Clinical psychologist Dr. Melissa Parks from Intentional Expat give us her to life-saving tips to help you transition to your new life overseas.
1. Be aware of where you are . . .
And not just in terms of your physical location. Living or traveling overseas involves a lot of moments of transition and it’s normal to feel some homesickness, self-doubt, irritability or sadness during this period of change. By identifying and accepting which point you’re at in this process you can reduce some of these uncomfortable feelings. Check out the W-curve diagram below to identify where you’re at in the transition process. Knowing that these feelings are normal and part of a temporary stage on the journey towards thriving in your new home will help you to stay resilient on those crappy days.
2. Work to Make it Your Home
Finding ways to make our new place of residence feel like ‘home’ can help speed up the transition. This can be done by bringing things that remind you of home: photos, favorite food or your most beloved clothing items. But it’s also about transferring aspects of your life back at home to your new home, such as your hobbies. If you love dancing, find a place to take classes in the city you’re living in. Love to cook? Make sure your new home has a kitchen that will allow you to do so. Even if you’re on the road (or in the midst of a pandemic) and your options are limited, you can find small ways to bring this sense of home with you. My favorite way to do this is by writing and practicing yoga and meditation.
3. Develop flexibility and a sense of humor
Turn mistakes, cultural misunderstandings, and things lost in translation into Instagram-worthy, blog-worthy, wine-night-worthy stories. When I accidentally ordered penis instead of a chicken dish in Spain I suffered through the embarrassment by reminding myself that it was blogworthy. Making a point of storytelling and sharing has helped me to cultivate flexibility by realizing that at least I´m going to be able to get a good story out of whatever mishaps and inconveniences cross my path. Find a way to create this frame of mind yourself.
4. Create a support system
Even routine things can suddenly seem difficult when you’re in a different culture, such as dealing with a different language in the absence of a support system. While being open to anyone who crosses your path is a great way to broaden your horizons, many find that after a few months abroad they´ve surrounded themselves with people whom they have nothing in common with except for the fact that they both live outside of their home country. Instead of settling on being friends with the first fellow foreigners that cross your path, try to meet as many people with common interests or hobbies so that the connections you make are meaningful.
Making friends with locals is key to getting to really know the culture of your new home, but it’s also helpful to make friends with those who can empathize with exactly what you´re going through. These people will be able to commiserate with you over the things that annoy you about your new home, what you miss from back home and will be willing to celebrate holidays with you.
Also, don’t doubt the power of building an online support system. Finding online communities such as the “Girl Gone International” Facebook groups, can be a great way to remind yourself you’re not alone when meeting up in person may not be possible.
5. Develop emotional intelligence
Just because you’re following your dreams of living abroad and/or traveling the world, doesn’t mean that your days are going to always be full of smiles. By going abroad, you´re going to deal with tough emotions that you might be able to avoid at home like fear, anxiety, loneliness and homesickness. Not to mention that life is full of sad moments, wherever you are in the world. The important thing to keep in mind is the paradoxical fact that by ignoring and avoiding our emotions they get stronger, and by acknowledging and addressing them, they can be short lived. Work on identifying your emotions, become acquainted with them, and you´ll find that by saying ‘Hey there sadness,’ it´ll stick around a lot less time than if you respond with ‘NOOO! Sadness!!! Ahh!’ (notice that I said ‘become acquainted’ and not ‘become BFFs’).
6. Strike up a balance
A lot of people make the mistake of going abroad with too much of a ‘Carpe Diem’ attitude. You might have told yourself, ‘I’m only going to be there six months, I have to make the very most of my life overseas!’ If you are seizing the day left and right, you´ll have lots of good memories, but you also risk negative effects on your physical and mental health in the long term. This is where balance comes into play. I like to think of it as striking up a balance between my ‘long-term’ and ‘short-term’ selves. My short term self has carpe diem tattooed on her sleeve, but my long term self knows that getting restful sleep, eating healthy, drinking in moderation, working towards my professional goals and being physically active are essential for my mental health! So I find a way to make them both happy. Balance is not about perfection. It might look like overindulging on pintxos in Northern Spain for an entire weekend and spending the next one being a homebody.
7. Know your comfort zone
Going abroad gives you the chance to get to know yourself really well. In fact, many people leave their home country with the goal of ‘finding themselves, ’however, I think it´s important to know where your comfort zone is before you go. This is helpful for two reasons. First, it can help you to challenge yourself to move outside your comfort zone, where all the opportunities to grow and find yourself will happen. Second, knowing what makes you feel comfortable can also help you to know how to get back into that comfort zone when you´re feeling especially vulnerable (recently arrived, sad, sick, homesick, etc.). I´m not ashamed to admit that while I know drinking a yummy, strong café con leche in a typical Spanish bar is certain to be a more blogworthy experience, I frequent Starbucks when I´m in need of a little comfort.
8. Become your own cheerleader
You probably have friends and family at home encouraging you, new friends who offer support or even a fan following on social media that´s behind you in your quest to see the world and live life outside of your home country. But, the most important person to have cheering you on is YOU. Find ways to continue inspiring and motivating yourself. Write motivational quotes in your journal, post inspirational sayings on your bedroom wall, create a mantra to repeat when you´re feeling discouraged. My personal favorite is to write emails of encouragement to my future self at FutureMe. It may sound corny, but I love receiving emails from myself from even just a month ago!
I also recommend learning more about “Mindful Self-Compassion.” It’s one of the most powerful tools I’ve found to help my clients (and myself!) shift their inner dialogue from that of their inner critic to their inner cheerleader.
9. Consider professional help
Now, if you’ve tried some of these tips and don’t feel like they’re helping, or if you’re feeling especially down, you might need to reach out to a professional. Don´t be afraid to tell someone close to you that you’re not having the time of your life. Going abroad is a stressful transition that can exacerbate already existing mental health issues or trigger the appearance of new problems. By working with a mental health professional you can explore all of your options for solving the problems you´re facing, and you might find that there are many more solutions than just returning home. If language is an obstacle, look for an English speaking therapist in your new home, or seek out a therapist offering online sessions. Remember no matter where you are, to look after your mental health and reach out to Girl Gone International. We are your safety net and can help you connect to a life line if you need it.
10. Practice Mindfulness & Gratitude
A great deal of research is being done in the field of psychology these days on the benefits of mindfulness and gratitude for improving our well-being. If you´ve gone abroad you´ve got half of the equation down by doing what you love. The other important aspect to well-being and happiness is loving what you do. This is where practicing mindfulness and gratitude can come in. We can´t always control how things turn out, but by being aware of the present moment and tuning into the positive, we can increase our levels of satisfaction. Some ideas to get you started are to write down one thing you´re grateful for a day and tune into all five senses while you´re walking down the street.
Melissa Parks, PhD
Dr. Melissa Parks has a master’s and PhD in Clinical and Health Psychology. For the past 6 years she’s been focusing her professional energy on providing therapy and coaching to the international community. She currently provides online coaching to international clients living around the world. Melissa also co-facilitates the Location Independent Therapists Community, a space for mental health professionals working online who offer a directory of therapists and coaches who understand firsthand the challenges that come with living abroad.