streets of his empire. They promised him garments of such brilliant material that only fools and unworthy folk wouldn't recognize their beauty. Not wishing to admit he didn't see anything for fear of being named stupid or unworthy, the emperor faked enthusiasm when he received - nothing. The tailors mock-dressed him, and he walked unencumbered until a child pointed out, "but - he's nekkid!" and the people realized it was the truth.

Another time I may go into more detail on how clothes represent cultural preferences, as they are one of the explicit manifestations of culture visible to the naked eye (as opposed to cultural values that are implicit and invisible if you're not trained to look for them). Once I actually find an occasion to wear the above mentioned dress, I  might even let you know how it goes. For now, I leave you hoping whatever you wear makes you comfortable, and if your self-esteem isn't where you'd like it to be, I invite you to experiment with different clothes to see how they make you feel. See if a new pair of whatever can help you "fake it til you make it," without going into debt of course!

Til next week, have a good one. :-)

Top photo by Allegretto

Maslow's hierarchy as seen on skooloflife

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