Living overseas can be wonderful, life enhancing, exhilarating.
It can also be stressful, lonely and unsettling.
There is often a gap between the way we envisioned our lives being and the reality of our lives. Expectation vs actuality. And often there is more than just a gap, there is a great big gaping chasm between how we THINK we should feel and how we actually feel.
We have been in France for seven months now. I *should* be feeling settled, in a routine, speaking fluent French and dressing like a Parisienne, right?! Baguette under one arm, Jean Paul Sartre book under the other, smoking a Gauloise and sipping an espresso whilst being very petite and totally chic. Well, hold the espresso (and you can keep the cigarette too) because I am still just about muddling through whilst feeling annoyed with myself that I am not managing things a bit better. I did buy myself a Breton top though…
So, if this sounds even vaguely familiar, what’s the answer?
Well, I’m not exactly sure. But I have a fairly good idea that we need to be setting aside any ridiculous expectations. And that we need to be kind to ourselves, to give ourselves the space to be vulnerable. That going through the tough stuff is what ultimately allows us to grow.
So if you are feeling like this, or going through a rough patch, a lonely phase, a bout of homesickness or just that feeling that your life has somehow done a disappearing trick on you, these tips are for you.
1. Listen to your body
When we first moved to France I felt tired all the time. I kept putting it down to the move. But it continued. I was so tired I would fall asleep in the daytime and still have to go to bed early. My husband and I would get into circular discussions about who was the most tired and the winner was always me – despite the fact I wasn’t going to work or doing travelling and was having a Nana nap most days. I felt terrible, I felt lazy. I beat myself up about it. Eventually I went to the doctors. I had glandular fever.
Lesson learned: listen to your body.
(And be careful who you kiss…)
2. Ugly-crying-at-a-movie Therapy
Sometimes when you feel down you really need a good cry. My tried and tested method is to watch a super sad movie on my own and do some seriously ugly crying. My favourite is Steel Magnolias because it makes me laugh as well as cry and has some of the best female characters in a movie ever.
There is something very cathartic about it and I somehow feel lighter afterwards and calmer – as if all the difficult emotions I have can be set free by the story. Might not be for everyone but it works for me and it’s cheaper than real therapy!
3. Count the things you HAVE done
It’s so easy to get into the mindset of thinking of all the things you haven’t achieved: cleaning the house, learning the language, getting a PhD in astrophysics, winning a Nobel Prize, remembering to pick the kids up on time…
Instead, focus on the things you achieve every day. Don’t dismiss the small stuff. Write it down. You do way more than you think you do.
4. Don’t forget to do things that make you feel like you
Make time to read a book. Call an old friend. Go for a run. Watch reruns of Gossip Girl.
What are the things you love to do? Make time for them. In fact, prioritise them.
5. Get out and about
It is very easy to want to curl up and hide. But staying home and hiding away is not a good idea; the less you go out, the harder it is to go out. Go for a walk, explore the area where you live; admittedly this has been a lot easier in Europe than it was in Asia where it was so hot and humid even going for a short walk was hard.
But the point is getting out there. It’s in discovering places and interacting with people that we start to build our new mental map of wherever it is we are living. There is a sense of pride in finding a new coffee shop just down the road, or a nearby park, or a street vendor that sells the best pineapple. And those simple human interactions with people – a hello to a fellow dog walker, passing the time of day with the cashier at your local shop – can be like little sparks of joy. Not always, granted, but there are grumpy people everywhere…and if someone is grumpy then that’s about them, not about you (I am thinking about the horribly rude driver I encountered this week as I type these words…karma my friend, karma).
When things feel really bad…
Even if you feel like you have a privileged position – living overseas, the ‘expat dream’ blahblahblah – it doesn’t mean that you are immune to loneliness or depression. Depression is something that can hit you for the first time when you are living somewhere new without your support systems around you. If you are feeling really low and like you can’t cope, it’s so important to get help, to speak to someone and tell them how you are feeling. You are not alone in this, and there is help available – the first step, asking for help, is always the hardest.