Leigh Matthews is a registered Australian psychologist and founder of Therapy in Barcelona, her solo practice, which is now an international team of therapists, providing counselling and coaching in English to adults, children, adolescents and families from Barcelona’s international community. Leigh moved from Australia to Barcelona in 2011, left a successful private practice in her home country, opened another in Barcelona and gave birth to her son here in 2012. She comes to her work with expats in Barcelona with personal experience of the challenges and rewards of expat family life in Barcelona. That experience, and her life-long passion and talent for helping people in psychological practice, converge in the invaluable resource that is Therapy in Barcelona.
Leigh, what brought you to Barcelona in the first place?
That age old theme, and the thing that pulls a high proportion of people to Barcelona: amor! I met my husband, a Barcelona native, in Australia in 2010. We fell in love and took up the gauntlet to embark on an intercultural marriage. We have been living in Barcelona together since August 2011. I never dreamed I would be living in Barcelona, though I do remember seeing the Sagrada Familia on a documentary on tv years before I met my husband and thinking: “I really want to see that building that looks like a sand castle!”
What was the impetus for founding Therapy in Barcelona?
I had a thriving private psychology practice in Australia, and Psychology is my vocation, so it was a foregone conclusion that I would continue helping people when I moved to Barcelona. Although Therapy in Barcelona was a very natural step for me, I didn’t realise just how much need there exists for a service that speaks to the international community here, but there is and I feel we are really providing a valuable service.
What are the main differences between working in Australia and in Barcelona?
In Australia I worked in a clinical context, with people from the whole spectrum of society, meaning I worked with more underprivileged clients who presented with more severe mental health concerns. This was also because Australia has the bulk billing system where clients sign for sessions paid by the government. I was also very well connected with other professionals like doctors, psychiatrists, and other therapists. Here I work with a very different population: expats, or Barcelona’s international community who speak english, and so the majority of people I work with here are pretty well resourced in their lives, highly educated and, often, psychology minded. My impetus for starting the center is to continue to create connections with professionals who work with expats/immigrants so we can create enhanced models of shared care for Barcelona’s internationals.
Australia is very multicultural and yet the people I worked with there were rooted in Australia, here I work with people from different cultural backgrounds who are not always with roots in Barcelona, or with an intention to stay long term. I often end up starting therapy in person with clients who then move around the world so we continue with online therapy. I also learn a lot about different cultures and park my cultural assumptions and values at the door. That is an interesting and privileged experience for me too. I also work with an international team of therapists here, rather than professionals from my own country and educational background, which is very enriching in terms of learning new perspectives and strategies for helping people.
How did you manage to nurture your new business and have a baby at the same time?
Just taking it slowly, keeping expectations low, and with a lot of patience. I didn’t engage in marketing my business at that time, I simply had my website, so I started with a very small number of clients. I had built my private practice in Australia with much more gusto, but knew from experience that it takes at least 2 years to build and, you can’t push the river. The business grew organically, and that worked well in terms of allowing me to breastfeed my son to 2.5 years and spend most of my time with him. Finding the work-life balance is an ongoing project and challenge – like keeping your balance on a bike!
How international is your team of therapists?
I am from Australia and my collaborating therapists hark from Sweden, USA, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Belgium, Brazil, England, and Scotland. All of my collaborators are expats or immigrants in Barcelona and understand the unique challenges and opportunities that come with global transitions. We are challenged to bring a constant openness and spirit of learning, not just to our culturally diverse clients, but to each other. It’s such a special team. The team are often commenting on how great the synergy is between all of us and that magnifies the structures we have for support and professional development. This synergy extends to our capacity to do great work with our clients!
Expat life offers many opportunities but also comes with challenges. What are the most common challenges for families relocating?
Finding the right fit in terms of neighbourhoods, schools, and supports. Navigating the bureaucracy which is a notoriously difficult right of passage. Missing the little things at the local supermarket. Finding a tribe. Beyond this, many people are not prepared for the psychological challenges of the cultural and language differences, including, in Barcelona, the presence of both Spanish and Catalan languages. Accompanying spouses are challenged by the issues of having left their work and lives. Culture shock, and a period of adjustment that is difficult usually accompanies relocation and families need to build their resilience and intercultural competence. Relocating is inherently stressful and when both adults in a relationship are stressed, that causes conflict and challenges for them and their children. It can be scary and lonely for children and parents need to keep an eye on their kids’ behaviour and keep the lines of communication open and spend time together on purpose, and consistently.
Is it common for adolescents to take longer to adapt to a new country than younger children?
Adolescence is itself a time of transition so it is recognised that adaptation and acculturation from about 15 years of age onward is more challenging than it is for younger children whose cultural values, identities and beliefs are not as sedimented. Younger kids are more adaptable and learn languages more readily. Keep an eye out for changes in your child’s behaviour and seek professional support if necessary to add another dimension of support and new strategies for coping.
What skills and strategies do you suggest to help cope with family relocation?
Research the city you are moving to. On Facebook there are many groups you can join and reach out to – MumAbroad Barcelona; Barcelona Babies & Kids; Barcelona and Catalonia Expats – International BCN; Barcelona Mamas; Expats World Barcelona.
Use these groups to start to investigate where to live, what schools to choose, and to ask what life is like in Barcelona and to ask to meet up for coffee with another expat when you arrive.
Expect stress, and some level of anxiety and adaptation. It IS stressful moving and adjustment issues are really common. You and your whole family will be grieving what you have left behind. Take time for cultural refuelling – enjoying movies or food from your culture, and talking to people from home. At the same time, seek community and understand you need to put in the effort to build this community.
Spend time together as a family sharing positive experiences, try not to take each other’s stress personally. Check in with each other and learn how to listen. Encourage and support each other to engage in the things that help you to relax and cope – sport, reading, writing, meditation, meals together, visiting museums, time in nature. Reach out for therapy for you, your child, your teen or your whole family if it seems like you need a little more support.
If you could give one piece of advice to a family thinking of relocating what would it be?
“Poc a Poc” – “little by little” in Catalan – is a good mantra. Recognise that relocation is a major life transition not unlike marriage, births, deaths, retirement or other positive life changes. Seek out your tribe via Facebook networks, and by participating in Meetups or community events and ramp up your self-care – do those things that help you maximise your well being (nutritious food, good sleep habits, sport, hobbies, relaxation time, talking to friends and family) and minimise stress (less alcohol, caffeine and processed food, avoid isolation, inactivity and poor sleep).
What do you miss about Australia and what do you love about Barcelona?
I miss some semblance of belonging; the ease with which one understands and is understood, just saying: “Hey, how you goin’?” at the supermarket and the easygoing openness of Australians on a daily level. I miss the landscape, the bird songs, the possums in the trees, the flocks of bats at twilight, and the Southern Cross in the sky. I miss having a “backyard.” I miss that flat drawled accent (which also makes me cringe) and beautiful wild beaches that you can have all to yourself. I miss the modern, forward looking, egalitarian way of Australia.
I love the history of Barcelona, the grandeur and magnificence of the modernista architecture in my neighbourhood, the Eixample. You can see a Picasso in a gallery anywhere in the world, but you must come to Barcelona to experience the genius of Gaudi’s works. I love that Barcelona is the meeting place of the sea and the mountains, and the way in which Catalan gastronomy reflects this. I love the rhythm of the seasons and how that manifests in festivals, fashion and changing landscapes. I value that kids are so loved and celebrated here. The respect for work-life balance is a gift, and the tempo of the city is more like that of a big village than a metropolis when compared to London or other big cities. It is marvellous that something like 80% of businesses in Barcelona are small, family businesses. I love the Catalan culture, the castellers (human castles), Catalan art, and their quiet reserved industriousness and seriousness. The melding of Spanish and Catalan cultures is very interesting and the political situation may be anxiety inducing, but it is also an extension of a very complex and interesting history. I love the sense that I am watching a whole country transforming, since they are only something like 44 years beyond a dictatorship. What a privileged life is the life in Barcelona!