Many expats experience a period of loneliness and isolation when they settle in a new country. In this article, Lysanne Sizoo, our mental health expert, looks at three underlying reasons for loneliness and the ways in which we can break out of the isolation.
In this article, I will be describing three kinds of loneliness that incomers to a new country might suffer from. One is more superficial and of a passing nature; the second is linked to the effort of resolving feelings of being disconnected and alien; the third is of a deeper, more psychologically wounding nature. Wherever your particular loneliness fits in right now, it is important to accept that patience and acceptance of the situation ‘as it is now’ is always a great starting point for moving ahead.
No one likes to admit that they are lonely and yet, for most internationals, dealing with the loss of friends and family is always going to be part of the process of adjustment. When you come here, either alone or as an international couple, your contact with the people of Luxembourg usually occurs through meeting the neighbours or work colleagues. Many incomers experience that national social networks are tight and sometimes a little hard to penetrate and so seeking out international friends can be, especially in the short term, a better option. However, sometimes it also means we make friends with people who we would normally not have a click with back home. That can be an asset, and open us up to new experiences, but it can also lead to disappointment. What attracts us in friendships is often what we have in common, and so the joint experience of being an alien is a hugely connecting factor. But once the relationship deepens you may find that the relationship is not running along in the way you expected, and yet, since we’re all so needy for social contact when we’re abroad, we may not set the kind of boundaries we would have set at home. So loneliness can be both a natural occurring phenomenon, as well as the temporary bi-product of a healthy ability to maintain standards. Or, as in the third example, it comes from something that happened to you long before you ever swapped countries, and thus a dilemma you might want to explore closer.
The lonely alien
The first aspect of loneliness that I want to take up is related to the feeling that you don’t (yet) belong. Back home in your country of origin or in the country in which you last lived, you would have created a place for yourself and felt affirmed by the relationships that you had there. There’s nothing like having ‘your’ café, ‘your’ bakery and especially, ‘your’ people to feel that a place is home. So this type of loneliness, which is part and parcel of the adjustment process, is more about being temporarily disconnected. This is a phase that will pass as you gradually make new friends and find a way of weaving your own storyline into that of your new environment. It doesn’t happen overnight, but remember that eventually it will. I remember how I felt when I got my first wave of recognition as I drove to the station in my new home; it meant so much as it told me I’d ‘landed’!
‘Them’ and ‘Us’ loneliness
Another form of loneliness or isolation comes from the realisation that there are some unbridgeable gaps between your host culture and your own. I am Dutch and we love a good discussion; setting the world to rights in loud opinionated voices and enjoying the debate, win or lose. Yet I have realised that this kind of dinner table behaviour is really not something that ‘fits’ in all cultures. And that’s fine, we’re not here to change what has worked fine for the locals over many hundreds of years. It’s not so much a judgement on the native culture, but more of a growing realisation that their ‘normal’ and our ‘normal’ is different.
We have a choice in finding the social structures and connections where we can fit in. For some that may be everything their new country has to offer, for others it may be the international community; it can even be both!
It is seeing the differences clearly that helps us to stop trying so hard to be something we’re not and accepting the difference is what we need to confidently build up our desperately-needed social networks. Emmy van Deurzen is the author of Paradox & Passion in Psychotherapy. She was born in Holland, then worked in France, and is now one of the UK’s leading Existential Psychotherapists. She writes; “It is easy to underestimate the importance of the societal structures that regulate belonging. (…) as a foreigner you are by definition the intruder, who is only accepted as a temporary guest.” We can feel we need to earn our right to be more than a guest here and in that process, we sometimes lose a little of ourselves, and become a little disconnected from who we are.
I would like to suggest that this kind of loneliness is a second stage of the on-going process of adaptation and that, hard though it may be, it can spur us on to realise we have a choice in finding the social structures and connections where we can fit in. For some that may be everything their new country has to offer, for others it may be the international community; it can even be both! As van Deurzen suggests “For the melting pot that we now live in will continue to shake our populations and cultures together, and will require of us a new flexibility and an ability to let go of previous securities in belonging to a country or culture.”
Being alone by ‘choice’
The third form of loneliness is one that you may have already experienced earlier in life, but has been experienced more intensely upon your move to another country. Some people get a rough start in life and might ‘choose’ to stay well clear of emotionally intimate relationships. If your primary care givers have been unable to meet you with empathy and compassion, then your trust in other people can be severely dented. After all, if you can’t trust your parents, who can you trust? Negative comments or reactions suddenly take on the energy of hurt and pain from the past. You may have connected with someone abroad who then seemed to ‘reject’ you because their idea of friendship and yours did not match. As I said earlier, we feel naturally close to people going through the same process as we are, but that doesn’t always mean a friendship can ensue.
You might have coped by building up a strong ‘survivor’ personality; telling yourself you don’t ‘need’ other people, while just under the surface is a longing to connect. To the outside world it may look as if you’re isolating yourself on purpose when you refuse to join clubs or invite colleagues round for a coffee; they might feel that you are doing nothing to break out of this isolation. Gradually the fear to be hurt (again) is greater than the fear of abandonment and loneliness. Sadly, this is an increasing phenomenon in modern society; people seldom take the time to really connect with someone who evokes ambiguity around our offers of friendship.
If you recognise yourself in this third example, then it will help to realise that; from the perspective of your defences it makes absolute sense. What will help is to work actively with old fears and learn to take care of your deeper frightened self. In the words of one of my clients, “when you are really lonely and isolated it is so reassuring, liberating and comforting to be able to talk about it without feeling like a total loser and without being patronized, ridiculed or laughed at”. Talking with someone who is a professional listener could be a first step to slowly daring to trust that you might be safe and you might find people to rely on.
So enjoy your period of adjustment, and know that most feelings of loneliness are of a passing nature. Remember that you are allowed to be different, and if your loneliness is of a deeper more lasting nature, that there are people who will understand and support you through the process of learning to trust again.
Books about loneliness:
In a cross cultural context: Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting in Around the World
Lonely: A Memoir – Emily White (Author)
Copyright 2014: Lysanne Sizoo
Lysanne teaches the ‘Global identities’ workshop both in Stockholm and on her houseboat close to Amsterdam.
These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and
clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic
meetings are Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would
never be shared in a public forum.
Photo: Ankit Bhageria/flickr (file)