Lonely, but not alone
2018-10-17 | By Vassia Sarantopoulou
“The lonely expat.” Is there such a term? Do we, expats, resonate with this title at some point in our expat life? Who is this lonely person? Is this person a loner, who has given up socialising and trying to integrate? Or is this person joining every possible expat event and meetup from wine-tasting and book-reading to partying and speed-dating, and still suffering from loneliness?
You feel lonely. And that’s ok.
Feeling lonely as an expat is quite a normal stage in the integration process. In fact, it starts even before you land at our next destination: you are in the middle of packing your stuff and you are already ﬂooded by a nostalgic feeling of all the places and the faces that you will deﬁnitely miss.
Then you move and the real challenge knocks on your door: you are in a new culture, you don’t know how people talk, behave, argue, communicate, connect, laugh, move. You eat lunch at a different time of day. You socialize differently. You don’t even speak the same language. The cherry on top? The locals don’t seem to support you in this struggle. They don’t seem to understand why you take differences and misunderstandings so personally.
This feeling of being different, the outcast, the expats vs. the locals, is a very lonely, alienating, isolating feeling. It’s left to you to ﬁnd new people and new places that feel like home so that the ebb and ﬂow of homesickness will be smoother and less painful every time.
However, remember our anti-loneliness mantra: You are not alone. Many people in this situation feel exactly the same. You may think you are different, but actually you are more similar than you think: we are all struggling for some connection with the people around us, and, believe it or not, expats and locals have the same needs for communication, friendship and reciprocity.
Healthy loneliness and acceptance
Loneliness is inevitable in everybody’s life. It’s a wound that needs tending to and that will heal soon. Whether you are getting a divorce, or you move to a new house or change jobs, loneliness is there to remind you of all the things you don’t know and are afraid of. At the same time, loneliness can be a very productive period: it is the opportunity to re-connect with the people around you and to start building meaningful relationships, where you can be honest and where you feel safe to be yourself.
The ACCESS Counselling Service Network (CSN) supports the mental health requirements of the international community in the Netherlands. CSN is composed of licensed professionals speaking several languages, all personally familiar with the expatriate experience. Conﬁdential ACCESS On-call Counsellor Contact Form: on-call.access-nl.org
Make the most out of your loneliness and overcome it
When the ﬁrst part of the integration process has passed and you are still feeling like a ﬁsh out of water, then you may need to re-evaluate your strategy. Let’s ﬁrst answer some questions:
- Are you taking steps to learn the language? Even some words can make a big difference toward feeling that you are becoming part of the larger community.
- Do you choose social events wisely so that they match your background, values and interests? Or do you only join parties for fun, but without truly connecting with anyone? It has been proved that we feel less lonely when we join activities with people who share the same hobbies, experiences and values.
- Have you noticed whether you have high expectations from the people you meet? Usually we tend to expect people to like us instantly, to become friends with us, to invite us for dinner, etc. It depends, of course, on the culture, but some people have their own pace when connecting with others. Be patient; connections will develop over time.
- Who said that being different is bad? Yes, you are different from the other cultures you meet—exactly what makes you interesting to others. Start seeing yourself as a person making the most of this diverse canvas you live in.
And remember, you are not alone.
In order to help us support more expats in their lonely journey, AntiLoneliness invites you to ﬁll in a survey at antiloneliness.com/the-lonely-expat-survey.html.
About the author
Vassia Sarantopoulou of AntiLoneliness has been working as a counsellor-psychologist for more than 15 years. Based in Leiden, she offers individual and couples counselling, workshops and support groups for anxiety, loneliness, depression, and other issues. antiloneliness.com