Every expat has heard it: the breathless ‘oh you’re so brave for moving abroad’ from friends and family staying behind. Before you know it, cooing relatives will be pinning imaginary medals on you, celebrating your daring and courage.
Nerves before the move are normal, but there is usually so much to plan and organize that there’s no chance to actually stop and get scared.Then when you actually land, there’s the jolt of culture shock and a moment of ‘what have I done’ panic. Most expats are then swept away on another tide of pragmatic problem-solving and adjustment which is also spurred on by the excited exploration of the city.
But when the excitement dies down and you hit your stride, settling into a routine lifestyle, the voice of doubt can return. Expats often report a second, more existential wave of worries and concerns at this later stage of their time overseas. Once all the practical problems have been dealt with, the more personal worries can come to the surface ‘Is this what I want?’, ‘will I ever really settle here?’, and ‘have I made an awful mistake?”. The little voice of self-doubt can get louder and louder until it’s the only thing you can hear.
Like all the other niggling concerns that plague expats, the post-honeymoon reality check is perfectly normal. But it can become an unhealthy and unhelpful spiral of undermining worry and second guessing. Even outwardly confident people can be sideswiped by a sucker-punch of doubt and anxiety.
Steph Stepan is an outgoing Australian who left a job in marketing to live in Europe. ‘I picked up my life in Melbourne, Australia and moved it all to Amsterdam,’ she told Levo.com. ‘I purchased a great little Oma bike, fell in love with the city, and began life as a freelance writer.’
Stepan might seem like a daring expat, striking bravely out on her own, but inside doubt eroded her confidence. ‘No one seemed to notice me quivering on the inside? Wasn’t it obvious that I had no idea what I was doing?’
Rather than give in to her anxiety, Stepan set out to interview women about their experiences of self-doubt and now runs fridaybestmag.com, a website devoted to inspiring others to conquer their anxieties.
Any expat who is starting to question their life overseas, or their ability to cope, can learn a lot from the experiences of others. We’ve collected ten top tips for jump-starting your self-confidence and banishing those devilish doubts.
Talk to Friends
It can be the hardest thing to do, admitting that you don’t feel quite right. Especially in a culture where you already feel out of place and uneasy.
But if you have a trusted friend – expat or local – you may be able to use them to give context to your concerns. You may be fixated on standing out in a crowd as a foreigner, and a local friend may be able to explain that this gives you a kind of celebrity status.
It may also be that issues you’d built up in your head to be massive problems aren’t actually important at all. So what if your grammar isn’t perfect; you make yourself understood and that’s better than many expats ever manage.
The process of talking things out makes worries and concerns seems smaller and more manageable. Keeping a doubt locked up inside means you keep adding to it, making it bigger and more tangible, when simply hearing yourself describe it out loud can make it seem small and inconsequential.
Set Realistic Goals
We all measure ourselves by a standard, often comparing our lives and successes with those around us. This is usually a recipe for disaster: one friend will be richer than you, but another will be happier, and yet another will have that beautiful car you’ve always wanted.
Remember that none of those people have the full package and are probably looking enviously at something of yours. The easiest way to measure your successes and to keep yourself from slipping into despondency is with realistic goals.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll win a Nobel prize, top the music charts, and hit a homerun at the World Series – but you might win that promotion or go on that dream holiday.
When self doubt kicks in, it’s easy to keep telling yourself you are a loser who never accomplishes anything. Prove yourself wrong by setting targets that will challenge you but can be completed.
Learn a new skill, sign up to run a charity race, go spend time volunteering. All these things will push you out of your comfort zone, but not too much and give you a very real sense of achievement.
Celebrate Your Victories
As important as setting yourself goals is rewarding yourself for completing them. What’s the point of running the race if you can’t hear the cheers when you cross the finish line?
For too many expats, feeling isolated contributes to their self doubt. Without an established circle of friends, there’s nobody there to pat them on the back and share in the victory.
Tell friends and family what you’ve done and don’t be afraid to post on social media that you’ve achieved something you’re proud of. The messages of congratulations and support will do almost as much to boost your confidence as completing the task itself.
If you’re prone to feeling particularly down, save these messages of support away somewhere. Put them in an envelope and take them out to read on particularly dark days to recapture that feeling of support from those closest to you.
Give Yourself Time to Reflect
Expat life can be busy, with lots of rushing around in big cities where you feel overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of everything going on around you.
It’s important to take time out and let your mind process everything that happens during the day. ‘Down time’ is essential for your brain to work through all the information it has taken in throughout the day, but also for you to examine your feelings.
We’ve all had those sleepless nights, staring at the ceiling, reliving some event and panicking about the possible outcomes. Nine times out of ten this is happening because you’ve not had the chance to replay the incident in your head and shrug it off before bed. Now, with nothing else to stimulate your mind, it’s playing on a loop in your imagination, getting worse and worse with each showing.
Build time into your day to relax and just let your mind wander, whether this is whilst you swim, run, or do yoga, or even just sit on a park bench.
Don’t be Afraid to Change Things
Anxiety can be paralysing, freezing you to the spot and preventing you from doing anything to fix the problem at hand. You may be worried that your decisions will be wrong or that the solution might be worse than the problem itself.
Expats have already made massive changes to their life, jumping across oceans and cultures to set up in uncharted territory. Therefore, it’s surprising that they sometimes get stuck in jobs or living arrangements that just don’t work for them.
Don’t be tempted to ‘put up and shut up’ with something that makes you unhappy, especially if it is draining your self confidence. You’ve sacrificed a lot to be overseas, so make sure you are getting everything you want out of your experience.
If you are tied to a job for your visa talk to your manager about changing the way that job is structured. If you are a living in a bad neighbourhood talk to expat friends about where to move to.
You are in control of your destiny, so there’s nothing to stop you from fixing whatever is bothering you.
Be Aware of Your Own Thought Process
Self doubt can become an ongoing problem, and being aware of it can further undermine your ability to deal with it. Realising that your confidence is dropping and that you aren’t as in control as you used to be can be a further knock. That is unless you do something about it.
Simply putting on a brave face and attempting to carry on as normal is unlikely to help solve much. Instead you need to look at the way your self doubt manifests itself and how to avoid it taking over.
For many expats suffering self doubt and confidence issues, the biggest symptom is fixating on a particular issue without ever being able to solve it. Beware of cyclical thoughts, where you analyse the same thought over and over without ever reaching a conclusion.
If you find yourself doing this, take a paper and pen and spell out all aspects of the problems. List pros and cons, come up with a solution, or simply tell yourself it’s not that big a deal. Do whatever you can to break that negative cycle.
When self doubt gets too extreme it can cause serious anxiety problems and panic attacks. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) won’t solve the underlying issue, but can help calm you down enough to start addressing it.
CBT techniques can be coached by a professional or learned through books or websites and can be invaluable ways of clearing your mind when you feel yourself losing control. Taking a few deep breaths and switching your mind to something else is just one simple yet effective tool.
Know What You Are Worth
Remind yourself constantly that you are a talented, daring individual. Your boss might not be saying it, but she did ship you halfway around the world to do this job because she believes in you.
If it helps, stand in front of a mirror and recite a list of your victories and winning personality points. This mantra might sound silly or even vain, but it will stop you forgetting your achievements to date and just how awesome you really are.
The same tactic can be used to deal with those negative thoughts that undermine you. Repeat them and exaggerate them; if you are worried about your appearance tell yourself you are the ugliest creature ever to exist. Take this refrain to absurd extremes until you can laugh at the original worry.
Make sure you don’t let a little self doubt undermine your work. Hold your head up and demand fair pay and treatment from clients and bosses.
Say ‘Yes’ More
Self doubt can rob you of the confidence to do the things you enjoy and put you in a frame of mind where wrapped up in a duvet is the only safe place to be.
The trouble is that once you reach this stage, everything outside the comfy safety of bed seems like a scary, dangerous place. Seek out new experiences and expand your horizons whenever possible.
When friends invite you to try a new restaurant, go. When you have a weekend spare, go explore a new place. Fill your life with excitement and new experiences. Make sure you never get stuck in a rut.
Say ‘No’ More
Of course, there are aspects of everyone’s life that they could do without. Recognise the parts of your life that have the strongest negative impact on you.
It may be that certain friends undermine you and destroy your confidence. It could be that you take on too much at work or that you just aren’t happy with certain tasks.
If living with a partner, you may find that one dominates decisions and the other is left as a passenger in their plans. If you feel like you are dragged along for the ride, you need to address this quickly.
Don’t wait to be picked for the team, let the coach know you want to be in the game.
They say ‘good things come to those who wait’, which is great in theory, but you can wait all day for a meal in a restaurant but it won’t arrive unless you order something. So stop complaining that you’re hungry and go after what you want.
In many cultures we’re taught by our school systems to knuckle down and work hard, that effort will be recognized and rewarded by those above us. In reality most bosses will see you are capable at your job and happily leave you to it. To promote you means they have to train you to do another job and train whoever is taking over from you.
As previously mentioned, it’s important to set yourself personal and business goals. Don’t be afraid of seeking out people who can help you achieve these targets and let them help you hit them.
It can be impolite to talk too much about yourself, but don’t be afraid to mention things you’ve done that you’re proud of. Not only will you feel good about these achievements, you may find that the people you talk to are even more supportive of your next venture.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer