Let’s be honest, living abroad is not always going to be sunshine and roses. There are moments, days, and sometimes even months that will frustrate, upset, and challenge you. There will be plenty of obstacles and difficulties that pop up and often the everyday stuff will feel amplified by the fact that you’re living abroad—perhaps you’re trying hard to express yourself but you keep getting interrupted with corrections, perhaps the smallest cultural things catch you off-guard, perhaps living in a foreign language is tiring but it seems no one is willing to speak English with you, perhaps people keep cancelling your plans; the list is almost endless!
When you find yourself in a different country and culture, removed from your normalcy and your support system, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the small stuff and quickly spiral into negativity. However, with one important tool you can turn most every ‘negative’ into a ‘positive’ and that tool won’t cost you a thing—it’s your own perspective!
Now, I know we’ve all heard plenty about the importance of a positive outlook and, while I fully believe in the power of positivity, I want to present a somewhat different angle. The power of perspective does not have to lie in constantly seeking out the view from behind ‘rose-colored glasses.’ Perspective, by definition, is “a particular attitude towards or way of regarding something;” thus it’s merely the vantage point or lens through which you choose to view a situation. In effect, we can constantly change what we experience by changing how we look at it.
Can’t imagine what I mean? Take for example that meme in which one man is standing on the left pointing at a number on the ground saying it’s a ‘6.’ The other man, who’s standing to the right of the number, points and says it’s a ‘9.’ Both are looking at the exact same reality, they just interpret it differently because of where they’re standing. I find that life presents us with millions of similar opportunities each day and we can choose which side to stand on.
One experience that has been especially frustrating for me over the years of teaching private lessons in Spain is the frequency with which students will cancel lessons, often that very same day. As I have set aside my time with the intention of being paid for giving a lesson to them, I always considered this to be a negative situation. As I interpreted it as such, a bad mood would generally follow, which often poured over into other aspects of my day. More recently, however, I’ve chosen to see these cancellations as gifts—as if the universe were essentially revealing a new hour I wouldn’t have otherwise had in which I can do something else I’ve really want to do.
Often times, I use it as an opportunity to go for a long walk, to meet up with a friend, or get in some journaling. It’s easy to justify just about anything in this situation as I don’t have the typical guilt I place on myself to ‘be productive’ as it’s not an hour I ‘should’ have had. Thanks to a shift in perspective, I’ve turned a bad mood-trigger into something that makes me smile and feel like I’ve been ‘treated’ to extra time.
I know what you’re probably thinking, though: “easier said than done!” I’m not going to lie to you, it’s taken me a LONG time of thinking that I should change my perspective and see the good in these moments before I actually got to seeing it. The perspective shift is not something that happens overnight, at least not if you want it to have lasting effects. While everyone’s process is different, these are a few of the questions I’ve asked myself when I’ve wanted to shift perspectives and perhaps they’ll work for you too:
1.) Why do I feel like this is a negative thing? I’ve found that asking this seemingly-obvious question has often made me feel that I can only come up with ridiculous reasons. Asking yourself to actually define your reasoning can be eye-opened and let you release those feelings as you realize they often have nothing to do with you or the situation specifically. I.e. Why am I so obsessed with productivity? I couldn’t really tell you…it seems to be much more my projection of what I think society expects than my actual need or desire, which releases me from identifying so strongly with it.
2.) How would I feel if I were on the other end of this exchange? Obviously, this one only works when another person is involved, but taking the time to see the situation from someone else’s place is an easy way to shift your perspective. For example, I’ve been frustrated in the past when students or friends cancel on me last minute but when I look at it from their side I’m often able to step back and see it more clearly from my own side. This allow me to appreciate the change rather than begrudge it. Would I really prefer to have class at the risk I’ll catch my student’s cold? Would I really prefer my friend ‘maintain their promise to me’ at the expense that they won’t be emotionally present?
3.) How do I WANT to feel about this? Like I said, what we want doesn’t instantly become a reality but taking the time to recognize the perspective we would like to have is an important step in the right direction. As I’ve shown above, my initial reaction is often very…well, reactive (i.e. “This makes me feel bad / disrespected / undervalued, etc”). However, there are many ways to look at every reality and by choosing the way that you want to look at it you can, in effect, choose your reality.
If you’ve never given much thought to the power of perspective this cavalier claim that you can “choose your reality” may sound naive or unrealistic but my application of choosing my perspective has shown me time and time again that it’s true. It’s been scientifically proven that our eyes and minds cannot actually take in and process the majority of what is really happening in front of us. Instead, what we see and feel is largely affected by what we expect to see and feel as our mind and eyes are subconsciously filtering out the stimuli that do not match those expectations.
When I choose to see the good in people, in ‘bad situations,’ in a new culture, etc I choose to see it in a positive way and that perspective will be reflected back to me. There are always multiple facets to every experience and so there also multiple ways to experience it. I may not be able to change the fact that a student is going to cancel my lesson but I can choose how I interpret and experience that situation and therefore the attitude I carry over into the rest of my day.
It’s certainly a practice and I personally haven’t mastered ‘filtering’ my experiences exactly as I want to from the get-go. However, with mindfulness and intention I’m able to recognize when I’m viewing something from a perspective that is not ultimately serving me and change gears. It’s a beautiful gift and useful tool that we all have and the better I get at wielding it, the more I’m enjoying my own reality. I hope you can, too!