You know those moments when a local in your expat country makes a comment implying you’re a foreigner or different in some aspect?
You know those moments when a local asks you when you’re going to move back to your home country? Or you have to explain what life in your home country is like even though you’ve lived abroad for a million years?
You know those moments when your friends and family don’t understand why you won’t just settle down already in your home country?
You know those moments when you worry about repatriating because you fear everyone will be close-minded?
If you’ve lived abroad for some time, you’ve probably come across some variation of the moments above.
But let me ask you this –
How many times have you then tried to enlighten these very same people and they don’t seem to get what you’re saying?
How many times have you decided it’s not worth explaining things so you stay silent or change the conversation?
And how many times do you secretly decide to make yourself smaller, less foreign and lose parts of yourself in order to try and fit in? So you don’t lose your one chance at belonging?
I know there have been at least a few times like that for you.
I know that because I’ve been around the same block too more than a couple of times.
I also know that because most of the expats (and fresh repats) I work with are guilty of this, too.
In this blog post, I want to validate how repeatedly being in such situations, even if they seem like inconsequential micro moments, can lead to painful feelings of not fitting in and, ultimately, of feeling like you’ll never belong.
I will also share what you can do about it so that trying to fit in with people on a different wavelength is not the only option on your table.
In order to do that, though, I first have to introduce you to the term “geographically rooted mindset” (aka the nation-state mindset) which refers to people who subscribe to the idea that one’s identity, sense of home and belonging, one’s way of behaving and thinking, as well as one’s only proper place in this world is determined by national borders.
(If you’re into politics at all, you will recognize that this is the very same ideology that right wing politics is based on. But don’t worry, I’m not here to talk politics.)
The sad truth is that this very mindset is quite pervasive (and has been the reigning ideology since the 19th century) amongst well-meaning, common people around the world.
They can be your friends and family who have never left the country or lived abroad. They see whatever you do abroad as “refusing to grow up” and believe that settling down can only happen within the borders of your home country.
They can be locals in your host country who think one day you’re going to move back to your home country because that’s the only logical string of events.
But, as you have probably already experienced, once you spend even a few years living abroad, your world view quite often begins to expand from this geographically rooted mindset into a global mindset.
It’s when you realize that thinking in terms of country borders no longer makes sense and it becomes a struggle to relate to those who believe in the almighty power of national borders defining who we are and where we belong.
While becoming more open-minded and shifting to a global mindset has its benefits, the dark side of it is that it can lead you to the losing your grip on what belonging and home mean altogether.
“Am I from here or there?”
“Where do I belong?”
“Will I ever feel at home anywhere again?”
Questions like that can deeply shake up one’s sense of self and relationship with the outside world.
We can start to feel alienated from many things and people that we used to know, believe and identify with.
And we may continue to feel alien to everything we haven’t quite adjusted to yet while living abroad.
In short, we can being to feel lost, alone and adrift in this world, hoping and looking for a safe place where we can feel accepted and at home.
When you then come into contact with locals or your friends and family who buy into the geographically rooted worldview, or even just people who don’t get you, that fresh wound of feeling like you don’t belong gets aggravated each time anew.
Everywhere you go, you suddenly only see further proof of how you don’t belong…
How does one come out of such a painful place?
What is it that you can do when you feel like you probably won’t ever belong with the locals and you might never again feel like you belong just as you used to in your home country?
One of the key ways I spare myself from the heartache of feeling like I don’t belong is by being very clear about what I stand for as a person and only commit to social groups that align and accept (most of) who I am.
For instance, there needs to be a certain degree of open-mindedness in the people that I let into my life, even if they’ve never lived abroad themselves (people like that do exist, I promise).
I use the “do you have the geographically rooted mindset” as one “standard” to suss out who are not *my people* so that I don’t find myself desperately trying to fit in with the the wrong crowd who will only (unintentionally) make me feel like I don’t belong.
This doesn’t mean I cut off existing relationships that don’t live up to this “standard”.
I simply manage my expectations and aim to counterbalance my old connections by creating new ones with people who *are* on my wavelength.
Because, honestly, I don’t want to spend my days explaining why national borders don’t define me. Should I accept this idea I would be erasing so much of my life story.
I don’t want to spend my days making myself smaller and less foreign in order to fit in.
It hurts to deny big parts of myself.
Instead, I want to spend my days feeling at ease and at peace with the people around me.
But living like this requires that I am intentional about the people I build (or continue) a relationship with and that I accept periods of loneliness during those transition phases where I haven’t yet found my people.
The question then becomes – are you willing to do that in your own life?
To round off this blog post, I want to leave you with these questions to think about:
- How does the geographically rooted mindset show up in your life?
- How often do you try to make yourself smaller in order to fit in?
- In what situations do you tend to make yourself smaller and less foreign? How else could you respond?
- What would happen if you redirected your energy from trying to fit in to finding (more) people who naturally share your mindset and values instead?
Let me know in the comments what came up for you in response to these questions.
If you’re ready to settle down after having lived abroad for a while, you’re looking for that elusive feeling of home and belonging and you don’t want to figure out all by yourself, then check out my coaching services here. Let’s work together to untangle that knot of issues keeping you stuck so you can move forward with confidence instead.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat. Based on her professional work, PhD research and personal experience, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, where to should settle down or whether it’s time to move back home.