Flickr: Shezamm

As expat aid workers, we live in fishbowl communities where nothing stays a secret.

Expat communities, like communities throughout the world, have their fair share of inappropriate behavior. At the same time, there are certain unspoken behaviors in aid and development communities that just *are not done* and that make you into a liability.

Especially in emergencies and post-conflict environments, taking care of our emotional health and well being safeguards us from acting out in ways that can quickly and irreversibly damage our international careers.

Chances are your employer keeps and communicates codes of personal conduct to all its in-country representatives. Maybe it’s a late-night curfew, or something less explicit. One faith-based organization in Liberia didn’t let its volunteers drink alcohol when I was there. Whether your code of conduct is left unspoken or spread by gossips, chances are you know of many people, during your aid career, who broke the rules—and a few more who didn’t get away with it.

The effect of inappropriate behavior in the field is especially tricky for expat aid worker families who have teenage children. Often, it’s the young people’s behavior that causes aid worker parents to worry about a professional reassignment or dismissal. When I was growing up in Nairobi and Cairo, pressure was high on expat kids to stay out of trouble and act right.

The fact of the matter is, before inappropriate or negative behavior becomes pronounced enough to endanger your aid career, you have options if you’re looking for help.

The thing is, how do you ask for and get appropriate, useful support without scandalizing the expat gossip lines and devastating your reputation? It’s a good question.

In expat aid worker communities, the personal and the professional are often indistinguishable. If you get messy drunk at the bar on Friday night, chances are someone in the office on Monday morning is going to know about it—or, better yet, was the one buying.

I’ve seen inappropriate expat behavior contribute to family breakdown and limited aid careers more times than I care to count, and I want to help. I want to teach you what I know: how to build a backup team that proactively keeps you in alignment with your goals and enjoying the highest health and happiness.

I’m going to be writing more about how to build your backup squad in the future. (I publish irregularly, so be sure to sign up for email updates so that you don’t miss out.)

The first person you need on your team needs to be a professional, bound by rules of confidentiality, and someone you can speak with freely. It is important that you not worry about what they think or have any thought of needing to impress them.

Why professional? You need gentle objectivity, legal confidentiality, and good boundaries. That’s why your best friend, mentor or mother just won’t do. You need someone you can be real with who’s an expert in helping people in exactly the situation you’re in to attain and practice health and happiness.

We’re talking about getting a therapist or a coach—not a doctor to prescribe you medicine. This person will not be your friend. They will help you make amazing progress in your health and happiness, especially when you really need it.

A lot of people feel stigma when they think about getting help with their attitudes and emotions. Just like hiring a personal trainer to help you get fit, or an acupuncturist to help you with your neck pain, therapists and coaches are the secret weapon in your backup team.

Guiding you to emotional clarity and increased well being is *this person’s job.*

Now, there are two types of professionals for this kind of important work:

A * coach*, or

A *clinical therapist*

A coach is basically someone who has achieved the kind of emotional health you want while also dealing with the challenges you currently face. They’re an unlicensed professional in the medical sense of the word, and are often — but not always — certified. Capable coaches will show you exactly how to get where you want to go, and they will hold you accountable for the changes you want to make in your life. Speaking from personal experience, this can be a powerful thing.

A therapist is a mental health professional who is academically and practically prepared to work with you on deep emotional and personal issues, including addiction and trauma at a psychological level.

Your time with this person happens whenever you need or want it to. You can schedule your time together weekly, monthly or even just every few months or whenever you feel like it.

Personal service note: If you’re an addict or living with an addict, check out the World Service for Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon, which is for families and friends of addicts and alcoholics. There are online meetings if there isn’t one where you live.

If this sounds good to you and you want more health and happiness in your life, here are:


3 steps to finding professional support for your very real stress and issues


1. Get clear on what you want from this work.

What’s bothering you? Identify the area causing you the most pain in your life right now – the most stress, the most worry, the most negativity.

Are you willing to work to make things better?

Now, close your eyes and visualize yourself having moved through and learned from this area. How happy are you? How relaxed? What does it look like? How does your body feel?

Imagine, in detail, your future success.


2. Be open to a variety of professionals.

Search keywords of issues that are important to you like “anxiety,” “weight loss,” “productivity,” or “alcoholism” and then include “coach,” “therapy” or “therapist.” You’re going to find blog and magazine articles, and people’s websites that offer their professional services.

I suggest looking widely on the Internet and finding professionals who do not live anywhere near your community. Use your best judgment and avoid people who make hype-y promises about promised results. You’re looking for a personal and professional connection.

To work with you, coaches and therapists should be authorities in their field and well-networked with other professionals and publications online.

It doesn’t matter where they live, or what time zone you’re in. The Internet is a glorious thing. You can work with *anyone* you want to, wherever they are in the world. Use this to your advantage, and pick big: if there’s a clinical therapist who does somatic healing whose website and yoga classes you like, reach out and schedule a call.


3. Research your options and go for it.

As you search online, make a list of coaches or therapists who seem like a good fit for your backup team. More than two, less than nine. We want to keep this manageable.

Reach out to each one by email. Tell them you’re interested in working together and that you have a few questions. Schedule a call.

The kind of professionals you want to work with will not charge you to answer your preliminary questions. They will be willing and ready to speak with you one-on-one, on the phone. Take advantage of the phone conversation to see if this person’s style suits what you’re looking for.

Find out more about what they do by asking:

– Who is your typical client?

– What do you typically work with clients on?

– How would our sessions be structured?

– What are your fees?

The answers will steer you towards professionals that you feel rapport with and who are experts at guiding you towards the health and happiness that you’re aiming for.

And then, at a certain point, you just have to go for it.

Once you make your choice, you’ll have some logistics and paperwork to do: fees, payment, confidentiality agreements, insurance co-pays (if you’re lucky). If you receive an intake sheet or a questionnaire, take time to fill it out. Share freely and be clear about the things you’d like to work on.

If you’re taking action on what I’ve shared here, I applaud you. Take action on what I’ve outlined here, and you’ll see an immediate difference.

Don’t let resistance get in the way of your health and happiness.


If this has helped you or made you think of someone you think it could help, please send them this link. Email me any comments or questions at And I publish irregularly, so don’t forget to sign up for e-mail updates!

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