Living abroad alone: 4 life lessons from a serial expat

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Living abroad alone has easily been the proudest accomplishment of my life.

I’m proud of it not because I’ve done it but because I kept going when things got really tough and I only had myself to rely on.

There have been so many surprises over the course of the last 14 years, many of them far from pleasant.

But I don’t want to gloss over these stories and jump to the conclusion of how I eventually became a beautiful butterfly and the world smiled back at me for the special creature that I really am.

Geez, no. Life is hardly a fairytale.

Living abroad alone, I have had to go through the whole lifecycle of how a butterfly comes to be. The egg, the worm, the worm-in-a-sleeping-bag-hanging-from-a-twig looking thing, all of it.

Just like a butterfly-to-be, I have been constantly challenged to learn, grow, sleep, reflect, and transform. While much of it has been uncomfortable, some of the transformations have been straight up painful.

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 bring many great things, just always together with the bad.

The trick is knowing how to deal with the challenges to get to the good stuff.

Challenges living abroad alone
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For instance, one of the best things that has come out of all my past challenges of living abroad alone is that I quite like who I am today. That’s something I would have never said 14 years ago. At the risk of sounding cliché, but living abroad does change you.

Most of my self-acceptance has come about because I’ve allowed my experience of living abroad to shape me for the better (if I dare say so myself). Always working with the challenges I’ve had to face rather than against them.

I’ve always asked myself – what is this challenge trying to teach me?

I often wonder if I would have learned to accept myself as much if I had stayed in my comfort zone and never moved abroad.

Before you get too concerned, I do not aim to deter you from moving abroad alone.

Rather, I want to assure you that if you find yourself in a bit of a sh*t at some point, please know that it’s just part of the rite of passage towards becoming a butterfly (gosh, I am actually sorry for this amount of cringe).

So here are my 4 life lessons on moving and living abroad alone.

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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 the comfort zone for dear life, while the other part is dying to see what else is out there. In many ways, I still live with this conflict today, but that’s a story for another time.

In the end, despite my last minute doubts, I did move abroad alone without turning back.

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 that excitement.

However, just because something excites us, doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to be easy down the line. But this shouldn’t stop us either. There are simply lessons hidden behind every door we choose to open.

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 and you need to follow that path.

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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 started to take place within me instead.

Of course, for most of my life abroad I have been going through my turbulent 20s. It has been 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.

This stranger was there when I was trying to find a job.

This stranger was there to judge all of my awkward attempts at making friends.

And this stranger was most certainly there when I was hugging the toilet because I had had too much to drink.

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In no other situation have I understood the point of be(com)ing your own best friend better than when I was 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.

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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 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 flight ticket to be with you. How romantic, right?

For instance, now that you’re living abroad alone, you may feel relief from being far away from your overbearing family members, but over time you realize that you’ve still carried their negative influence on you to where you live now.

Maybe you learn that you really don’t have a clue 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?

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.

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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 horrible math exercise).

The gravity of whatever clusterf*ck you’ve experienced 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 more importantly, it will be the best test to see how good you are at solving nonsensical math exercises. Because that is most certainly what it will feel like to have to crawl out of a deep hole all on your own.

For instance, 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 gone on vacation that day. I also couldn’t pay for a locksmith to open the door because I didn’t have any 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 instinct 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 a better 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.

Have you lived abroad alone or would you like to? Let me know in the comments.

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