As a kid, I thought the adults in my life had it all figured out. I thought everyone was kind and caring, knew right from wrong, had great careers, was never sad, and had nice things. I thought that one day in the future, we’d all magically cross over into adulthood and that we, too, would lead perfect lives that resembled the ones the adults had in our carefree childhoods.
But behind the scenes is never perfect and adulthood is messy and stressful. Naivety wears off as we get older and experience the ups and downs of life. We learn along the way that even good decisions aren’t always easy and life abroad is no exception.
Expat mistakes that hold us back as foreigners abroad
If you’ve been throwing around the idea of moving abroad for years, I say do it. Maybe you studied somewhere in college and you want to return to the place where some of your fondest memories were made. Or maybe you want a change for your family. Or want to take your job abroad or support a spouse’s career. Or you’re looking to retire abroad and have a new experience after working hard your whole life.
Do it. Make a plan. Life is short and you only live once.
One thing that’s so important to keep in mind is that just because you made the choice to move abroad, it doesn’t mean you won’t come up against struggle in some shape or form. For those of you currently having a hard time, this post is for you. You’re not alone.
I want this to be crystal clear: You can move abroad and know it was the right choice for you and still have hard days that leave you doubting yourself and your choices. Having a rough time doesn’t automatically mean you’ve failed or that moving abroad was the wrong choice.You can move abroad and know it was the right choice for you and still have hard days that leave you doubting yourself. Having a rough time doesn't mean you've failed or that moving abroad was the wrong choice. #expat #livingabroadClick To Tweet
It’s normal for life to have its high and low points and moving abroad doesn’t exempt anyone from that.
Anyway, I don’t think much good can come from painting an unrealistic picture of life abroad 24/7. If you’ve been around these parts for a while, you know I tell it like it is. Over the years, I’ve seen myself in what I’ve written below. Depending on where my head’s at, what’s going on with those I love, work projects, health and just life, it’s not so simple to be on your game 100% of the time.
The longer I’ve lived abroad, the more I see people doing exactly what I talk about below. I’m not immune to it either. I fully admit that I’ve done things that haven’t helped me to be the best version of myself.
Why do we do things that hold us back? Stress. Feeling overwhelmed and lost. Culture shock. Homesickness. Fear. Thinking we’ve already failed. Believing we’re doing something wrong. All of these things and maybe none of these things.
Here are 4 things that hold us back as foreigners living abroad:
When we make no effort to learn the language
Unless you’re just passing through for a couple of months or plan to stay locked in your house with no outside contact, you have to learn the local language at least to a conversational level. That’s the bare minimum. An intermediate level would be even better, and this goes double if you plan to stay awhile.
No, language learning isn’t easy. It’s maddening, tear-inducing at times, and a process that can make you doubt your intelligence… and that’s putting it lightly. I’ve never felt dumber in my life! But it’s necessary if you plan to live abroad where your native language isn’t spoken. It goes beyond just being able to speak and plays into how you experience the culture and everything around you, not to mention how you’re perceived by others. I promise it’ll get easier. Don’t let yourself make excuses for why you can’t learn the language. They’re all bullshit.
When we never try new things
It’s so easy to cling to what we’re used to. I’ve done it. I do it. It’s safe to stay within your comfort zone and makes you feel good, so why would we want to change that? We eat the same things, go out to the same places, take the same vacations. There’s nothing wrong with doing the things you enjoy, but I think it’s important to push yourself toward new experiences every once in a while. Take a chance on people and places and maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Start small Yes, maybe you’ll be disappointed too, but if you never go out of your way to experience local food, culture, people, and events, I think you’re missing out.
When we respond defensively all the time
We’re different and we know it. From how we sound to even sometimes how we look, dress, and act, we’re foreigners and sometimes that works against us. People stereotype us and when we feel pinned up against the wall, it’s only normal to react defensively. But it doesn’t always work to our advantage.
Whether or not it’s the reality, I often feel like I’m clawing my way up from a deep well. I make progress just to fall back a couple of feet. When you perceive things as a personal slight or critique of who you are, it’s hard NOT to react defensively. Things like people’s comments on how you speak or dress, where you’re from, or what you look like can hurt. That’s especially true when you hear the same things all the time.
No one likes being judged yet it’s so easy to be the one judging others. You’re told that you’re doing too much, you’re not doing enough, you’re doing the wrong thing, etc. I’ve learned to tell myself that people’s rude comments say way more about them than they do me. After making that part of my inner dialog, I somehow feel lighter and let comments roll off my back much more easily.
Our first response in the face of perceived criticism is to stand up for ourselves. I have no problem with confrontation, and if you insult me, I will rarely smile and walk away. Damn straight I’m going to stand up for myself. But there’s a difference between standing up for yourself and reacting defensively. I put myself in uncomfortable situations here on the daily just by living life, so of course when you’re the “other,” there are more instances where you’ll find yourself reacting defensively. I’ve worked hard to not react like this over the years and have come a long way. Deep breaths, reflection, and an empathetic mindset are great tools.
When we get into a me vs. them mentality
This is one of the biggest expat mistakes. Comparisons are part of adjusting to a new place and culture shock comes in stages. But when you’re having trouble adjusting, it’s easy to put up walls and judge the locals for how they look, walk and talk. Their methods and customs are weird and inefficient, we think. They’re unfriendly. They’re nothing like me. Continuing to judge the differences and only what separates us will keep us in our boxes and expose us to more of what we don’t want to see.
When we’re having a hard time and only noticing the negatives and the differences, we put up barriers within ourselves, often without even realizing it, that much harder to break down in the future. Mindsets that reinforce me vs. them only hold us back in the long run and keep us from thriving abroad. No country or way of doing things is perfect across the board and we can all learn from each other.
So what can we do to avoid these expat mistakes?
In a nutshell: Try to not have any expectations. Easier said than done. Give ourselves space to feel whatever we’re feeling. Don’t push the feelings aside or ignore them. And move your body. Exercise always puts me in a better state of mind and more able to deal with whatever is going on. Finally, talk to someone who understands or who is at least willing to listen. I never underestimate the support of someone I trust.
What things have you done while living abroad that have held you back?
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