Research shows loneliness is on the rise in general, but for expats we can find ourselves struggling with loneliness more than most. Loneliness is not the same as being alone (although it can be). Loneliness is what happens when we don’t get as much satisfying social contact as we want.We are all different in how much solitude we’re comfortable with and many of us enjoy time to ourselves. Loneliness kicks in when we have the urge to connect but find that connection with others eludes us. It may be that we don’t have friends locally or that the quality of the connections we have are not sufficiently meaningful.
As expats, we are especially susceptible to loneliness. Starting afresh in a new country by definition means we are physically separated from our friends and family and involves a starting point of isolation. If we fail to form satisfying bonds with the people we meet then this sense of isolation is compounded. We can feel psychologically isolated even when we are amongst others if we lack a sense of belonging, and differences in culture and language barriers can mean that sense of belonging takes time.
So how do we cope when loneliness takes hold? I’m going to take it as a given that you know practically what you can do (i.e. take classes, join groups and online forums for people in similar situations etc.) and instead focus here on the psychological challenges of loneliness.
Here are seven steps you can take.
Be your own best friend. You are the best friend you’ve got and at times of friendlessness, you really need to step up! What does being your own best friend look like? It means being on your own side, being kind to yourself, not giving yourself a hard time. It also means being good company. Think of your closest relationships and how you treat each other; how you support, cherish and value each other and then do the same for yourself. Now is not the time to turn on yourself! Go on solo dates, take yourself to places you’ve always wanted to go to. If you’re not used to spending time alone then this is a great chance to get to know yourself better.
Know that you are in good company. You’re not alone in feeling alone! Research shows loneliness is on the rise generally with between 20-40% of people reporting regular feelings of loneliness. This is likely to be even higher amongst expats. Instead of seeing it as a failing in some way, recognise that it’s just part of the experience of being an expat. That doesn’t mean you don’t do anything about it, but it does mean you don’t go to the place of: ‘What’s wrong with me?’ Just know that by definition being in a new place without those networks that have held you your whole life will mean there will be times when you miss those connections. Missing people means that you are able to form meaningful relationships and bodes well for forming more in the future.
Outside the comfort zone is where it’s at. Recognise that experiencing loneliness as an expat means you are out of your comfort zone. And being out of your comfort zone means you are in a moment of opportunity to learn and grow. We don’t grow when we are stuck deep in our comfort zones. Relish knowing that you are in a challenging time and that this is an opportunity to put yourself in new spaces and be open and curious about what that will look like. Your new life will probably not look like your old life and that’s a good thing, right?
Be guided by your feelings. Feelings are there to tell us something. In this case, to tell us we are longing for connection. So – let’s go connect! Bad news and good news. You will need to make considerable effort. That’s the bad news. It’s not going to happen by itself (or it might eventually if you want to leave it to chance, which you don’t). But the fact that you are going to have to push yourself and put yourself in states of discomfort is also VERY GOOD NEWS. Because you are in yet another growth place. Seeking out connections puts us even further out of our comfort zone. It takes courage and we need to commit to it. Putting yourself out there, even if it doesn’t lead to a new friendship, will grow your comfort zone. It will make it easier to put yourself out there the next time.
Change your relationship to your loneliness. Though the feeling of loneliness is there to prompt us to connect, it is very usual to instead want to withdraw. Our self-esteem may be crumbling; we may feel self conscious and more vulnerable than usual. Research even shows that we are more likely to be vigilant for negative experiences and risk misinterpreting social cues negatively when we are lonely, which can leave us wanting to isolate even further. But don’t. It’s normal to feel like that, it’s understandable, but the message our loneliness is giving us is that we need to reach out, not withdraw. The part that’s telling us to withdraw is trying to protect us from rejection. But we know that we have to risk rejection when we make friends, that’s the deal! Used right, the experience of loneliness is the start of the cure for loneliness. Having the feeling is only there to tell us we need to take action. When the pang of loneliness strikes you, use it as a starting point for action. As soon as you take action – even if it is something small like making a plan to see people – you will start to feel better, because part of the problem with loneliness is the sense that you do not have the power to change your situation. You do!
Check how you sabotage yourself. We are all prone to a bit of self-sabotage in many different ways. When you say you want something (i.e. friends) and yet are not getting what you want, it’s always worth asking yourself how you might be contributing to the problem. And don’t give yourself a hard time if you are; it’s often the case that our unconscious is doing something that is completely at odds with what we consciously want in order to protect us in some way. It’s normal.
Here’s a way to figure it out. Imagine that someone from a different planet – a planet where the ideal life is a lonely one – said to you: “Tell me, how did you achieve this amazing, blissful state of loneliness? I want to know how I can achieve it too!” When we see a trait as positive we are more likely to take credit for it and be non-defensive. That’s the rationale for this exercise, which may seem strange to you.
So put yourself in this state and see what you have to say for yourself. You might say some of the following:
I keep my body language standoffish!
I am careful about who I spend time with and have standards that no-one can live up to!
I imagine scenarios where I am left out and have no-one to talk to at a party and then don’t feel like going!
I tell myself that no-one wants to talk to me so I don’t approach them!
I tell myself that I won’t have a good time when I’m invited out so I say no!
I go to places where there are no people!
I don’t smile at people because I’m afraid they won’t smile back!
The trick here is to expose the many ways in which you might be compounding the problem – all the clever ways you’ve found to keep yourself lonely. Now you’ve made your list of how you are keeping yourself lonely, you have a perfect personalised list of all things that you need to do the opposite of! It may feel like bad news to think that you are part of the problem, but actually it’s exceptionally good news. The more it’s about you the more power you have to change it!
Move the goalposts. Okay, so the ultimate goal is to make meaningful connections with others. But for now, instead of focussing on the outcome, focus on the process; in other words, how you get there. This can be useful because when you focus on process goals rather than the outcome, it puts the achievement of your goal within your own hands. In this case, the goal is to challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone. That’s it. Anything you do towards your goal (smiling at someone, initiating a conversation, attending a class etc.) is something to be celebrated. You win every time you achieve a process goal. The more of this you do, you will inevitably move in the direction of your ultimate goal of making good friends, but you get to feel good about yourself on the way. If you smile at someone and they ignore you, whereas you might previously have thought of this as a failure, it is now a success! Your goal is to be friendly and out of your comfort zone and you have done it! Well done.
A few guiding principles.
Patience. Building meaningful connections takes time.
It’s a numbers game. Meet a lot of people.
Be flexible. Don’t write people off if they are not your usual ‘type’ of person. Enjoy difference.
If you have options to do communal things, then do. For example, you might be choosing between staying in a hotel and having your own space (which you may really want as you’re not feeling that great about yourself) or staying in a hostel. Stay in a hostel!
Follow up with people. Take their number, add them on Facebook then follow up and see if they want to join you in whatever you are doing.
Practice friendliness. Smile!
Still feeling lonely? Sometimes loneliness can be hard to shake, especially when you're also experiencing symptoms of depression. If that's the case, then it can be helpful to get support such as counselling or psychotherapy to understand more about why you feel as you do and to work on strategies for change. Many therapists offer online services, so even if you have limited access to such support locally, there are many good options!