Fitting In vs Staying True to Yourself While Abroad
While we do not always talk about the struggles of traveling, teaching, or living abroad, that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize how hard it can be to live in a culture that you didn’t grow up with. Heck, we think it is pretty hard to find yourself if you spend your whole life in the same city, and we can only imagine this becomes more complicated the further you go. That is why this week, when we are focusing on how to create your home away from home by making friends, we also want to talk about the battle between fitting in and staying true to yourself.
Depending on where and how you grew up, you might have never thought of the differences between what you do or want to do and what society expects of you as a battle. However, when you find yourself in a new country, the differences between your expectations and the expectations around you will most likely be conflicting at some points. This is because all places are unique and, no matter how much you prepare for the cultural differences, when we feel challenged to our core is when we react most strongly. And this strong reaction may, at times, feel like a battle.
There are many times you might feel the pull between one expectation and another but here are our five examples plus some tips on what to do if you find yourself in these situations.
1. Making friends
We’ve talked quite a lot about making friends (whether it be with Spaniards/connecting with expats or connecting through things you like such as food and drink) because it is hard to make friends. People like to say that it is hard to make Spanish friends in Spain—or that it is hard to make Finnish friends in Finland—but after living in a variety of countries over the years we say that it is hard to make friends anywhere as an adult. Part of that is because most people, as adults, already have established friend groups. When you go abroad this expands because the shared childhood experiences that you have with people in your community (and make you part of who you are) are replaced with ones you don’t necessarily understand.
Therefore, it is not uncommon that you will find yourself in a place between making friends based on different criteria than you would back home. Sometimes that means becoming friends with other people who need friends, even if you don’t have that much in common. Other times, that means that you change what you are looking within your friend groups to focus on one or two aspects that are important to you. While we believe that it is important to stay true to yourself while making friends, that is not always easy.
That is why our top tip for making friends is compassion towards yourself. If you need to do social things, be open to meeting with people who are looking for friends. However, if you do not find you fit with the groups that are appearing around you, have compassion to allow yourself time and space to find friends that feel good to you. We do not believe that you should follow what anyone else does but, instead, find what feels right to you when it comes to making friends.
2. Doing all the exciting activities
We have talked about FOMO before here, but we want to highlight that when you are abroad, you will probably be pushed out of your comfort zone to do different activities. This, in itself, is not a good thing nor a bad thing. How you deal with it, however, can change your experience abroad. That is, if you miss doing things you want to do because you don’t feel like you ‘can,’ you will probably regret not taking advantage of the opportunities when you had them. On the flip side, if you do everything that everyone expects you to do, even when you don’t want to, you will probably regret not living your best experience.
How should you deal with this polarity? We believe you should look inside of yourself and decide what is most important to you. Maybe you want to see certain places during your travels and will forgo parties to be the first one up and out in the morning. Or, maybe you prefer to go with the flow during your journey and would rather not make plans. Most people are not extremes but find themselves somewhere in the middle.
That is why our top tip for deciding what things to do is to listen to your intuition. Regretting not taking an opportunity can be one of the worst feelings, but not listening to what you really want can be more frustrating. If you can figure out what is important for you to experience, you will be able to have insight into which activities are more important to you. If it is all of them, that is great. But it is also great if there are some you would prefer to pass on.
3. Not being sure how to find time for yourself
Being in a new culture can be shocking to the system in more ways than one. Moving to Spain from most places means you will probably find that people are more social than you are used to. In Spain it is easy to make plans with different people every day of the week and, while this can be beautiful, it can also feel like a bit much. A lot like with FOMO, you might find that you have to pick and choose from the different activities just to make sure you have enough time to spend with yourself.
Now, depending on where you come from, you might need to have more or less time alone. We both need quite a lot of ‘alone’ time but that manifests in different ways. Claudia (when she lived in Spain) bounced around doing social things almost every day of the week, and found her quiet moments in the morning or evening. On the other hand, Dani tends to be more selective about when she goes with others and when she is happy to stay at home alone or spending quiet time with her husband.
We don’t believe that either option is inherently better than the other, but that they are different ways to find time to be alone (if that is what you are looking for). That is why our tip for this scenario is do what makes you feel happy. Seriously, if your favorite “me time” is going to museums, do it! If it is cooking, do that! If it is laying out at the beach, make it happen! We all need to recharge our personal batteries and if you don’t have much time or are not sure what the best way is to do it, do what makes you feel the happiest.
4. Feeling down or sad
We’ve talked about it before and we will talk about it again but there are moments when you are living abroad that are going to be emotionally tough. No matter where you live or how happy you are, this is part of our reality. You will probably also find that this isn’t always the easiest thing to deal with when you are abroad because you are in a new context and social norms may not be what you are used to. In addition, you probably don’t know who you can turn to for support.
Over the years, we have tried to share our own experiences with you on the blog to make sure you know that you are not alone in feeling this way. We have talked about getting sad and that sometimes you might feel alone when you are abroad in a new country (especially if you take the leap and are somewhere without friends or family). We think that it is important to take time for mindful reflection but also understand that it can be really hard to ask for help.
That is why our top tip for this section is patience. What you are feeling is normal. It may depend on the seasons around you or the cycles of life you are passing through. No matter the reason, however, you should have patience with yourself to find the best solution for you. There is not a solution that will fit everyone, so we won’t preach what we think you should do to feel better about different situations. What we can do, as a community, is share our stories and try to support each other.
5. Mental health issues
Finally, we want to briefly cover mental health issues. We recognize that we are not professionals in this area. At the same time, we can see how stigmas around “living your best you” while living abroad can hinder our capacity to face our biggest issues. That is why we want you to know that, if this is your situation, you are not alone.
It is rare to find someone who wants to talk about what they are going through and the more serious the issue is, the harder it seems to be able to talk about it. Here the layer of being in another country, with another culture can make this even harder.
We have shared some stories about different issues that you might be dealing with (check those articles out here and here). We have also shared a list of resources that you can use if you ever find yourself in the situation where you are suffering different mental health issues while abroad. However, our biggest tip here is to reach out and get the help you need.
What have your greatest difficulties been between fitting in to (your expectations of) the expectations around you? What are your top tips for overcoming these difficulties?