Self: Who am I?

In 2018, traveling, living abroad and exploring other countries and cultures is increasingly common, and the influence of modern technology brings opportunities to our doorstep unimaginable a few decades ago.

It reminds me of my father, who was struggling to cope with the reality of the internet and mainstream travel quite some years ago: “I don’t understand that when someone in China says ‘poop’, I have to have it on my plate within seconds. It is complicated enough already to understand what is going on in my own town, why would I want to go figure stuff out somewhere else too”.

However, the immense growth of travel possibilities, has irreversibly changed our lives and realities and, as research now reveals, goes far beyond just traveling for the sake of traveling.

Recently, a study done by three universities[1], showed that people who live abroad tend to have a better sense of self than those who don’t. It pointed out that self-reflection and reflection on people’s new reality abroad, made them more conscious of their own norms and values and that what they believe defines them as individuals.

“Our studies demonstrate that living abroad affects the fundamental structure of the self-concept by enhancing its clarity.”

They highlighted that “self-discerning reflections” are activated by living in another country as people have to come to terms with the “different cultural values and norms of their home and host cultures”.

Self in a Context

It reminds me of a quote by Henry Miller: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things”.

Avoiding reflection on a situation and yourself in it, is nearly impossible when you get onto an airplane, a bus or a boat and travel elsewhere. But why? Your thoughts and feelings are shaped by your past experiences, the truths of the reality you live in, the customs you are used to and the structure of your society.
When you leave those familiar places behind, your mind is challenged in what it thinks it knows, and it has to reassess itself, your self, within a new context.

The research also found that this soul searching does not only lead to a new sense of self, but also brings “greater life satisfaction and decreased stress, improved job performance and even enhanced clarity about the types of careers that best match an individual’s strengths and values”.

But is it all really so peculiar?

Very relevant to this subject, are the sociological concepts of self-identity and social reflexivity.

Anthony Giddens writes that “social reflexivity refers to the fact that we constantly think about, or reflect upon, the circumstances in which we live our lives”. This is directly related to the concept of self-identity: that what sets us apart as a distinct individual. “Self-identity refers to the process of self-development through which we formulate a unique sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. It is the individual’s constant negotiation with the outside world that helps to create and shape a sense of self”.

A drop of paint

By now, my father has become a frequent traveler and has visited places from New Orleans, USA to Tehran, Iran.

When I think back, it is incredible to see how those journeys have influenced his perspectives of reality as well as of himself.

And the same goes for me, as a Dutch woman living in Lebanon and working and traveling around the world for about five months a year.


Think of yourself as a red drop of paint.

Now you take that drop, and drop it into a bucket of red paint. The drop does not differentiate or define itself, it is in an environment that looks like itself. Yes, it is a drop on its own, but it is produced and absorbed by the environment it came from.
But if you drop that red drop in a bucket of green paint, that’s a whole different ballgame for both the paint in the bucket as for the drop itself.

What does your bucket look like and how well do you see yourself?

[1] Six separate studies that surveyed 1,874 participants in the United States and in international MBA programs. The surveys included participants who lived abroad and those who did not. The research was done by the Rice University in conjunction with Columbia University and the University of North Carolina

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