Expat Psychology; Moving from Isolation to Social Connection – 3 Top Tips

Erik Erikson, one of the foremost developmental psychologists of all time, outlined The Eight Stages of Human Development (Erikson 1950). In this seminal work he states that every human being passes through 8 stages of psychological development from birth to death. It is not the scope of this article to go into all the stages, but as an expat, and as a psychotherapist working with expats, I am continually reminded of the 6th stage, Isolation vs. Intimacy, which generally occurs between the ages of 19 to 40. The stage immediately preceding this is the adolescent stage of Identity vs. Role Confusion. Once one’s identity has come into clearer focus, he or she is ready to move on to the task of establishing important relationships such as spouse, children, colleagues and close friends.Up to this point, we expats are just like everyone else. We establish careers, become co-workers, may marry, have children, and choose good friends. But if we choose to live life as an expat, this is where we depart from the norm; as expats we are continually re-visiting the 6th stage of isolation vs. intimacy. Our spouses (usually) and children may be a constant, but our close friends and colleagues are constantly changing. We must learn how to handle this flux without isolating ourselves, which sometimes seems like the line of least resistance and the safest bet.

At a time when social isolation has been described as a modern-day plague, the task of connecting with others can be quite daunting. A recent study by Duke University scientists (2005, USA) found that 25% of all Americans report having no meaningful social support at all. This was up from 10% when research was gathered 20 years earlier. And these were Americans who lived in America! One can speculate on the reasons for this such as working longer hours and computer-generated pastimes, but whatever the reasons, isolation is a huge problem. We know that social isolation results in increased incidents of depression and vulnerability to addictions as well as many other physical and emotional disorders.

According to author, Stephen Ilardi, we humans are not really designed to live in isolation from others. For most of human history people have resided in small intimate communities of hunters and gatherers, where most of the time was spent in the company of friends and loved ones. Granted, times have changed, but what can we do, especially as expats, to restore balance to our lives and isolate less, thereby increasing our chances for a healthy and fulfilling life?

TIP # 1: Live Each Day as if Your Relationships Were Your Highest Priority

Many people pay lip service to this idea, but what would happen if you actually allocated the time and energy necessary to make your relationships a priority in your life? What would your day look like? What would you need to let go of to allow this to happen? Many of us feel like we simply don’t have the time to devote to our relationships given the other priorities in our lives. And while work, child rearing, exercise and other obligations seem to overshadow everything else, it is possible to create some time, each day to enhancing our social connections. It may be exercising with a friend one day a week, or making time to have a coffee alone with our spouse on the weekend. It will take creativity and thinking out of the box to make this happen, but it can be done!

TIP # 2: Create a Situation for Teamwork in Your Life

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Teamwork is a known antidote to isolation. It is impossible to be in isolation when working together with others on a project. Whether it’s teamwork on the job or volunteering, it’s the working together and sharing a common goal that’s crucial. It can be a play, volunteering for an event at your child’s school, a community project, or taking a language class. The ‘what’ isn’t as important as the ‘how’. Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to keep in mind that the meta-goal is to enhance social connections.

TIP # 3: Reach Out, Take a Risk, and Make a Call

This is perhaps the most difficult task in making social connections and is probably the most common reason why people stay isolated. When people, even seasoned expats, first move to a new country, their whole world seems upside down. The familiar is no longer there and everything feels strange and unknown. This can bring up fear, anxiety and vulnerability. For people who are used to feeling comfortable in their environment this can be a shock.

It is difficult to reach out when we’re feeling vulnerable, yet it is precisely at this time that we most need to do so. It is important to recognize our feelings, and to try and see what we are telling ourselves about ourselves at this time. For example, I may be afraid to call up someone I’ve recently met because I don’t think she will like me. That is my belief. Then I need to ask myself what is really true in this situation. The truth is I have no idea if she will like me or not. It is just negative self-talk to tell myself I won’t be liked.

So we must be willing to be honest with ourselves and be in the unknown, as scary as that is. Often we would rather believe something negative about ourselves than be with the unknown. It gets us off the hook. If I believe I won’t be liked then there is no need for me to make the call. But if I have no idea what the outcome will be (which we never do anyhow) and am willing to take a risk and make the call, I may connect with someone I really like, or at the very least get out of the house and discover a new place to have coffee.

When we move locations, we lose what Robert Putnam refers to as “social capital,” and we need to rebuild it for our physical and mental health as soon as we can. It takes courage to reach out when we’re the new kid on the block, and even when we’re not. But taking one small step gives us the courage to take another, and another, until we find ourselves socially connected, with the feeling of well-being that only connection can bring.


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