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When Old Rules and Roles No Longer Serve Us (Expat Story)

We all bring rules from our childhoods into our adult lives. But which of these rules prevent us from experiencing a more joyful life? Through her own story, author and accompanying spouse Margaret Ghielmetti offers a gentle way to explore the rules and roles that may no longer be serving us, especially as we navigate our expat lives.


Passport, credit cards, guide books to our new destination: check, check, check! These are a few things that we pack as expats and as travellers.  

But something else we carry with us – without always realizing it – are the assumptions we were raised with. I call these The Family Handbook. Not a literal book, written on paper, but a metaphorical one outlining “Rules to Live By” and passed down to us by the folks who raised us. 

Some of the rules drilled into me may be familiar to you: 

“If you want it done right, do it yourself.”
“Always put others first.”
“Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”
“Above all, Just Do It.” 

Sure, there’s a core of universal wisdom in them (true for most clichés) and they helped me for decades.

But cracks began to appear in the foundation of my life once I’d moved overseas. Unable to work as a “trailing spouse”, I floundered without my carefully polished professional identity. Even though I was well travelled and multilingual, expat life surprised me – with how lonely and lost I felt. I was desperate for connection.  

For comfort, I turned to the familiar rules, taking them to extremes. “If you want it done right, do it yourself” morphed into “Do it yesterday, without any help, perfectly!” I drove myself to be The Perfect Expat, Perfect Corporate Spouse, Perfect Tour Guide, Perfect Everything. “It’s all up to me!” I thought. 

Even as I scurried after every task – wearing a brave face in every role I played in my life – I felt more and more alienated. 

One day, I woke up simply knowing that the clock of my life was ticking. Instead of living everyone else’s life for them, it was time to live my own life before it was too late.

Thanks to a lot of personal growth work, I got in touch with what was driving me on an unconscious level. That allowed me to start making conscious choices in my life, including revising The Family Handbook… 

What rules are written in your handbook?

  1. What “rules” do you notice? 
  2. Consider the impact these “rules” have on how you live your life. 
  3. Be kind with yourself! These are not things we chose, but rather things we inherited.
  4. Imagine how you could gently re-write those rules to support what you want now.   

For me, it was a huge shock to realize that I couldn’t “do it all” by myself – and that I didn’t need to! I revised my handbook to read, “Just Do It when I choose to, am able to, and with ample help.” 

This has allowed me the freedom to shift my focus from being perfectly in control… to being more imperfectly human. Being interdependent has made me stronger. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that we are not alone.   

Now I practice:

  • Remembering that even I can use help sometimes! It’s not all up to me.  
  • Asking for – and accepting – help (knowing that others really want to be of assistance). 

Also, I don’t “Just Do It” any more. I try hard to say “no” to what doesn’t serve me. I say “yes” to the creative expression I always longed for. This has allowed me the space and grace to write a memoir about living around the world, to perform a solo show, to share my travel misadventures in live lit storytelling, and to connect with others – what I wanted all along.   

If I can be helpful in letting go of rules, roles, and old stories which may be keeping you from living your own best life abroad, I’d be honoured. Please reach out any time!  


What rules have you inherited and which would you like to let go of? Which roles no longer serve you? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

PHOTO: Pexels/Lukas

Margaret Ghielmetti wrote Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist to entertain readers with her (mis)adventures while living on four continents and visiting fifty countries as a trailing spouse to her Swiss hotelier husband – and to remind us that it’s never too late to learn to live our own lives. She’s delighted that her short story was published in the New York Times’ regular Tiny Love Story section on New Year’s Day, and that Brave(ish) earned a silver award in Story Circle’s Gilda Prize: nominated memoirs are”distinguished by their fresh voices, their honesty, and their authenticity. They make us laugh (even when we want to cry)”.