Short Summary

  • Living abroad associated with clear sense of self
  • Also showed a clearer sense of career goals
  • The “depth” of the international experience is more important than “breadth”. That is, spending time in one place is probably more valuable than traveling from country to country.

Living Abroad Is Associated with a Clearer Sense of Self

We tested our hypothesis that living abroad will increase self-concept clarity across six studies involving 1,874 participants. In the first study, we recruited 296 people online, half of whom had lived abroad for a minimum of three months, and half of whom had not. All participants completed a well-established measure of self-concept clarity, which asked for their level of agreement with questions such as “In general, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am” and “I seldom experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality” (see sidebar). We found that people who had lived abroad reported a clearer sense of self than people who had not.


Depth, Not Breadth, of Living Abroad Experiences Matters Most

We expected depth to be more important than breadth because the longer people live abroad, the more opportunities they have to engage in self-discerning reflections; in contrast, whether these experiences occur in a single foreign country or in multiple foreign countries should be less important. A study involving 559 MBA students confirmed our prediction and found that the depth—but not the breadth—of living abroad experiences predicted a clearer sense of self.


Surveying a sample of 98 international MBA students, we found once again that the depth rather than the breadth of living abroad experiences predicted a clearer sense of self. This heightened clarity about themselves then translated into a heightened clarity about their post-graduation plans: Those who lived abroad for longer were more likely to say they were clear about what they wanted to do with their careers after their MBA program.

Source: How Living Abroad Helps You Develop a Clearer Sense of Self

Their study did not rule out that the association went the other way – those with clear sense of self and career goals were more likely to live abroad.

How much time do you need to spend abroad to overcome the hurdles and “cultural shock” and benefit the most from the experience?

I have not found a definitive answer to that yet – I have heard it can take 3-6 months just to begin feeling established and comfortable. It depends on the reason for being abroad: study abroad? work? travel? And factors such as your age and whether you have local support (such as family or friend contacts already there). Some people say they never felt established in their overseas community. Others found they fit right in and decided to stay their permanently. There is probably not a one-size-fits-all answer to that questions.

Moving Back

As an adult, there is also the flip side – moving back home after living abroad. Even if you retained ownership of your home while overseas, upon your return you will likely find changes. Friends may have moved out of the area. Retail stores may have swapped out for other stores. Employers in the area may have changed. A lot may have changed.

Image by Joshua Woroniecki from Pixabay

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