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Expat grief? It’s a thing! Many of you probably don’t even realize that you’ve had it, still have it, or will feel it in the near future.
If you are an expat you can probably agree on the fact that moving to a new country feels like a rollercoaster ride. The amazing adventure starts the moment you decide to move and it’s filled with many different expectations and questions. Even though we know it implies a huge challenge, only a few of us recognize the grief that comes with it – in addition to homesickness (here’s some ways to combat that).
Many of us can identify with the struggles of adapting to a new culture, but the perspective we adopt can either make it more difficult to overcome them or help us thrive.
Here are 10 ways to adapt successfully, based on our own experience (Aída & Paulina) both as psychologists and expats.
1 – Expat Grief? NAME IT!
Feeling melancholic, experiencing resistance to learn the new language, avoiding meeting new people or feeling like an outsider, can be examples of the dreadful expat grief. Understanding them as a natural expression of our feeling of loss can help us normalize our experience. What did we lose? We might feel we lost our comfort, what ‘we knew’, the proximity to our family, our routine, etc.
The expat grief manifests itself in three different aspects:
Take this example: Jenny thinks she will never learn the new language, she feels sad and frustrated, therefore, she stopped going to class.
Identifying your struggles as part of the whole grief can help you realize where and how it is affecting us, which may lead you to an active change.
2 – Talk about it
After deciding to embrace this new adventure, recognizing to our friends and family that we are having a hard time may feel like a failure. We can also feel resistant to talk about it because we don’t want them to worry about us. This is expat grief.
However, being able to express your emotions will allow you to access comfort from others and reduce the weight over your shoulders. It’s okay to feel like this!
3 – Assume a ‘player’ perspective
This means assuming control of your actions and actively deciding how to respond to challenges. Recognize that no matter the circumstances, you are free to decide how to act. Your job hunt might be not very successful for the moment (here are some tips) or you may be struggling with the language (here’s why), and those things can be very frustrating. Try to focus on what is completely in your hands and put your energy on it.
Ask yourself questions that lead you to solutions:
- What is under my control?
- Am I doing everything in my power to solve this?
- Have I tried looking at this from a different perspective?
4 – Face vulnerability from a different perspective
As Brené Brown says, vulnerability is the path to connection and success. It is normal to feel uncomfortable in the face of new challenges such as speaking a new language, making new friends, applying to a job in a different culture, or recognizing we miss our family and friends. This is expat grief. Embracing the emotions that come with these challenges is part of getting closer to our goals.
What we are saying is, don’t wait until you feel comfortable speaking, talk to others even though you feel a little insecure and treat yourself nicely while doing it. Acknowledge and embrace those feelings, but don’t let them stop you.
5 – Identify your purpose
Reconnect to what moved you in the first place.
- What motivated you to move into the new country?
- Is that reason still powerful?
- Are there new goals you can set for yourself?
When the process that leads us to our goal is not motivating itself (for example learning grammar every day) it can be useful to connect to the bigger picture again. If Jenny moved to Germany because she wanted to find a better job, then learning grammar is a step that gets her closer.
6 – Stay connected at three levels
First with the ones you already have. Being away from your family and friends may be challenging. Set a routine that allows you to stay in touch. For example, you could try to call your family every Sunday or text them always before you sleep. You can have really meaningful conversations through a video call, don’t underestimate it! Enjoy a coffee with a friend or follow a recipe while your grandma supervises you from the other end of the screen.
Second, with other expats in your city. Maybe you could meet others who have been longer in that new city and could help you with some tips. They can also understand what you are going through and help you feel closer to your roots.
Three, with locals! This is one can be difficult at the beginning because we don’t know what to expect or think they won’t be interested enough. Challenge your ideas! Don’t buy any stereotype or fear that comes to your mind. Reach out to people and learn their culture, or even better, exchange traditions!
7 – Don’t wait for the new country to feel like home, make it feel like home!
Start new traditions like going every Tuesday to a local cafe, cook yourself meals that actually make you feel like home (don’t abuse takeout or tuna cans), make your living space cozy (include pictures from people you love) and adopt a curious mindset that allows you to discover the beauty in your new city. Have you tried doing small talk with the vendor at the bakery? Now it’s the moment to start.
8 – Say YES at every level
When we are going through an adaptation process, we sometimes feel resistant to go all in. This could be either because we feel insecure or because we fear losing our identity. Decide to actively say yes to the obstacles and take them as growth opportunities. Say yes to new plans and new traditions. Step out of your comfort zone because you decide to, not because you feel forced. Integrating these new experiences as part of who you are doesn’t mean you’ll lose yourself. On the contrary, it means you are developing.
9 – Take a second to reflect and be thankful
When we are going through a rough or hectic time, we often forget to stop and reflect on our experiences. Try meditating or writing in a journal. Be aware of what the journey has implied, your efforts, and the support you have received. Take a moment to thank yourself, the people around you, and the opportunities you have had and the many to come.
10 – Reach out for help
If you feel like these process has lasted too long and you don’t seem to find a way out, ask for help. Many professionals, including ourselves, can help you develop coping strategies!
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