The Expat Blues – Coping with the Loneliness of an Overseas Move

The expat blues

What are the ‘expat blues’? Well, as any expat will tell you, there tends to be a ‘honeymoon’ period when you first move overseas. This is the time when you feel like a tourist and everything is a novelty.

How long does this honeymoon period last? Well, it varies from person to person and country to country. But usually, it is followed by a slump….and the expat blues.

When we moved to Germany it was summertime. Everything looked beautiful, the sun shone every day and we spend our days doing trips to vineyards and castles. And then the kids started school, the weather started to turn…and I hit the slump.

How to minimise the Expat Blues

If you have moved overseas before, you will know the the ‘expat blues’ is a real thing.

Of course, everyone is affected differently but, speaking from my own experience, our first six months here knocked me for six. I mean, this was our second expat assignment and, you know, I had survived Bangkok, so how hard could Germany be??!

The answer was: very hard.

I had expected it to happen and yet I wasn’t prepared for it. The problem is that when you hit the slump, it can be hard to pick yourself up again. The ‘Expat Blues’ can easily turn into depression.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I certainly felt very lonely…and then the fact that I was alone a lot made it even harder to interact with people. I am a pretty sociable and outgoing person, and suddenly I just wanted to hide away. I had trouble sleeping and felt apathetic. Days would drift by and then I would feel so guilty for not ‘achieving’ anything…

Looking back, there were a lot of factors at play. If I could go back in time, this is the advice I would give myself…

Be prepared: being an Expat Spouse can be lonely

Humans are social animals and companionship is essential to our well being. Loneliness is something that is difficult to admit to, because it somehow feels shameful – to say you are lonely implies you have no friends, which implies there is something ‘wrong’ with you. In her book ‘The Lonely City’, Olivia Laing describes loneliness as,

‘…like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.’

When I read this, it really chimed with me. That is exactly how I felt in the winter of 2016. I felt so lonely…and the thing with loneliness is that it makes itself worse. It makes it harder to ‘put yourself out there’ even though you know that’s the only way to break its hold on you.

This can be particularly hard for the expat spouse. While the working partner continues with the routine of their job, the spouse is often left feeling isolated; and I do think this is especially hard if they had previously been working. Not only are you in a new place where everything is unfamiliar, you are also away from your people – your family, your friends, who would normally support you when things got tough.

It’s important to make connections

The only way around this is to make connections with people. Making friends when you move isn’t easy, but it’s critical.

But if I break it down to a basic level, it’s about getting positive interaction with other people every day. I will admit the fact that my day was often made – or broken – by random people. The woman in the supermarket who helped me when I dropped the contents of my handbag all over the floor (has there been a study to prove that loneliness makes you more clumsy? Because I’m sure it does…). And then the woman in the bakery who mocked my German – which admittedly, is bad. On a normal day I might have laughed with her…instead I cried all the way home.

I guess what I am saying is that, even though you may not yet have made ‘real’ friends, any positive connection you make is good for you.

I had always been a bit sceptical about connections made online, but there are lots of great groups for expats. I am a member of I Am A Triangle and which is a really supportive online space, as are some of the expat focussed Facebook Groups.

The importance of making connections is one of the reasons I set up The Expat Book Club – an online community connecting women all over the world through a shared love of reading. Sometimes the smallest of positive connections can make the biggest difference to our day.

Take Good Care of Yourself

Taking care of yourself is fundamental to feeling good…paradoxically this often slips when we start to feel bit down.

We all know the general advice on taking care of yourself – exercise, eat well, get enough sleep. Don’t smoke. Drink in moderation. Yet when we feel down, it’s somehow harder to keep all this on track. We may not feel like eating…or just want to eat all the time. The odd glass of wine at night becomes a bottle. We can’t get to sleep…and then everything feels worse when you’re tired.

Don’t ignore the warning signs – and don’t be hard on yourself.

Of course there is the external perception that expat life is just a long, glorious, gin-soaked holiday. And that can make it even harder when you are finding it tough – ‘What’s wrong with me? I should be have the time of my life…??’

If you get into this pattern, it’s time to call yourself out. Whatever you’re feeling, you’re feeling it. Who cares what anyone else thinks that you should be feeling!

Now is the time to be kind to yourself; do the things that make you feel good and don’t feel guilty about it. A soak in the bath, a manicure, reading a good book. If the only thing that makes you feel good is draining a bottle of wine, then listen to the alarm bells…

Practice Good Mental Hygiene

It’s important to be honest with yourself about how you are feeling. If this is more that just feeling ‘a bit down’ then ask for help. Depression is something that can affect anyone, and it is not something that goes away easily just by itself.

And it might not be depression, but feeling lonely is bad enough. Ask for help. Tell others how you are feeling. Because what you will often find is, they are feeling – or have felt – the same way too.

I am neither a doctor nor a mental health expert; this advice is based on my own experience of living abroad and speaking to other people in the same position.

Regardless of where you are living, your mental health is important. Here is a great TED talk by Dr Guy Winch who urges us all to practise ‘good emotional hygiene’. We would go to the doctor if we had flu, or if we broke a bone. So why are we resistant to getting help when we are struggling with emotional pain? Dr Winch talks about loneliness, protecting our self esteem and battling negative thoughts. Essentially, protecting and supporting our psychological well being and allowing ourselves to thrive. It’s only 15 minutes and well worth a watch.

And as a slight aside –  if you are moving to a country with long, dark winters you might want to consider getting your Vitamin D levels checked and taking a supplement. It can make a huge difference to how you feel, and many of us are very deficient (including me!). Here’s some more info about it.

Get a Routine

I am not a routine-oriented person, but when I first moved to Germany I felt like I was falling through the days, getting nothing done and then beating myself up about it. I am now a fan of having a routine – albeit a pretty loose one.

The main thing my routine revolves around? Moving. My body, that is.

I am not super fit – certainly not an exercise junky – but it turns out that exercise really does do you good. Ha! Took me a long time to listen to that advice… Unfortunately it tends to be that, when you feel rubbish and low, it’s the last thing you want to do.

So get a routine and, even better, rope in someone else to exercise with you. I used to walk the dog on my own near our house. Now I take her to school at drop off and I walk with friends. That bit of fresh air, exercise and interaction sets me up for a good day.

Routines can be hard to get into. So maybe this is a way of thinking about it – every day, do something for yourself. Not unpacking boxes, not doing the groceries, but something just for you. I also think that by showing up to the same things at the same time – walking the dog, a gym class, the supermarket – you become familiar with other people doing these things at the same time.

Do What You Love

I have talked before about how a lot of my identity had been bound up with my career. But if I’m honest, the day to day of what i was doing…I didn’t ‘love’ it.

Moving has given me the opportunity to spend time doing things I love. But it took me so long to actually make time for these things. It’s crazy the way we can prevent ourselves from doing what we actually want to do…

What do I love? Well, in a nutshell, I’m happiest when I feel like I have created something. And no, I am not a crafty Pinterest Pin-Up kind of Mum, but I do love to be immersed in a creative process. But this can be anything from organising an event to baking a cake.

I have also learned a lot about myself. I tend to start a million things at once and then get annoyed because I don’t get everything ‘done’. So now I try to take on less things and make sure I finish them – and actually enjoy that sense of satisfaction.

I took a writing course and – drum roll – finished some short stories. I started this blog.  And then I realised how much I need social contact…so I set up the Expat Book Club. No, none of these are world-shaking things. But they have improved my world.

What could you be doing that would make you happy?

Count Your Achievements

I, and lots of other women I know, am very quick to dismiss everything we do – ‘Oh no, that’s just an easy recipe’. ‘What have I done today? Just the shopping and dinner’. ‘It’s just a blog’. ‘It’s just a 5km jog’.

This is not an expat thing or a housewife thing – crikey, I saw women who had achieved incredible things at university and at work do exactly the same thing.

So let’s challenge ourselves to get rid of the ‘just’. Why diminish everything we do? And ok, if you aren’t working, the stuff you do may seem like small, inconsequential stuff. Shopping, cooking and cleaning aren’t exactly contributing to the Middle East Peace Process…but they are pretty fundamental to having a functioning family and a happy home.

So when you have those days when you feel like you have got nothing done, take a pause and think of all the things that you preceded with ‘just’.

You got the kids up. You made breakfast. You took care of the house. You went to the shops and bought the groceries – in a foreign country. You’re doing great!

Remember: You Are Not Alone

I honestly thought everyone else had their shit together when I was losing mine. But no, actually, there were a lot of friends in the same boat. We all just wanted to seem like we were doing just fine.

But saying you are fine and feeling fine are two different things. If you are finding things hard right now, if you are struggling with the ‘expat blues’, you are not the only one. Things will get better, but it sometimes takes time and a whole load of effort.

And if you are feeling lonely, remember that you are not alone in this.  I hope that knowing that makes you feel just a little bit better.

 

26 Comment

  1. Natalie says: Reply

    Thank you Becci for addressing something so widely felt and so seldom talked about. Again another well-written article with great advice ! What a great world we would have if we all practiced emotional hygiene! Looking forward to your next blog!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      You are so right Natalie…the world would be a far better place! Thank you x

    2. Carl says: Reply

      Thank you for this insightful post. I can relate very well. I found that after two years in Germany trying to make meaningful social connections with the locals, that it been a dismal failure. So I started looking for ways to meet other foreigners. That has been much more successful. I have found that Germans are in general a closed people who often resent the presence of strangers, especially if those strangers are from another country and culture. Going to a German course was one way to improve my life here. I met other people in the same situation, and gained more confidence in my dealings with the official and the officious. Going to a gym on a regular basis also helps my state of mind. Unfortunately, as a shift worker it is impossible to establish a routine and thus very hard to maintain commitments outside work. I still suffer terribly from isolation and depression, but nowadays I have a few good friends (all are expats) who I see every six to eight weeks or so.

  2. Abbey says: Reply

    Completely agree. I moved to Germany this time last year with my German partner, and ended up with a serious case of Expat Blues! It helped to join a language class, somewhere I had to be every day and feeling like I was progressing towards something intellectually. Helped millions with the whole making my own friends situation too!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      The language class is a great idea…I did classes but they were 1:1 so, while good for my German, terrible for making friends!

  3. Liz says: Reply

    So glad I came across your post! Thank you for all the great tips as well as the reminder that it’s ok to feel grateful and lonely as heck all at the same time!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks for reading Liz…and I appreciate you taking the time to comment 🙂

  4. Trisha says: Reply

    Thanks for this blog post, I know some people I can share this with! I don’t know if I can count myself as an expat really, since I’ve been a French citizen now since 2009…but I definitely know what it’s like to find yourself ALONE. For me the hardest year was when I was in a new town (again) and didn’t know anyone, plus I wasn’t working because I’d just had my first baby. I had lived and worked in France before, but had never been…at home…staring at a baby all day.
    In addition to taking language classes (which is a great idea) there are a couple of other things that have helped me–taking other kinds of classes (ceramics, flamenco dancing…badminton) seriously, whatever would get me out and interacting in French and seeing people. Also, consider a language exchange–Many people are really happy to get a chance to chat in English. And I love your advice of doing something you love. Before I moved to France, I had worked hard to build a writer’s group and was working on a chapter for my novel every month. I *finally* started to blog again in January of this year and I’ve been getting back to creative writing outside of that. You know what it feels like? A relief. Like I should have been doing that all these years!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Hi Trisha, thanks for taking the time to comment. I also started having tennis lessons (I know, expat wife cliché) but I LOVE it! I’m with friends, I get some exercise and I am actually improving. I also think that there are tons of parallels between having a baby and moving…changes to your senses of identity, feelings of isolation etc. Well done on getting back to blogging and the creative writing…I will read your blog & would love to know how your novel is going. Mine is not progressing much right now! Thanks again

  5. Julie says: Reply

    Very well written, and it’s nice to have a name for how I have felt Expat Blues. I am in my 2nd move the first was much easer then the 2nd. The first move was to Shanghai where had many expats and groups and organizations to be involved with, I was in my element t with the fun and friends I made. Then we moved to a small town in the north east of England and There are not expats here and it’s a very unfriendly unwelcomeing place (I call it tribal) that are quite happy only being friendly to the same people they have know forever… I have never felt so clumsy and backwards and awkward in my life. I have came to grips that after a year and a bit I’m not going to make a friend, I just have to make my own fun and be happy, and some day I will move back and pick up my own life.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Julie I think it is FAR harder to make friends if you go somewhere where there aren’t many expats…and small towns can be tough. I’m sorry that my home country has not been welcoming to you… Are there any groups you can join? If you like reading, come and join our Expat Book Club 🙂

  6. Eamon McLoughlin says: Reply

    Take up a hobby. Meet Germans. Then go socializing with them. Pick the hobby carefully. I’d recommend A. Something you’d like. And B. A hobby where you’ll meet like minded people. Pottery is a good place to start. The best of luck!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you! I am lucky now to have some nice German friends…not yet tried pottery though 🙂

  7. Bertie mackay says: Reply

    This is so true.getting a divorse in a foreighn coutry is even worse.as for your blog great job.you are so ready to write a book.
    How can we reach the clouds well there is 2 ways slowly build a structure or fly there.you are ready to write books and i am sure you will be famous soon.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you Bertie – I’m sure getting divorced while living overseas is very difficult. Wishing you the best of luck

  8. Amen to this!! I lived in Germany for 3 years and struggled with all of this. The winters were hard and the isolation was harder. It took a while to get into the swing of things. I’ve since moved back to the US but still very far from my home state. Even though it’s not a different country it’s a very different culture and I often find myself in a similar situation. Thanks for reminding me to be kind to myself and to know when it’s time to take the blues seriously.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Hi Shannon, thank you so much for your comment. I think that moving in your own country can be pretty challenging! I think this is especially true in the US where each state is so different. Good luck settling back in…and always be kind to yourself 🙂

  9. Declan says: Reply

    Hi Beck, I certainly agree with you but on some points I must also express a different opinion. Clearly not everyone requires a social circle…there are lone wolves as well and I must admit finding some at our local FIS school. These namely were fathers and an item that holds true is feeling lost and not achieving. Fathers are feeling this when abroad and not working. Don’t get me wrong, managing a family’s daily life is a job but many of the people I met were guys that worked in various industries, at various levels before moving and now were at home. They lacked the ability to move forward and potentially the wish to interact.
    Another item to touch upon is the connection of friends for friends sake”. What I mean here is that in the first year, one has that wish to connect, possibly to avoid the blues but at a given age in one’s life, making friends can indeed be somewhat tiresome and a certain cynicism sets in. I for one was in that league. As you approach the second year and blue periods set in, it remains quite a bit harder to want to connect with people, especially newbies that have arrived. Don’t get me wrong, I made friends but I dare to say this, these were very superficial and to a large extend did not satisfy any blue moment. This is a darker side of the blues but if we are to be honest, these items exist.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Hi Declan, I do think there is an element of this. I know on another post I wrote, about making friends, I touched on the idea of the ‘quick connections’ vs finding ‘true’ friends. It can be tough. Most of the people I have met have had careers before being a stay at home Mum/ Dad, and this transition is usually tough. Regardless of whether you like to be surrounded by people, or are a ‘lone wolf’ I think finding something to do that you love – or you find fulfilling – is pretty critical. Otherwise the days just seem to fall away…and my fear is always that I will come to the end of this and think, ‘Why didn’t I use this time to do X’. I also think that the ‘blues’ can very quickly become depression, and it’s something people need to be aware of…

  10. Linda says: Reply

    What helped me the most to make friends is volunteering. Volunteer at every place possible – close communities are willing to let you in when they see a serving heart.

    1. Willem Kok says: Reply

      That is so true Linda!

    2. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you Linda! I have volunteered in both countries we have lived in – but there were certainly a lot more opportunities to do this in Thailand than here in Germany, especially as language is a bit of a barrier. But I agree that looking outside of your own needs and trying to help others invariably also helps you.

  11. You’re so right about the “just.” I read a study about it a few months back indicating that women use it hugely more often than men (!!!), and started paying attention to how often I was using it. I forced myself to delete the word “just” from everything I wrote – blog posts, emails, whatever. And I try very hard not to say it (although that’s more difficult).

    One of the things I loved about my time in Panama was that we had a better social life there than we’d ever had anywhere else. I really miss it now that we’re “home” again. . .

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Yes! I also think that women often start sentences with ‘I might be wrong, but…’ I saw – and did this – all the time at work and even time I wanted to kick myself – because I KNEW I wasn’t wrong! I have tried to stop doing this, but easier said than done.

      We too had a fantastic social life in Bangkok…not quite the same here in Germany, probably more similar to being home in the UK

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment

  12. There must be something in the expat air as I’ve been experiencing the expat blues too and recently posted about it! Sort of for the first time. And like you, I knew it would come with this particular move but it didn’t make me any more prepared. I tend to follow the fantastic advice you have already set out here but I think what is always unexpected is the perspective, or constant change of perspectives you experience at every turn of expat life. I think you’ve listed some great tips here. I’m going to watch that Ted talk now. One of the main things I’ve been trying to focus on with this expat move is developing that emotional hygiene and really evaluating what I need to do to create that work-life balance. And perhaps more importantly- understand what that looks like.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you! And I’m sorry to hear that the blues have hit for you – but you are not on your own! I think the TED talk is fantastic…what a place the world would be if EVERYONE practised ‘good mental hygiene’. I hope things improve for you soon…remember ‘this too shall pass’ x

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