Is loneliness part of the expat experience?

Many expats experience periods of loneliness, especially at the start of their assignment, but also later. There are different aspects to consider.

wintersnowlyingreadingcroppedMany expats experience a period of loneliness and isolation when they settle in a new country. I will be describing three kinds of loneliness that incomers to a new country might suffer from. One is more superficial and of a passing nature, the second is linked to the effort of resolving feelings of being disconnected and alien; the third is of a deeper, more psychologically wounding nature.

We’re all aliens

Wherever your particular loneliness fits in right now, it is important to accept that patience and acceptance of the situation ‘as it is now’ is always a great starting point for moving ahead.

No one likes to admit that they are lonely and yet, for most internationals, dealing with the loss of friends and family is always going to be part of the process of adjustment. Singles may travel abroad in search of adventure, to take up a new job, or just because that particular country has always exercised a particular pull on them. People who move as an international couple find that their contact with the native population usually occurs through meeting the neighbours or work colleagues. Often they feel that existing social networks are tight and sometimes a little hard to penetrate. After all, in some neighbourhoods people have known each other for decades, and are quite happy just to hang with people they know and whose behaviour they can predict.

I moved to Sweden in 1997, having fallen in love with my future husband’s home country long before I met my husband to be. We went to the wedding of one my husband’s best friends where everything was very ceremonious and formal. The following week the same group of friends met to celebrate Midsummer’s eve, and all ended up naked and fairly drunk in the sauna. It was certainly a good introduction to two different sides of Sweden!

People that move back to the ‘home’ of their partner are often surprised at their subsequent experience of loneliness compared to those who move as ‘joint aliens’. On the one hand, having a ready-made set of family and friends through your native partner may seem quite handy and many cultures tend to extend the hand of friendship warmly to those who are part of their own in-crowd. But, over time, you might feel that your partners’ friends would not necessarily be the people you would choose to be friends with yourself. And you end up in a bind, because everyone was so terribly welcoming and friendly to start off with and surely beggars ought not to be choosers.

The lonely alien

The first aspect of loneliness that I want to take up is related to the feeling that you don’t (yet) belong. 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. There’s nothing like having ‘your’ café, ‘your’ bakery and especially, ‘your’ people to feel that a place is home. So this type of loneliness, which is part and parcel of the adjustment process, is more about being temporarily disconnected. This is a phase that will pass as you gradually make new friends and find a way of weaving your own storyline into that of your new environment. It doesn’t happen overnight, but remember that eventually it will.  I remember how I felt when I saw someone waving hello to me as I walked out of my house in Stockholm; it meant so much as it told me I’d ‘landed’!

 ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ loneliness

Another form of loneliness or isolation comes from the realisation that there are some unbridgeable gaps between your host culture and your own. I am Dutch and we love a good discussion; setting the world to rights in loud opinionated voices and enjoying the debate, win or lose. Yet I have realised that this kind of dinner table behaviour is really not something that ‘fits’ here in Sweden, nor in the UK either, and country that also has a warm place in my heart after fifteen years of professional life there. That’s OK;  we’re not here to change what has worked fine for other cultures over many hundreds of years. Brooke Peterson suggests in his lovely book Cultural Intelligence that the hummingbird is no better or worse than the tortoise. They have just adapted in order to fit the needs of their environment. It’s not so much a judgement on the native culture, but more of a growing realisation that their ‘normal’ and our ‘normal’ is different.

Emmy van Deurzen is the author of Paradox & Passion in Psychotherapy . She was born in Holland, then worked in France, and is now one of the UK’s leading Existential Psychotherapists. She writes; “It is easy to underestimate the importance of the societal structures that regulate belonging. (…) as a foreigner you are by definition the intruder, who is only accepted as a temporary guest.” We can feel we need to earn our right to be more than a guest here and in that process, we sometimes lose a little of ourselves, and become a little disconnected from who we are.

I would like to suggest that this kind of loneliness is a second stage of the on-going process of adaptation and that, hard though it may be, it can spur us on to realise we have a choice in finding the social structures and connections where we can fit in. For some that may be everything their new home has to offer, for others it may be the international community, or, as the Swedes so wonderfully put it, it may even be ‘både och’ (and/and). It is seeing the differences clearly that helps us to stop trying so hard to be something we’re not and accepting the difference is what we need to confidently build up our so desperately needed social networks.

Chronic loneliness

The third form of loneliness is one that you may have already experienced earlier in life, but has been experienced more intensely upon your move to another country. Some people get a rough start in life and might ‘choose’ to stay well clear of emotionally intimate relationships. If your primary care givers have been unable to meet you with empathy and compassion, then your trust in other people can be severely dented. After all, if you can’t trust your parents, who can you trust?? Negative comments or reactions suddenly take on the energy of hurt and pain from the past.

You might have coped by building up a strong ‘survivor’ personality; telling yourself you don’t ‘need’ other people, while just under the surface is a longing to connect. To the outside world it may look as if you’re isolating yourself on purpose when you refuse to join clubs or invite colleagues round for a coffee; they might feel that you are doing nothing to break out of this isolation . But the fear to be hurt (again) is greater than the fear of abandonment and loneliness. Sadly, this is an increasing phenomenon in modern society; people seldom take the time to really connect with someone who evokes ambiguity around our offers of friendship.

If you recognise yourself in this third example, then it will help to realise that; from the perspective of your defences it makes absolute sense. What will help is to work actively with old fears and learn to take care of your deeper frightened self. In the words of one of my clients, “when you are really lonely and isolated it is so reassuring, liberating and comforting to be able to talk about it without feeling like a total loser and without being patronized, ridiculed or laughed at”. Talking with someone who is a professional listener could be a first step to slowly daring to trust that you might be safe and you might find people to rely on.

* quoted with client’s permission

 Lysanne Sizoo is the mental health contributor to your living city and this article first appeared in their pages. 

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