Research Paper By Laura Sheehan
(Career Coach, JAPAN)
The power of “I am.”
It has been noted by philosophers, scholars and religious leaders throughout the ages that the words “I am” are two of the most powerful words in any language. In the Bible, God says to Moses through the burning bush, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) In Buddhism, one of the core mantras for meditation is “I am that I am” with a Hindu variant of “Soham” or “I am that.” In more modern times, Renee Descartes posited the theory of “cogito, ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am.” (Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation II)
Why is this important? “I am” is an affirmation that both stands alone and emphasizes whatever follows. It is a statement that establishes our identity and declares an intent of creation.
In the context of the expatriate life – especially as a trailing spouse or accompanying partner – we feel as though we lose our identity, our sense of self, every time we move. By definition, we are participating in a nomadic life in order to support our spouse’s career, so when asked to introduce ourselves, most tend to do so as an extension of that employee spouse. “Hello, I am John’s wife.”
With every move, we also lose our sense of community and overall purpose. Naturally, we define ourselves in relation to others, through the ways in which we contribute to society. When we leave our community, we can feel disconnected, irrelevant and devalued.
For me, the affirmation of “I am” was particularly poignant in my own reclamation of both selves and of a new career direction. For years, I clung to an outdated professional title in an effort to quickly and clearly define my identity in every new location. I was “Laura the lawyer.”
While the title enabled me to succinctly convey my education, experience and capabilities to all new acquaintances, it was also a surprising source of pain. The rub lay in the fact that due to our frequent moves, I had not truly been able to progress in the field of law as I had anticipated. By holding onto that title, I was actually holding myself back, not allowing a new title or role to enter my life. I focused on all that I had NOT done rather than all that I could do. I resented my husband for taking us overseas and blamed him and his employer for all of my perceived professional losses. That, coupled with the fact that introductions often (if not always) included a link to my husband’s name and role in the company, left me feeling unhinged and at a complete loss for who I was and who I could be.
And then one day, whilst lamenting the fact that I was (again) a new expat arrival and (again) unemployed, searching for my direction and angry about all that I had not been able to accomplish in life, a fellow trailing spouse asked me very directly, “Well, if you could do anything, what would it be?”
If I could do anything…
Oh, how the question threw me! I was temporarily stunned. It had been so long since I had thought of myself as a powerful individual in my own right. I COULD do anything. I COULD be anything. WOW!
That one powerful question shifted my focus from all that had (not) been to all that could be. The query allowed me the freedom to envision my next steps, all of the ways that I could use my past experiences to catapult me forward. It gave me permission to let go of what once was and fully embrace my future self.
And so I shifted direction. I physically removed all of the law-related books and licensing materials from my office. I literally cleared the space to let go of the past and welcome the future. I stopped introducing myself as “Laura the lawyer” or “Wife of John” and started (excitedly) saying, “Hi! I am Laura. I am a career strategist.” I was announcing to the world: “I am me and this is what I want to be.”
I have seen this powerful shift occur in others as well. For the last two years, I have led a monthly speaker series and professional development group called Empowering Perspectives. The meeting structure includes individual introductions of all attendees. Each person has 30 seconds or less to tell the group who they are, their professional aspirations, and what they hope to learn from the session that day. As an additional challenge, we require that when each person says who they are, it cannot be in relation to anyone else…and it is fascinating to see how people respond to that instruction. Even more fantastic to see how their physical presence, their energy, visibly changes when they utter the words “I am”…
When they enter the room, participants are often quiet, reserved, tentative about how their interactions with others will play out. When required to stand up and introduce themselves as themselves, focused on their identity, announcing their goals and intentions to the group, each person starts to stand taller, feet planted more firmly in their place. Smiles start to spread across their faces and they collectively and fully engage in the dialogue that takes place immediately after.
More importantly, though each participant inevitably took something from the keynote speaker’s message that day, it was incredible to watch as, at the conclusion of the meeting, individuals approached others and initiated a conversation about how they could help each other move forward on their stated goals. The simple act of introducing one’s self in a new way generated new connections that (more often than not) resulted in an invaluable sharing of resources. In those simple, 30-second introductions, participants reclaimed some sense of their unique and awesome self and had taken the first step in a new direction.
Portable, Professional Identity.
As an expat, the other critical component of preserving a strong sense of self is in finding your place – wherever you are. When we move, we leave not only job titles, but our understanding of how and where we fit into a community.
How might we overcome this challenge? How can we make our identity more portable?
The word “identity” stems from the Latin “idem” – meaning “the same.” Even as recently as the 1600s, “identity” was defined as “sameness, oneness, the state of being the same.”We inherently want to fit in, to be a part of a bigger whole. Similarly, the term “professional identity” – a concept that entered our language only within the last few decades – ties directly to our sense of accomplishment and, according to a 2016 study completed by Cornell University, is “a key way that we each explicate how we contribute to society.” 
If we look directly to the etymology of the term “professional,” we can trace the word’s roots back from either the Middle English, denoting the vow made on entering a religious order, or the Old French (professio) derived from the Latin profiteri, which meant to “declare publicly” or profess.
How fantastic, how wonderfully relevant to the expat population that a “professional” is one who literally declares publicly their set of skills, their professed trade!
Identity – both personal and professional – can be portable if we shift our focus from where we were to where we are now. We must look away from there and embrace the “here.” It is, in fact, possible to reclaim that sense of self, that clarity of purpose by returning to the powerful “I am” affirmation…with one added word: Here.
“Here I am! I am here.”
Yes, we have travelled a long way…each step of which has brought us to where we are now.
Though it is often easier to keep our heads turned back, looking at the past, at all that is comfortable and familiar, I and my fellow expat spouses have proven that the way to thrive in this highly mobile life is to embrace…and, more importantly, declare: “Here I am”…wherever we are.
See Etymology online at https://www.etymonline.com/word/identity
“The Construction of Professional Identity” by Brianna Caza and Stephanie Creary, January 29, 2016. https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1875&context=articles