Living abroad can be and often is all the wonderful things you might imagine, an adventure, an invitation to a slower pace of life, days at the beach and café culture but it’s also a myriad of experiences which are much more challenging. While your friends back home might think you live permanently on holiday for most of us this is not the reality. Living and working abroad often comes with personal obstacles, not least the management of our mental health.
A journey into the unknown on a daily basis.
The thing nobody tells you about living abroad, especially in a country where you encounter a language barrier is that every day is filled both with possibilities and challenges, because of all the things you don’t know. No matter how well you do your research and how much effort you make after 2 months or 20 years there will still be things you don’t know or cannot know about the culture you live in. This can be extremely confronting, especially in the beginning. Every small task is challenging, and it is hard not to be intimidated by the sheer otherness of it all. Even when you think the move you make is to a country with a similar culture to your own, you will encounter difference and be challenged by it. Sometimes this is exhausting, in the early days I remember being terrified of my phone ringing. For all the excitement and the wonderful discoveries to be made – and there are so many of these, there are also days when we just don’t feel up to the challenge.
Letting go of ideals.
When you have lived in one place for a long time and most especially the place you grow up in you get used to the way things work and build up a certain set of expectations. From how to queue in a supermarket to submitting your taxes you know what is expected of you and what you expect from others. When you move to a different country it can be hard to let these go, after all, there is comfort and reassurance in what we know. Some of the most frequent difficulties I have observed are in the willingness to be flexible with our cultural ideals and the temptation to make comparisons. Everything won’t work the way you are used to and yes sometimes that’s exasperating and even frightening, but tightly clinging to rigidity can cause a great deal of suffering.
The struggle for identity; An opportunity for renewal?
One of the most rewarding discoveries of moving abroad can be the opportunity for reinvention of ourselves and our lives. But this can also be a daunting prospect, not least because it questions our sense of identity.
I have a particular horror of the term “Trailing spouse”, this outdated label refers to the supporting or accompanying partner whose move is set in motion by the job or opportunity being offered to the other member of the couple. Often this individual has made great sacrifices in their personal and professional lives only to feel overlooked or dismissed in the eyes of the wider world. Similarly, in retired couples there is often one partner who finds it harder to seek out a community, make friends or practice their interests and hobbies, who might feel left behind. Even in those who make the move alone with the intention to start afresh many of the same questions apply. Who am I now? How do I want to be seen by others? And what do I want my life to look like here? These are big questions and they can leave us feeling lonely and questioning our self-worth and self-esteem, we feel judged and turn that judgement unfairly on ourselves.
Language can be another area where identity is challenged, even when we speak another language quite well we still have to work out how to be ourselves in this new language, how to sound like ourselves or convey our personality. For example, you might think of a joke but be unable to tell it or realise uncomfortably that the phrase you diligently translated in your head has been met with confusion. We forget that in the comfort of our own language we have such flexibility and freedom and it can be hard to feel like a reduced or edited version of ourselves.
What you carry is not just in the contents of your suitcases.
Whether you retire to a life in the sun or shift countries for a new job and new experiences, few of us leave the country of our birth on a whim. Whatever motivates us is often amplified in the strangeness of the new world in which we find ourselves, even if at first it all seems full of excitement and the enjoyment of new discoveries. We don’t outrun our personal and psychological difficulties, we bring them along for the ride and while they may sit in the background patiently waiting, when they catch up with us it can be particularly brutal when we are away from family, friends and familiarity.
Living abroad during a global pandemic as we are currently experiencing, especially with extended periods of isolation and confinement may exacerbate these difficulties. It may make the distance seem greater and makes it harder to assimilate, we may also be worried about those we have left behind. Fortunately, we have greater flexibility for communication than before, but it is not always easy to remain positive and we may find it hard to keep in touch.
Here are a few suggestions for navigating the challenges of living abroad:
Find your community.
In Portugal there is a strong international community and many opportunities for a rich cultural experience. We are fortunate to live in a country which by and large is open to us and where the people are mostly welcoming and approachable. Building relationships can be difficult but don’t be afraid to find international groups and organisations as well as making connections in the local community, sometimes you will need to ask questions or benefit from the experiences of others.
Choose your social media groups wisely – As in so many areas, the world of social media can be a tremendous support but also a challenging place. Try to find groups which speak positively to your experience and provide a helpful and supportive environment.
Find people who do things you love – What do you like to do and what would you like to try? From surfing to language classes, crafts and social groups, look for opportunities to explore your interests with others who enjoy the same activities as you or those you would like to take part in.
Don’t be afraid to explore the new but recognise when you need familiarity.
Celebrate all the small achievements, there will be many. From the first time you order a coffee in Portuguese to the first time you understand when someone asks you a question in the street or you manage to re-create a half decent version of your favourite local dish at home.
It’s ok that it’s hard, sometimes we forget this. Uprooting ourselves is not easy but we make it harder when we punish ourselves unnecessarily for not acclimatising fast enough.
Try to suspend the urge to judge yourself, as well as others and the situations in which you find yourself. Things may not always be as you hoped or imagined but often the difficulties are far outweighed by the benefits you gain by experiencing life in a different country. Try to stay open minded when you can and resist the temptation to get stuck in the aspects you find most difficult.
Be patient with your progress, to embrace the here and now sometimes you have to let go of your expectations. Stop for a minute, remember to breathe and give it time, a new sense of self will emerge.
Talk to someone
Finally, and I can’t emphasise this enough, if you are finding things difficult talk to someone about it, often you will find others who at best share your experiences and may have helpful suggestions or at least can offer a sympathetic ear.