Expat Focus Wellbeing Update September 2022

To most of us, concepts around being well cover a range of factors, from mental and physical health, to diet, exercise, mood, and spirituality. The state of being well must be defined on an individual basis; what it means to one person might not be what it means to another. For example, to one person, well-being might mean sanctuary, safety and comfort, whereas to someone more motivated by adrenalin, it could mean the ability to stride up mountains or feel physically free. It’s important to consider what wellness and well-being mean to you – regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Importance of language

For me as an Anglophone living in France wellness means a “having a sense of belonging”, which isn’t very easy to find. It is being capable of communicating without being embarrassed. (Nisha Derboule, Expats in France)

In Nisha’s comment, we can see that language contributes to wellness: struggling to communicate often makes us anxious, either embarrassed that we’ll seem awkward or foolish, or simply that we won’t be understood. Learning a new language can contribute to our well-being and enhance our mental health, making us feel more competent, more in control and more accomplished.

Researchers at Washington State University point out that language learning improves our cognitive capacity, increases our attentional control, and gives us better abstract and symbolic representational skills and a better memory. There’s some evidence, too, that it helps to stave off dementia. Of course, it also means you can order a beer in your host country’s language when you want one!

Sense of belonging

The concept of ‘belonging’ is also important. As an expat, how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t really feel I belong here”? Perhaps you’ve said it yourself. But what does belonging actually mean?

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Different languages have different ways of expressing the concepts of belonging and estrangement. The Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ is often quoted as a longing for a country (Wales) from which one has been separated. The feeling of being at home is important to many of us, and it’s a sensation which is often heightened in the expat experience. Feeling that you don’t belong in a place can affect both your mental and physical health.

We’ve spoken to British expats in the USA who share a common tongue with many Americans, but who told us about how alien they suddenly felt during shared national events such as the 4th of July. This sense of being unexpectedly thrust out of the culture that you’re living in can be destabilising and unsettling. Feeling that you don’t understand the social ‘codes’ in which people are communicating, can be just as difficult as not being able to speak the same language.

Building a strong support network

How do you overcome this feeling of not belonging? Having a strong support network is key, and it’s important to try to include locals with whom you have an affinity, whether colleagues or friends or both. Banding together with your fellow expats within a culture can be tempting and affirmative, but it’s not always as helpful as it seems. It can entice you into forming small national cliques and endorsing feelings of alienation, that the host culture is somehow problematic or ‘doing things wrong.’

Discussing your feelings with locals honestly but with as little heat as possible can be helpful, as well as interesting, and if you feel that you are still struggling, then your company’s HR department or online/in person counselling might help. There are counsellors who specialise in consultations with expats. For example, you can find online counselling on Gabriela Encina’s website.

Putting down local roots

A crucial part of that sense of belonging is to put down local roots. Are there particular places to which you can develop an attachment, for instance? Exploring the locale can enhance a sense of rootedness. Much of modern life is ephemeral, and a connection to local landscape and history, as well as culture, can make you feel more tethered and give you a greater sense of permanence. A lack of rootedness can affect your sense of identity – often an issue when you move countries. Sometimes you don’t know exactly who you are any more, when you’ve uprooted from your familiar culture, and it can take a while to get this back. When you do, you might find that it’s a new you that you’re meeting.

We have been asking for opinions on the Expat Focus forums and we’re interested in your views, so keep an eye on the country-specific forums if you’d like to contribute to our ongoing discussion.


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