It’s human nature to compare. With that in mind, it’s inevitable that you would also (unintentionally) find yourself comparing your living abroad experience to how someone else’s life abroad has panned out.
You may find yourself comparing…
- …how you don’t have numerous local friends (or friends at all) like someone else.
- …how you haven’t made as much progress with learning the local language as someone else.
- …how you’re not settling in as well after a certain amount of time, despite trying your best, as someone else.
You may not mean to compare yourself against others who live in the same country as you do or who you follow on social media.
But at one point or another you have probably found yourself wondering: “Why am I not having as easy time with this as s/he is?!”
In connection with this, I’m deeply inspired by and agree with two powerful posts written by Diane from Oui in France. She lays out how living abroad is not a one size fits all experience and why it’s okay to have a hard time with life abroad. I highly recommend you to read these two posts.
But in this post I want to build upon what’s already been said by shining a light on how making comparisons can cause unnecessary suffering for many expats.
WHY PEOPLE COMPARE THEMSELVES AND THEIR LIVES TO OTHERS
Measuring yourself against others is an incredibly human thing to do. It existed long before social media came along. The highlight reel that is social media simply exacerbated this human tendency.
But why is making comparisons so human?
Because it’s the most basic way for people to learn who they are and what they’re good at or not so good at – in comparison to others.
- You may not realize that you’re good at languages before you see how others struggle to make progress, for instance in a language class.
- You may not realize that you’re very adaptable before you talk to someone that has quite rigid expectations for how their life abroad should look like.
- You may not realize that you don’t hold certain values before you’re forced to live in a country with those values.
In other words, it’s often (and sadly so) through seeing contrasts that we’re able to see ourselves, our lives and abilities more clearly.
To an extent, then, we need other people and external feedback to develop a sense of self.
However, not all comparisons are created equal – some sting more than others.
For instance, people tend to conclude that they’re somehow “falling short” in an area of their lives when they compare themselves to their friends, family or strangers with similar goals, or to those strangers who have achieved something that they really want for themselves.
[enter envy, jealousy and feelings of inferiority]
But look, even if you’re told not to compare your life to someone else’s, you’re not just going to stop making comparisons. It’s just not going to happen.
Instead, the comparisons you end up making (particularly the ones that also sting) can and should be used as fuel for 1. improving your life and 2. understanding yourself and your needs better.
Because even if someone else’s life looks better or looks like the life you want to have, that life may not actually be right for you.
But how does all this relate to living abroad experiences?
YOUR LIVING ABROAD EXPERIENCE IS GOING TO BE DEEPLY PERSONAL
When we feel that we’re struggling to settle in or some aspect of our lives simply doesn’t live up to our own expectations, it’s easy to start comparing our life to someone else’s life abroad.
Perhaps you know this someone personally or it’s someone you follow on social media.
The problem here is not so much that you’re making comparisons to begin with.
Rather, the trap is in overlooking who you’re comparing yourself to. Is that person actually in any way similar to you, beyond the fact that they’ve chosen to move abroad or live in the same country as you?
This is where it’s important to keep in mind that your life abroad is going to be different because it’s dependent on…
- …the stage of life you’re in.
- …your personality, strengths and weaknesses as well as coping style.
- …your opportunities to advance your career and personal life or pursue your hobbies in the place you’ve chosen to live in.
- …your goals, values and needs in life (which can change over time).
If you compare yourself to someone (even a past version of yourself!) that is not similar to you on many of the above-mentioned things, you’re probably going to beat yourself up unnecessarily.
If you’re adventurous but also an introvert, it’s pointless to compare yourself to a social butterfly because what you really need in life is a few meaningful friendships to have your back while you roam the world.
If this is not your first time moving to a foreign country, then it’s pointless to compare yourself to a past version of you who may have had different requirements. As a result, that version of you didn’t have the same concerns and obstacles as you do now in this new country.
If you moved abroad to advance your career in some shape or form, it’s pointless to compare yourself to someone that’s jumping from job to job while travelling the world. Your priorities in life are simply not comparable.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that people who move abroad are all the same and should therefore all have the same kind of experiences.
But in saying that, I know that you’re not just going to stop making comparisons. In fact, stopping that shouldn’t be the main goal anyway.
HOW YOU CAN USE COMPARISONS TO IMPROVE YOUR LIFE ABROAD
The main goal should be making use of comparisons in a constructive way.
We need to reflect on the message behind why someone else’s life abroad is provoking a strong reaction in us, potentially even bringing up jealousy and envy.
Once you figure out what it is that’s provoking you, you can…
USE IT AS MOTIVATION
It’s okay if you’re disappointed about not being where you want to be in life. It’s okay if you think that you’re just not good enough to achieve whatever-it-is. These are just stories we tell ourselves.
But you shouldn’t use any of it as reason for inaction. There is always one tiny step you can take in the direction you want to be heading.
What’s the smallest step you can take?
USE IT TO COURSE CORRECT
When you realize that you’re comparing yourself to someone that’s not really aligned with who you are in some aspect, you will have to find new people as sources of inspiration for charting a new course, or finding a new vision for living authentically.
The adventurous introvert could look for others who openly declare themselves as introverts while exploring the world one country at a time.
The serial expat could work on making peace with being at a different stage of life and/or in a different country where things simply work differently. Maybe a new vision for life needs to be found.
The career-oriented person could try out a digital nomad lifestyle to put their mind at ease about missing out. They may find that the idea of it was more exciting than the reality itself, or that being a digital nomad was precisely what they were looking for all along.
At the end of the day, we will never be finished products as individuals. So any comparison you do make is also not a final judgment of who you are, your worth or what you’re capable of.
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.