The Giving-Back Series: Maintaining Energy and Joy in Expat Life
The aim of the Giving Back series is to provide space for the inspiring stories and good work of people and organizations in South Moravia that are creating positive change in society. The series showcases the journeys of ordinary people fighting daily battles to become the backstage heroes of local communities and their own lives, and invites others to contribute by volunteering, art-making, growing, healing, socializing, and committing to make the world better.
Living abroad, traveling and gathering international experiences bring countless perks, such as being independent, culturally and linguistically open, and rich in experience. On the other side of the coin, the struggles of being an expat go usually untold and overlooked. Missing family events, not being able to find a welcoming and clicking community, the detachment from your home country and delayed attachment to the new, to name just a few. Yet the way we present our expat life to others is usually misleading, or not entirely fun and games.
All expats have their own stories, some happy and some not, but there is no expat who has not experienced periods of discontentment, or a lack of energy or joy. When we are far away from home to maintain a better life, and the familiarity element is not in our immediate reach for a quick mood uplift, how can we maintain our daily energy and happiness? Do we share the same problematic patterns in our daily lives, and how can we find solutions? To answer these vital questions, we turn to Petra Nedbalkova, a certified coach whose work focuses on mental health practices with expats. Petra knows what it is to be an expat, from her international work experience in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East; and her holistic empathy can help us receive what we need from a local – to feel seen, heard and understood.
Why is working with expats your primary focus?
I work with expats because I know that there is always an unfulfilled need for quality services for non-Czech speakers, especially in health and related services. From my work experience abroad for many long years, I can empathize that being an expat may bring deep loneliness, isolation, helplessness, struggles with finding roots, belonging, and so much more. Offering any help with these is an opportunity to create a more resilient and in-harmony society. Also, I believe that working with expats can bring new learning in psychology, and new ways of understanding the human mind and emotions that are impacted by varying cultural backgrounds.
What recurring emotional patterns do you observe in your clients these days?
In general, people’s relationships with themselves and with their immediate circle, such as parents or partners, seem to be the source of recurring, unresolved trauma. Generally, thought patterns or beliefs we have soaked up as sponges in childhood turn out to be the main cause of behaviors which need to be discovered and reevaluated.
With women, I believe that the general struggles are with lack of self-love, confidence and boundaries, and also obsession with perfectionism. Most women are raised as good girls, trying to help everyone and fulfill others’ needs and wishes first without being able to say no. This causes burnout, resentment and lack of energy. Trying to be the perfect mom, employee, wife, girlfriend, daughter, friend, or whatever you try to be does not work, because one cannot be perfect in everything. We are the harshest critics of ourselves, this includes negative self-talk about body image, career, income, and so on.
What is hard to accept for many women is that trying to do everything without help means doing everything half. What we need to accept is that everyone deserves the flexibility to be okay with themselves in the exact place where they are right now, and the right to relax and let others take responsibility. Another repeating pattern with women is building the self-identity around the mother role. This gives no space and freedom for the child as they are constantly under the watch and guidance of the mother, and again, it gives no space and freedom for the mother to be a person beyond their kids – which usually creates a painful process when kids leave home.
With men, similar issues repeat with self-love and confidence, and also a mislearned sense of identity through job, title and wealth, which may appear in women as well. Centering your job as the main source of self-worth is dangerous, as once you lose your job, you are in big trouble with finding your place on earth. I work on reminding my clients that work is indeed a big part of human life, but it does not define who they are as a whole.
It is true that a big part of life satisfaction comes from work, but many expats struggle to find a job they are inspired by, or they complain about being overqualified for the jobs they do (there is even university research running on this issue). What do you suggest to expats who struggle to find purpose in their careers?
This topic is very controversial, and definitely needs more attention from employers, as much as from employees. Work is a big and important part of life, most of us spend approximately forty hours at work every week. I believe for Czechs it is easier to change their jobs if they are not satisfied, but for foreigners the process is harder and bulkier in terms of paperwork and other issues.
Initially, admit how you feel, and accept your true feelings about your job. If you really don’t like your job and if every workday feels like a burden, it will take a lot of energy and joy from your life. If you are not in a position to change your job, your position or a particular work-related situation at the moment for any reason, try to see what you can do to improve your day. For example, if possible, have lunch alone in a park or terrace near the office. Take a short walk, call your best friend or partner, take breaks whenever possible. Use the restroom if thoughts or feelings become overwhelming, play a short meditation on YouTube or Spotify. If you do not get along well with your colleagues, create alone time, use other rooms in the office if possible, or create focused times in your calendar to hinder unnecessary meetings. Attach photos of your loved ones to your desk or wall. Bring your favorite snacks, coffee, or tea. If you believe your feedback would be received well by your managers, try communicating the problems to them in a constructive way.
It is also very important to mindfully approach how you spend time after work and at the weekends. If your work brings your energy down to zero or minus levels at the end of the day, be very committed to surrounding yourself with activities that refill your energy. Go outdoors, have coffee outside, have a glass of wine, exercise. If possible, try to dedicate time to your hobbies and practice them just for the sake of practicing them, without fulfilling any inner expectation of doing a good job, just like in your childhood. Try to connect with your inner child and observe how you can fulfill its needs by detaching from the achiever mentality, and focusing solely on feeling calm and joyful.
In such situations, it is helpful to remember the reason why you do this job as an expat and do a quick scan of your situation to see where you stand, what you feel about your job, and how or if you can change it. Is it to provide yourself and/or your family a better life than you had at home? If yes, working on improving your patience will help you enjoy life more, and having extra learning time in the evenings or at the weekends to come closer to getting your dream job. If you have been in the country a while, and if changing your job seems more probable and easier, but you still do not enjoy your work, try to find work opportunities in which you resonate with the purpose of the company and the position. Change is always scary, but we cannot achieve improvement without getting out of our comfort zone.
What do you suggest to people who want to discover themselves more, even if they are in the beginning phase of mindfulness and self-awareness practices?
The most important thing to start is being honest with yourself about whatever you see as wrong, hurtful, and not serving you. Burying your head – and accordingly your problems – like an ostrich in the ground and ignoring them will not help you in the long run. For sustainable solutions to improving your mental health, being honest to yourself and accepting the areas where you can use some help are the first steps. Accepting them by being kind to yourself, and trying to observe how these problems reflect in your daily behaviors, and always reminding yourself to really observe your triggers and reactions will help you find the source of problems, and work on them. In my coaching sessions I always do a life scan of the new client to see where the problems are. These areas include, firstly and most importantly, relationships with parents and traces of childhood; health, work, relationships with friends and partners, and so on.
What led you to a career in coaching? Were you always working in the mental health field?
I had many jobs from different fields, but approximately five years ago, I started having a great enthusiasm for mental health studies, mainly due to the fact that I suffered from burnout and depression myself. I believe my whole journey in trying to find a balance in work and personal life led me to study psychology, take it seriously, and shift my purpose to helping others gain this awareness.
In my early twenties, I studied French in Paris, then a wonderful, enriching degree in humanitarian aid, specializing in post-conflict reconciliation. Later on, I worked in Ghana and Benin as a manager of many humanitarian projects for six years, and later for an NGO in Prague that had field offices in Georgia, Iraq, Myanmar and Lebanon, for which I traveled regularly to refugee camps, to the ground work. The whole experience was priceless. Definitely hard, very demanding, but eye-opening. I was very involved in the job, and I had built the misconception that I could save everyone. I believe many humanitarian workers struggle with the same stigma, which causes unfulfillment and in the end, burnout. People who work for other people such as health workers, teachers, and social workers usually suffer from helplessness themselves. I was one of them, and I could see how my colleagues were also so focused on saving others that they forgot to save themselves. What they usually ignore – or sometimes have to ignore due to the heavy workload – is to care for themselves so that they can actually be better at work.
Burnout is only recently becoming a topic for awareness even though it is extremely widespread in our society. Having suffered from it myself, I started to be more conscious about my mental health and read books and articles, joined workshops and seminars, received therapy and discovered myself, my needs and boundaries not to allow burnout to bring me down again. Only after that did my journey in getting educated and certified in different mental health and mindfulness areas begin. I strongly believe that having experienced the down makes me a better coach today for being able to empathize deeply with my clients, understand their stories with more humility, and help them to the best of my ability.
How did you build your experience in mental health coaching?
After years of mentally-demanding work, in which seeing the result and change took a long time, I wanted to work with my hands and see the result more quickly – and that is how I started my massage therapy journey. Having received my training and certificate in that, yet not finding any work opportunities in Brno, I went to the mountains and started working as a massage therapist.
One may find it absurd that I changed my job title from a humanitarian project manager to massage therapist, but I found the whole experience enriching and grounding. I found the time to explore nature, read and learn more and more about psychology, and heal from my own traumas as well, while I also broadened my knowledge and experience in massage therapy.
After that, when life in the mountains felt too isolating, I went to India to receive 200 hours of training for yoga and meditation, though I was more involved in the meditation part of this experience, which later became an indispensable part of my daily life. Right after coming back from India, the pandemic started, and everything shut down on the day that was supposed to be my first day of work as a massage therapist in Brno. Later on, I found a job in the Western part of the country, and I tried working for a while in Spain as well, but I could not continue giving massages due to physical health problems that arose. Saying goodbye to massage therapy was surely difficult, I enjoyed the job very much, but I had already learned not to turn my back against life when things took the opposite direction.
Leaving massage therapy behind, I received my coaching training from an exclusive, professional program which admitted its students through an interview-based selection process. After completing the program and passing the exam, I entered the internship phase, in which I coached clients free of charge in order to get the necessary experience and insight into coaching. Ever since, I have been working with Czech and foreign clients, building my experience around it, running individual or festival-based workshops and enlarging my network.
I have not – yet – worked in the mental health coaching area for very long, but so far I have discovered that although humility is seen as a big cliche, I think it is highly important in order to be a good coach. Humility helps mental health professionals realize that lives change overnight, people lose jobs, people, their honor or self-worth. You never know what people are going through or what kind of childhood they had when they first enter the room. Education, books and articles can teach you a lot, but when you have personal experience of suffering and self-healing, you can empathize deeper to help your clients in the best way possible.
At the same time, I believe that I now have a unique background and holistic approach to mental health through experience-gathering in massage therapy, yoga, and meditation to enrich my coaching in addition to my personal insight into mental and spiritual difficulties. In my workshops or coaching sessions, according to the difficulties that my clients are facing, I am able to offer guidance in a comprehensive way that combines taking responsibility for improving one’s health at all layers.
Petra’s Group Workshops in English and Czech
Petra runs mindfulness workshops at Cesta Integrity, a well-being center in Jundrov. Her workshops are for small groups of people (no more than 10) to allow space for open, vulnerable discussions. The workshops mainly focus on helping people find more energy and joy through guiding them to practical solutions and discoveries of personal, unique, non-competitive sources of inner peace.
The three-hour workshops include short meditations, rituals and discussions, and other mindfulness techniques; along with a 30-minute individual coaching session on a chosen date to discuss what the participant has discovered through the workshop, and what action steps can be taken further on.
For more information, email Petra at: firstname.lastname@example.org.