Living abroad: how to thrive in a new environment

Going beyond your zone of comfort

You may have gotten a new job located in a foreign country. You have just finished your studies and want to try your luck abroad. You are following your partner who has been transferred to the headquarters on the other side of the globe. You want to get an experience in living elsewhere. You have decided to move somewhere for good.
People might envy you or think it is an easy thing to do or they may acknowledge how courageous you are and admit that they could never do it. It is one thing to imagine life out there, but it is another to do it. Wouldn’t you agree?
Indeed, taking this step has turned your life around and you will not be the same person afterward. I can speak from personal experience. Life abroad has molded me: it made me look at my anxieties that shadowed my confidence and resilience; I had to overcome my weaknesses and recreate my inner resources. While going through difficult moments, I sometimes thought they would crush me. However, fortunately this didn’t happen. Instead, these experiences propelled me to reconnect with myself and find peace amidst chaos, the unknown and the lack of security. I am convinced that the power of the human spirit lies in the capacity to restore the internal equilibrium in all circumstances.
Regardless of how easy or tough your adventure abroad is, you should try to root yourself in the present and appease your fears, anguishes or disappointments by doing activities that comfort your spirit and well-being. Taking care of one’s mind and body is a must when living abroad, since you will experience far more challenges than you would at home.

Adapt but preserve your identity and values

Your life will change and being mentally prepared for it will facilitate your adaptation and lessen your resistance. Even if you think you are ready and excited to embark on this adventure, there will be parts of you that will question, doubt, compare and resist. Unexpected experiences might not fit into previously established categories of how you see and make sense of the world. The trick to successful integration and adaptation is to be open and flexible and to accept another vision of the world. You cannot change how things in the new place are, so the only option is to adjust.
However, adapting doesn’t mean you will approve of everything or everyone. You are entitled to remain yourself and preserve your ideals and values. You don’t need to lose your identity and individuality because you live abroad where social and cultural norms are different. You shall need to conform to certain rules and get accustomed to social behaviors which will facilitate your acclimatization and integration, however, you don’t need to compromise all.
There are aspects of cultural dimensions that are easier to familiarize oneself with than others, depending on the person, country and other internal and external (socio-economic/cultural) circumstances. I will delve into two social and economic aspects I believe produce considerable influence on our welfare.

“Regardless of how easy or tough your adventure abroad is, you should try to root yourself in the present and appease your fears, anguishes or disappointments by doing activities that comfort your spirit and well-being.“

a) Give yourself time to feel and observe the relation with others

Each culture has its specific social behaviors, norms, expectations and rituals – how people interact, what they discuss and how open they are with each other varies. Nevertheless, you can find similar-minded individuals with whom you click everywhere. Don’t get bogged down by the first-impression differences; studies prove that there are more differences at the individual level than at group or cultural levels. Wherever you are or will go, I advise you to stay loyal to your principles and to listen to your feelings. Socializing with somebody from another cultural, ethnic or language origin doesn’t imply you should be more tolerant and allow the other to cross the boundaries and mistreat you in ways that you would never accept in your own country. You might feel left out and alone, which many times comes with the package of living abroad, although you are still the same person who will get hurt when people do certain things. Listening to that little voice that says something is not right is prudent and self-protective. Only with time will you discover who can be considered as a real friend and those who should be seen merely as colleagues or acquaintances.
I got burned several times during my decade long expat life. After reviewing these experiences, I came to several conclusions. First, I ignored my intuitive voice and continued to spend time with somebody until I understood one day how hurt I had been on many occasions. Beforehand, I would enthusiastically talk to my partner about meeting a new, interesting and “potential friend” person. He would tell me to wait and see how things evolved before jumping to any conclusions. He was totally right. Though, I did not really understand what he was saying until after the third negative experience. So, I got through my cycle of trials and errors, and the new insights helped me to update my view on friendship. Maybe you can draw something useful for yourself from my example and spare energy for other challenges. Indeed, living abroad is richer with learning opportunities and will shed light on the aspects of your life that you may need to reclarify and set anew.
Keeping contact with your friends back home is an important source of support that you should not hesitate to utilize. To hear a familiar voice, feel care and support from people who love you is always reassuring and comforting.

“You might feel left out and alone, which many times comes with the package of living abroad, although you are still the same person who will get hurt when people do certain things.”

b) Work and have a plan

There are many unknown and unpredictable factors in a new environment and we can feel like a little leaf flickering in the wind, falling somewhere it doesn’t want to be. If we have a plan and vision for our future we will get the power back in our hands. Hence, plan and draft your career steps, but be realistic and consider the country and city in which you live. What must you do to get the job in your profession and field of interest? Can it happen now or are there obstacles (language, unrecognized diploma, no previous work experience in this country…)? If you determine that you first need to tackle the obstacles and you need money for survival, you will need to search for a temporary job. To be objective and grounded will spare you disappointments, emotional distress and keep in check your expectations.
Having difficulty finding a job in your profession might be related to language fluency, the general job market and knowing or not knowing people (networking). It is advisable to learn how the locals go about job searching and apply what works.

There are many advantages to working:
– To be active and work counters depression and anxiety according to the results of many researches. People who are productive see their lives as more meaningful, have a higher sense of self-confidence, feel more integrated into society and are mentally healthier.
– Work will set you into motion and being active, proactive and confident can open new doors for you. You will radiate a positive energy what is an attractive quality for recruiters and employers.
– You are in charge of your destiny: maybe you don’t work in your preferred field, but you have found a way to survive in a foreign country (which is not an evident or easy thing), so be proud of yourself!
– Don’t compare yourself to the locals with corresponding experience or education. You are brave to be where you are and your life competence to live and adapt elsewhere is invaluable. It is a life experience for which many people don’t have the courage, thus, you should never compare yourself or feel inferior to somebody else.
– Own your decision and assume responsibility for it. You have chosen to live this extraordinary experience for many reasons and you might not be aware of all your motivations. It might have been the calling of your soul, a need for change, a quest for something, a desired challenge and so on; it is yours and you are profiting from this experience somehow. I am sure that a part of you feels very alive and fulfilled despite all the diversions and unplanned evolutions.
– Keep working toward getting what you want. Try your best and then let the universe or life have a final say. As they say, the right door opens easily, but if we knock on the wrong one, we might hit as hard and frequently as we want, it will not open. In this case, it is better to recognize the signs and turn the right direction. Yet, true passion and interest (coming from our hearts) will attract what we desire and we will be able to overcome any hurdle.

“Living abroad is a life experience for which many people don’t have the courage, thus, you should never compare yourself to locals or feel inferior.“

Taking care of your psychological well-being is vital

1. Have short-term objectives
These help you to structure your life, give you direction and permit outlining the steps towards achieving your goals. They also impel you to reflect on your priorities abroad and on life in general.

2. Ongoing contact with yourself
You need to know how you feel, so you can take care of your inner needs, emotions and concerns. The idea is to connect with yourself regularly (the best is each day) and after sensing your mood, you provide yourself with what you feel you need in that moment. You can read more in detail about managing emotions and anxiety in my previous blogs.

3. Transcend challenges
Being present in the now will allow you to focus on beautiful things around you and abandon thinking about the difficulties. Go out and connect with nature; admire all shades of our magic world. We miss so many unique moments, because we are too much in our thoughts and worries. Reserve one hour per day to decenter from yourself and just mindfully be. Do activities that recharge and destress you: they are a part of our everyday mental hygiene. Each day you have an opportunity to let go of all that consumes your attention and so create a space to appreciate small daily moments. Therefore, you will return to the present which is liberating and filled with life force.

4. Be proud of yourself and your origins
People can sense your confidence or lack of it; it is one of the factors on which you will be judged. Maybe things don’t go as planned, but if you can keep your head high in grim times, you will rebound quicker. We cannot impact how the events unfold, but we can always choose how to respond and how to see ourselves. Be conscious of self-deprecating internal dialogue, doubts and fears: they can undermine your self-worth, drag you down and incapacitate your actions. You are courageous, a risk-taker and you live beyond your zone of comfort. All these attributes are enough to feel proud of yourself. I am proud of you!

5. Find meaning in your experience
Whether troublesome, overwhelming or unsatisfactory, when you discover meaning in your experience, your perspective will transform positively. You might have learned a great deal about life, yourself and how it is to live abroad, and as a result, your priorities got clarified and reset; thus, you can draw meaning from every situation. Finding meaning is to keep an active stance toward your experience: you are not a victim of your experience but a creator of your present and future life.

6. Vision of your future
To decide on what we want is to address and reconcile various parts of ourselves that might wish different things. Do the benefits of staying somewhere or doing something outweigh the costs? Put aside your ego, plans and self-expectations and be honest with yourself. What do you feel and how do you visualize your future (here or somewhere else)? Do you see yourself staying or do you want to close this chapter of your life and leave? Only you can make this choice for your life and I hope you can decide in harmony with your heart’s wishes. Remember, there is no need to sacrifice yourself or be a masochist. Our principal goal in this life is to enhance our self-awareness and be more alive and happy with each passing day.

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