Connection, Loneliness and Expat Life

November 29, 2023 | Blog, Wellbeing

Originally from the UK and based in Germany for nearly 25 years, Lyra Turnbull is perfectly placed to understand the challenges that expat families face living abroad.  Here, the certified coach, licenced counsellor and psychologist shares her advice with MumAbroad on navigating what can be a lonely experience for those who move to a new country. 


Many people think of expats as the jet set. The elite few, enjoy the freedom to travel, experience new places and consume the world at will. They focus on the exotic, the exciting and the enjoyable. What they don’t see, is how challenging it can be to live far from home and the culture we grew up in, while raising a family, maintaining a marriage and friendships, navigating a career or trying to organise eldercare from the other side of the globe. 

Being an expat comes with emotional labour. A lot of it.

When COVID-19 and the lockdowns hit, the isolation of living far away from home and family was particularly challenging. The emotional effects of this experience are still reverberating through the world, one major challenge being how to reconnect with people around us. Many of us have gotten stuck in our habit of communicating online rather than meeting in person. We have stopped moving our bodies, learning and doing new things and participating in our local communities. One result has been an increase in the number of people who say they are lonely. 

Many expats I talk with mention this sense of loneliness. Of course, we might be feeling the same if we’d stayed “back home”, but as expats who sometimes don’t know how to navigate the local environment, hopelessness can easily creep into our lives and settle in like an unwelcome houseguest. 

If you have noticed yourself feeling this way, it’s important to try to avoid falling into the trap of viewing the situation as something permanent; something that’s your own fault; or something that affects everything in your life. Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t.

It may feel difficult, but try to see the situation as temporary; as something that only affects part of your life; and as something that is not your fault. This mindset will help you remain open and curious about where you are and the people around you. 

 

It can be lonely as an expat

 

Why is that so important? 

Well, in an increasingly atomized world, we tend to forget that, biologically speaking, we are social animals. To thrive physically and psychologically, we need to connect with other people – it’s a biological imperative. Yet more and more of us are saying we don’t know how.

As with many things, it starts with us. There is no magic formula, but following the so-called PERMA approach can give us many of the things we need in order to connect with other people in a positive and rewarding way, and at the same time improve our quality of life. The PERMA acronym stands for: 

  • P – positive emotions
  • E – engagement with positive experiences
  • R – positive communication style in relationships
  • M – meaningful lifestyle choices
  • A – setting and achieving realistic personal goals

P – When we are pessimistic we tend to become more judgmental and closed off, so by actively cultivating a non-pessimistic attitude it becomes easier to connect with others. This doesn’t mean conjuring up rose-tinted glasses optimism, but it does mean keeping our inner heckler on a short leash.  

E – Choosing to engage in positive experiences means we have things to share with others, whether by doing them together or because have something positive to talk about when we meet. This enthusiasm can be so infectious that we end up motivating each other to seek out more enjoyable moments on a regular basis.

R – Maintaining a positive communication style is one of the most effective ways of bonding with others. This means learning to listen actively, being curious and respectful, and prioritizing connection over the need to be right.

M – Living life in a way that feels meaningful to us is important on many levels. We come alive when we are able to live this way which in turn tends to attract others to engage with us. 

A – A frequent challenge for expat life is the drive for achievement. We often have ideas and pictures in our minds of how things will be when we get where we are going. The reality of how things actually turn out can be wonderful and can fill us with joy, but at times it can also be sobering and disappointing. Setting realistic goals and expectations for ourselves and our families can help everyone maintain a positive and optimistic outlook, which again helps us stay connected more strongly.

If you are reading this, then you already know how expat life can be a fantastic opportunity and simultaneously a huge challenge. It’s helpful when we acknowledge this ambivalence. It’s also useful to recognize that family and friends often can’t understand the things we experience while we are away. 

Sometimes, when we do reach out and try to connect, they can offer up advice that doesn’t feel appropriate to our new environment and leaves us feeling frustrated and unseen; they can make demands we’re unable to fulfil from where we now live; and they can even make us feel guilty for leaving and not coming back more often. Yet, when we do go back, we often feel a disconnect. We often hope, or perhaps expect, to find things the way they were before we left. But then we notice how, in our absence, things have changed; how we have changed; and this can leave us feeling adrift in the world.

That’s why, as expats, we need to work on connecting with others

 

Relying on Expat circles

 

So reach out – to the local community; the expats groups in your region; to sports clubs and walking groups; to baking clubs, choirs and amateur dramatics associations; to faith groups – if you belong to one – or to like-minded people with a shared common cause. And when you do, remember, no matter how large our superficial differences, we have more in common than we sometimes believe. Everyone needs connection – it is what makes us human.


If you find yourself struggling with low mood, loneliness or other mental health-related issues, reach out for support via Email: info@lyra-turnbull.de Tel: +49 160 98343472 or visit the website at www.lyraturnbull.com

Read more articles about health and wellbeing as an expat on the MumAbroad blog


Watch an interview with Lyra Turnbull

 

Online therapy in Germany – Coach & Counselor Lyra Turnbull

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