While all around you everyone seems to be settling in and dealing with their relocation by the book, you feel lost, alienated, disconnected and very alone. You think you’re doing something wrong. But remember, no one likes to admit that they are lonely and I have found that everyone struggles at some point. Some people are just better at covering it up. But why should you? Why not accept it as part and parcel of the life you have chosen and give yourself a break?
In my experience people who are on to their third or fourth relocation can be especially prone to an inner emotional collapse, a kind of relocation fatigue. At your lowest point you tell yourself, “why bother making new friends when soon I’ll be saying goodbye again?” This is especially true if you feel the decision to relocate wasn’t entirely your own.
On the whole, it is normal for all of us international nomads to experience periods of loneliness. And with the ‘in real life’ places to meet now temporarily closed off to us, feelings of displacement can no longer be denied. The only thing I can offer is to use the time to look inwards. To actively explore the feelings that lie under the surface of your loneliness and to see where they belong.
I distinguish three forms of loneliness
Being in the transitional void: The first form of loneliness is due to a lack of belonging. Back home in your country of origin or in the country in which you last lived, you would have created a place for yourself and felt affirmed by the relationships that you had there. It feels wonderful to have ‘your’ café, ‘your’ bakery and especially, ‘your’ people to mirror back the core identity with which you were born or that became your new, expanded self when you moved abroad and settled in. From the moment we are born we look for our identity in the eyes of the people around us. In psychology that’s called mirroring. Parents mirror, siblings mirror, but a culture also acts as a mirror. And more often than not these mirrors can act as a distortion, because seldom our childhood mirrors truly reflect back our whole selves.
When a new culture then mirrors back new, previously buried aspects of yourself, it is a great opportunity, but it can feel disconcerting and even threatening to your established self. And in this gap between shifting selves, loneliness steps in as a way to encourage you to keep trying to connect and find more of the lost or under-mirrored self-parts. I feel this phase of loneliness is part and parcel of the foreign adventure and being kind to yourself and not judging yourself is half the battle won. Be creative, turn the void into an inner adventure to see what wants to come forward and why (and which bits of your established ‘self’ get in the way. This can be truly enlightening. Allow all aspects of yourself to gradually take in your new environment. Take long walks, sit and watch the locals, even in this strange time of lock-down, and discover a sense of belonging in the not having to belong!
The exception to this cultural mirroring are the third culture children and adults, who tend not to have a strong sense of belonging to one particular culture, but to the entire tribe of global nomads. In this, I think they are the heralds of a new interconnected global world. Although rootlessness also has its own consequences. But that’s for another blog.
These natives they… : Another form of loneliness can creep up on you after you’ve really begun to know your new home and the things that make the natives tick. You’ve found new and sometimes surprising aspects of yourself being affirmed and mirrored back, but at some point, this adaptation process becomes self-undermining instead of self-affirming. You feel alone with an inner reluctance and may have reached the limits of your desire to ‘fit in’. And this can feel like a disappointment because you’ve tried so hard and you feel you’re attacking yourself from the inside. We battle with earning our right to be more than a guest but, in that process, lose a little of ourselves, and become disconnected from who we are. However, in any foreign adventure, in any new culture, you discover certain unbridgeable gaps between your host culture and your authentic self.
So, in this instance it is good that your psyche tells you, ‘hello friend, this doesn’t feel good!’ It’s time to give yourself a break from adjusting and find places where you can be true to your own culture and personality, while remaining curious and non-judgemental about the things you and the natives just don’t get about each other. Give yourself permission to stop trying to be something you were never meant to be.
Wounded loneliness: The third form of loneliness is one that you may have already experienced earlier in life and perhaps even a feeling that you had hoped to escape from into a new adventure. Some people get a rough start in life. Distorted mirroring is one thing, but finding a blacked-out mirror to find your identity in, or one that only mirrors back how you should be and not who you are, can create a deep-seated existential loneliness that needs to be addressed lovingly and with compassion. You may unconsciously be choosing to stay well clear of emotionally intimate relationships, and the international community can be a perfect place to hide.
Yet in the long run your lonely heart is not fooled. You carry your loneliness as a kind of self-protective shell inside you where the price you pay for protecting yourself from others is isolating yourself from others. The fear to be hurt (again) is greater than the fear of abandonment and loneliness. If you recognise yourself in this third example, then maybe it would help to talk to someone about ways in which you can slowly, with great respect for your own boundaries, begin to allow the world back in again. As one of my clients said: “it was incredibly reassuring, liberating and comforting to be able to talk about my internalised loneliness without being made to feel like someone who is just not trying ha rd enough, patronized, ridiculed or laughed at.”