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Expat Articles » How Your Move Abroad Shakes Up Your Personal Maslow Pyramid


You had everything organised back home: house, job, relationship, friendships. You felt accepted, respected and valued as a person and you were about to live up to your full potential. But then you moved abroad! And your whole life seemed to go upside down.

You may feel frustrated, dissatisfied, angry or sad as you leave behind everything familiar and you haven’t settled into your new life and role yet. You may also feel lost and overwhelmed (e.g. due to culture shock) as you are trying to set up your new life. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory may give you some great insights into why you feel this way. And thankfully this will only be temporary.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
For those of you who are not familiar with his theory, I will Maslow Pyramidquickly explain it. Maslow states that people are essentially driven in life to fulfil their needs. There are five important levels of needs that together form a pyramid. The basic needs consist of physiological needs such as food, drink, sleep, sex. Once these are fulfilled, people start to worry about feeling secure: we want a roof above our head and a job. The third level concerns our social needs and relationships become very important, love, acceptance and wanting to belong. The fourth level is about getting recognition, being respected and valued as a person. And then finally – at the top of the pyramid – we come to the point where self-actualisation becomes important. We want to live to our full potential and some may even ask ‘why am I here’ and ‘what is the purpose of my life’, although that is not always the case.

Of course, this is a theory. Quite often people are trying to fulfil several needs at the same time. But I am sure you get the gist of it. Take Deborah:  early thirties, Western European background. All her first level needs are met. She also lives in a nice house, has a career job, a good relationship with her husband, a great circle of friends and she is getting more and more responsibility and recognition at work. She has come to the point where she is (sometimes) wondering what her purpose in life is. But overall, she is doing pretty well in terms of the hierarchy of needs!

Shaking the Pyramid
And then, her husband gets an overseas assignment and their life is thrown upside down. Deborah moves abroad with her husband. Her husband’s employer arranges for a place to live. But she has to find a job, make new friends, find a new role (and identity) in a culture that she is not familiar with and thus re-find acceptance and recognition for what she does. Does this sound familiar to you?

If you answer yes to this question then you may well feel that you have lost a lot with your move abroad. Back in your home country you may already have been making plans about how you could fulfil your potential. But living your new life, you may well have the feeling that you have to start all over again. And looking at the Maslow pyramid, you are right. Your move abroad has really rattled your personal Maslow pyramid!

Something to Gain
Why? Because those things that were a fact (a given) in your home country do not exist yet in your new environment. You have to start fulfilling your basic needs again and ask yourself how you will do that. You have to work on that, become creative in finding solutions. But hey, knowing this gives you an opening, right? So why not take it one day at a time, step-by-step. And you will see that your needs will be fulfilled once again. And things that were once unfamiliar will grow to become so familiar that you would miss them should you ever decide to go back home. You will have changed, become a more rounded person in the process and be better equipped to fulfil your potential!

About the author:

Ellen Scholten - International Life & Career Coach - is dedicated to support internationals who wish to set and stretch their personal boundaries, broaden their horizons and achieve their self-defined goals.  She has crossed many borders either to travel, live, work or study (MCM, Lincoln University, NZ) in other countries. During her expat years in France, England, Scotland and New Zealand, Ellen has faced many challenges and overcome a few setbacks. She can relate well to people of different cultures and especially expats because she has experienced many of their challenges first hand. She is all about practicality and her approach is very down-to-earth and solution focused. Ellen has post-graduate qualifications in coaching and counselling (Europees Instituut/De Baak) and is a certified NLP Practitioner. She has worked as an HR advisor in both profit and non-profit organisations. You can reach her at:, by phone 0031 (0)6 46018139 or by email at info [at]

©Ellen Scholten 2010.