Do you struggle with belonging as an expat and have you ever said any of the following during your time abroad?
“I have never felt like I belong, I don’t know what that means”
“I crave connection and community, but I don’t know how to get that”
“I feel crippling loneliness, like I don’t fit in anywhere”
I hear variations of these raw and personal admissions quite frequently.
On the one hand, moving to a new country creates a perfect breeding ground for feeling lost, lonely and adrift.
Mainly because it takes a long time to find “your people”, with whom you can feel comfortable and at ease.
The difficulty lies in the fact that finding your people is a numbers game and requires opportunities to meet with the right people frequently, on a regular basis to form a genuine, fulfilling bond.
So if you’re not meeting enough people and not meeting the right ones frequently enough, the more finding your people becomes a draining chore on your to-do list rather than something that naturally leads to fulfilling relationships.
But there’s also a different, much deeper side to feeling lonely, like you don’t belong or don’t fit in.
This other side can be summarized in a powerful, but at first somewhat dumbfounding, question:
Do you belong to yourself?
What on Earth do you mean by that question, you might ask.
“I mean, I’m not someone’s property, so of course I belong to myself!”
The first time I heard the idea that I c/should belong to myself in order to feel like I belong, I thought it was a bunch of nonsense, I’m not going to lie.
This idea came my way back in 2018 in a book my therapist recommended to me. It’s called “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” by Brené Brown.
It wasn’t a life-changing book at the time, but it’s become one over the years as I’ve slowly grown to understand and integrate the idea of ‘belonging to myself’ into my life (as well as seen remarkable rewards for living by this idea).
Brené Brown’s definition of true belonging starts with your relationship to yourself. It’s not about other people at all.
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are”
Belonging to yourself, standing alone in the wilderness, being who I am…
I remember thinking, “Haven’t I heard all of this before? Being who I am hasn’t brought me any closer to feeling like I belong.”
I was angry at the book.
I was angry because what I wanted – nay, desperately craved – was connection to others, a community, being part of a group where I could say “I belong here”.
But this Brené woman was telling me that I needed to become even more solitary and beat my own drum and THEN I’d belong.
What kind of strange reverse psychology is this?
Now, let’s fast forward to 2022.
When I read Brenè Brown’s book today, I don’t think truer words have ever been written about belonging, *true* belonging.
It took me around 3-4 years after reading the book to *really* come to understand what it means to belong to yourself so that you may belong with others, as well as what all that looks like in practice.
You will never hear me claim how I’m so enlightened now so you should just follow me because I’ve got I all figured out.
I don’t have it *all* figured out. Just enough to see that I’ve made good progress.
I don’t have it all figured out because every new challenge that life throws my way I’m forced to reckon with the question of belonging to myself once more.
With every (mis)step I learn more about myself and with every (mis)step I can see myself moving closer to true belonging.
I can see progress towards true belonging whenever I feel greater peace enter my life after a decision that I’ve made.
I can see progress when, more and more, the new people that I meet slowly become a regular fixture in my life (okay, some people simply break down the door and make themselves comfortable almost immediately 😂) , and I feel *genuinely at ease* with them.
For me, true belonging is not a destination, it’s a process, a journey of peeling back the layers to my true self (although we are all works in progress at the same time).
True belonging starts with getting to know every nook and cranny of what you’ve been through, what you need, what you truly desire, independent of society’s or even your friends’ and family’s expectations.
True belonging also means getting to know your shadow side, acknowledging your weaknesses, accepting the things you don’t like about yourself, the things you’re still working on in yourself, the things that get you into trouble.
True belonging starts with healing those parts of you that you have suppressed as a result of difficult life experiences or overwhelming external pressure.
I’m not saying you need to be healed so that you can be worthy of belonging with others. Not at all.
What I’m saying is that when you continue to learn, heal and reveal more of your true self *to yourself* as a first step, you naturally begin to attract the people who you will find easy to belong with as well.
When you do that, that is when fitting in gets replaced with naturally gravitating towards people who enjoy being with you and make you feel loved and accepted.
That is when painful questions around belonging get replaced with curiosity about what else can you discover about yourself so that you may move even closer to true belonging to yourself and to others.
That is when periods of loneliness in a new country, or as a fresh repat, get replaced with acceptance and trust that your people are out there, even if it takes some time to find them.
In relation to belonging to yourself, here are some questions for you to reflect on:
- In what aspects do you reject who you are?
- In what aspects do others reject who you are?
- How could you come to love and accept those parts of you?
- What kind of healing needs to happen for you to move towards greater belonging to yourself?
If you feel called to share what came up for you in response to these questions, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.
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 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.