Living abroad alone has easily been the proudest accomplishment of my life.
I’m proud of it because this experience has shown me that I have my own back in life.
There have been so many surprises over the course of the last 14 years, both positive and negative.
Along the way I have been constantly challenged to learn and grow as a person.
If we all knew what challenges await us in a foreign country, no one would ever move abroad or take any risks. But the thing about taking risks is that they also bring many great things into our lives.
The trick is knowing how to deal with the challenges to get to the good stuff.
So here are the lessons I’ve learned from moving abroad and living abroad alone.
1. Conflicting feelings – having both doubts and being excited about moving abroad alone all at the same time
While I may be a seasoned expat by now, I still remember the days leading up to my first self-organized move abroad like it was yesterday.
Because I had doubts. Soooo many doubts.
‘Should I really do this? Shouldn’t I just find a nice job and settle down? Is it really necessary for me to do this? Life is kind of good right now, why am I blowing it all up? Shouldn’t I just stay?’
It’s completely possible to feel mutually exclusive feelings at the same time – where one part wants to hold on to your comfort zone for dear life, while the other part is dying to see what else is out there.
In the end, despite my last minute doubts, I did move abroad alone (and I didn’t turn back until 15 years later).
But I will never forget the lesson that when something scares me and truly excites me at the same time, it’s a sign that I should follow whatever it is.
However, just because something excites us, doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to be easy down the line. This fact shouldn’t stop us either. There are simply lessons hidden behind every door we choose to open. There are also lessons hidden behind not making a choice at all.
For whatever reason, this thing that scares you, makes you doubt yourself, and inexplicably also puts a sparkle in your eyes – you just need it in your life. So welcome the good and bad that it wants to bring to you.
2. Living abroad changes you – you learn to become a good friend to yourself
When you explore the world alone, there’s just soooooooo much time that you suddenly have to spend in your own company.
I was in no way prepared to discover how uncomfortable I was with being on my own. I thought I was looking for adventure in the big wide world, but the real adventure took place within me.
Of course, for most of my life abroad I was going through my turbulent 20s. It was quite the struggle trying to figure out what I like and don’t like, who I want to become, who I want to associate with, what do I really want to do.
Those are hard things to figure out even for someone who doesn’t feel the need to live in foreign countries.
When all you have is yourself, and you are pretty much a stranger to yourself, it’s pretty awkward having to spend time with someone you don’t know 24/7.
Once I moved abroad, I realized that I was constantly forced to be with someone I didn’t even know.
In no other situation have I understood the point of be(com)ing your own best friend better than when I’ve been living abroad alone.
Because at different points in your life as an expat, you will have fewer friends than you’d perhaps like, and your old friends won’t necessarily understand what you’re going through.
Learning to listen to my needs and understanding what they are, learning to be kind, patient, supportive and accepting towards myself – just as I would towards another living and breathing human being – those are the skills that have become invaluable for me in my life (abroad).
Because with all the time that you’ll have on your own, you sure as hell don’t need your only company to be some judgy b*tch who gets to witness how you try to figure out this thing called life while also navigating a completely new culture.
Which brings me to my next, perhaps most excruciating, life lesson.
3. Living abroad alone forces you to face your issues and find the courage to heal
You can skip to the fourth point if this is too hippy-dippy for you.
But the truth of the matter is that while the framework around you may look and feel different – wherever you go, there you are.
We all have unhelpful baggage that we drag around with us like a badge of honor. Broken homes, broken dreams, dysfunctional coping mechanisms, you name it.
All of those things are going to boil to the surface when we try to build a life abroad.
They will be different issues for different people, but the common theme is that whatever you thought you’d be leaving behind, you can be dead certain that those issues also bought a one-way ticket to be with you. How romantic, right?
For instance, when you move abroad alone, you may feel relieved about being far away from your overbearing family members. But over time you realize that you’ve still carried their negative influence with you.
Maybe you learn that you really don’t have a clue about how to interact and connect with people, perhaps because you had the comfort of a close group of friends back home who kept you in your comfort zone.
Or maybe you notice that just as you’ve attracted mean and critical people before, you continue to attract them even in this new place.
Whatever your story, whatever your baggage – it will all come up, and it will demand your attention. The question then becomes – what is this challenge trying to teach you about yourself?
On that note, Feminist Globetrotter has written a fantastic list of things you can do to take care of your mental health while living abroad when all sorts of dark stuff boil to the surface.
4. Facing challenges alone makes you more creative in finding solutions
Whenever something unexpectedly bad has happened to me living abroad, my first reaction has always been to either throw my hands up in the air and give up or collapse in despair.
In short, more of a lemming throwing itself down a cliff than a Chuck Norris.
Because the crushing thing about facing hardship while living in a foreign country all on your own – even if it’s not your first time, and especially when it’s your first move – is that when sh*t hits the fan, it will be everywhere.
And then you only have one half-used toilet roll and 7 seconds to clean it all up (which honestly sounds like a very poor brain teaser exercise).
The gravity of whatever mess you’re experiencing will feel that much worse because of the simple fact that you know you’re alone in the country, and you know that you don’t have a safety net to fall back on to help you out.
In fact, situations like that are the ultimate test for seeing how strong are the connections that you have made with the people around you, with those both near and far.
But most importantly, situations like that will show you how strong is your connection to yourself when it comes to being your own best support system.
For instance, one time I lost my job and my (ex)boyfriend, and broke my foot all in the same week. And so I had to find a new home and a new job while having a broken foot and a broken heart. All in the first year of living in a new country.
I’ve also had my whole bag stolen so that I didn’t have my keys, money, ID or even a train ticket to travel 40 km to where I lived. Naturally, I couldn’t access my home because I didn’t have the key. The person that had a spare key had just flown out of the country that day. I also couldn’t pay for a locksmith to open the door because I didn’t have access to my money etc. etc. etc.
You just don’t make that kind of stuff up. And the worst part is that nobody ever prepares you to deal with these things.
But I pulled through each time. I don’t like to think of those times, and I certainly don’t laugh about them just because they’re behind me now, but the important thing is that I pulled through.
Because when you have no choice, and I mean NO CHOICE, it’s human nature to get creative. To think of solutions that you’re not forced to come up with when things are just good and comfortable and safe.
So in addition to becoming an amazing friend to myself, I am now also kind of a Chuck Norris after years of living abroad alone.
Not exactly skills that I can ever put on a resumé, but they have proven far more valuable to me in dealing with whatever life throws at me than anything I ever learned in school.
What have you learned from living abroad alone? 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.