I have lost count of all the times I have felt lonely while living abroad (often referred to as expat loneliness). It comes and goes like a wave.
For a long time I didn’t know that loneliness is something that every single expat has experienced, is currently experiencing, and will experience (again).
Following from this, I’m willing to bet that most of us don’t know how to deal with loneliness either.
So here’s how I’ve learned to tackle expat loneliness – and I’m confident that you can easily adopt my approach to overcoming loneliness as well.
WHY DO EXPATS FEEL LONELY?
Expat loneliness is so common and yet hardly ever talked about, even though it’s a perfectly normal reaction to a very big change in one’s life.
No matter where I have lived, there have been periods where I have felt lonely.
Either because I’m new to the country/city and haven’t yet established a routine or found my people.
Because I’m having friendship problems (with friends near or far).
Or because my fellow expat friends have decided to move on to another country.
We derive a sense of belonging from the friendships we have in our lives. To have problems, or a general lack, with that area of our lives can easily lead to feeling lonely.
When we move to a foreign country, we also tend to add a lot of pressure on ourselves to have our new lives immediately figured out and Instagram-worthy.
Sometimes that pressure comes unintentionally from those that haven’t lived in a foreign country and don’t know how long it realistically takes to settle in.
HOW YOU MIGHT BE MAKING YOUR SENSE OF LONELINESS WORSE
We all tend to hide it from others when we’re feeling lonely. Either we don’t know how to express it or we simply don’t trust that others will have our back when we show our vulnerability.
As a result, we don’t actually give ourselves the time and permission to admit – I feel lonely – even if it’s clearly staring us in the face.
Because to admit that we’re lonely could potentially open a can of worms and we simply don’t want to go there.
Besides, it might distract us from all the things we should be doing that would help us feel more settled, right?
Well, let me tell you this.
The more we deny what we feel, the more power it has over us. The more that feeling warps our thinking, brings us down as well as others around us.
If you want to get on with your expat life you must give that loneliness the attention that it demands.
Only then will it leave you alone so you can actually use your energy to find a solution to your loneliness, or a renewed sense of motivation to keep on going.
EXPAT LONELINESS IS INCREDIBLY NORMAL
One way to give loneliness the attention it demands is by accepting it as a completely normal feeling, rather than taking it as an indication that there’s something wrong with us.
I like to think of expat loneliness as a flu that most of us get in some shape or form every time it’s flu season.
It’s pretty much inevitable. You can wash your hands, stay away from other lonely people, and take prophylactics, but that son of a gun will catch you somehow sooner or later.
You might be out on a walk in your new city and BOOM. Loneliness hits you.
You might be excited about having a really nice conversation with someone new, but then you go home and BOOM.
You might be scrolling through Instagram, and BOOM.
Next thing you know, you don’t feel good about yourself anymore.
But have you ever heard of anyone trying to hide the fact that they have a cold?
In fact, some people carry their flu around because they’re stubborn and have work to do, inadvertently infecting everyone around them against their will.
Others proudly announce: ‘I have a cold’ and stay home. Everyone tells them to feel better with a whole lot of kindness and consideration. Some might even share a quick trick to getting over it faster.
Not a single person goes: ‘What a freak, you have a cold’.
And yet, regardless of how common expat loneliness is, it is treated like a nasty STD rather than what it is – a common cold.
Feeling lonely gets treated as something to hide.
We try to look fine on the outside while quietly dying on the inside.
If you want to get over feeling lonely, think of your loneliness as a common cold.
You’re going to get it no matter what you do or don’t do, it will take some time to get over it, and it requires some home remedies.
But it won’t go away unless you take the time it demands for you to get better.
HOME REMEDIES FOR EXPAT LONELINESS
Here’s what you’re going to do once you’ve accepted that you feeling lonely is temporary and it doesn’t mean anything about you as a human being.
You’re going to invite loneliness to watch Netflix with you, read a book, go for a walk, bring out the wine, or have a good cry. And you’re going to let loneliness have the best day of its life. Or maybe the best weekend, week, or even month(s) – if you’ve been avoiding feeling lonely for a while.
Before you think I’m absolutely crazy for suggesting any of this, let me tell you this – it needs to get dark before it can get bright again.
Whenever I feel the familiar sense of loneliness creeping up on me, I make my home even more comfortable and only spend time on activities (mostly on my own) that genuinely comfort me.
I stop pushing myself to think about what I could do to not feel lonely. I stop judging myself for being on my own or not having any plans for the weekend. Instead, I accept it all.
I feel lonely. I feel lonely. I feel so alone.
It may seem scary to admit this to yourself. But I can guarantee that by saying out loud, giving it permission to exist, you will feel lighter.
That feeling no longer has power over you and you will have space to figure out a way forward to meet new people, say what needs to be said to that friend of yours, or even consider moving to a place where you can meet ‘your people’.
What are your home remedies for expat loneliness? Let me know in the comments below.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.