Expaters, have you ever felt lonely? Chances are you have.
Loneliness is a big issue and countries around the world are waking up to the fact. Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of Britain’s Royal College of GPs, has warned that loneliness can be as bad for our health as chronic diseases. The UK government recently announced that it is putting £11.5m into combating it.
In a recent poll, 5% of adults in England said they feel lonely often or always, and 16% saying they feel lonely some of the time. What about expats?
The expat rite of passage: loneliness
In the last month alone I’ve received eleven emails from people thanking me for making them feel normal. Expat life is fun, interesting, refreshing, glamourous. But separated from our friends and family it’s often… well… very, very lonely.
I started out to make The Expater as an uplifting source of inspiration and information, but I’ve neglected the most important issue all we Expaters face – loneliness.
Yes, mental health awareness has come a long way, but how many of us would admit to actually feeling *whisper it* lonely?
We embark on our life abroad excited to see a new part of the world, to meet inspirational people, to learn a new language, to find our soulmate. But who among us was prepared for loneliness?
We’ve got a zillion friends on Facebook, we’re bombarded with Whatsapp messages daily, maybe we work in busy offices, and here we are in an exciting new country. Alone.
Oh you just moved to London? Wow, that’s so cool! You must be having an amazing time!
But what if you’re not?
Not just for singles
Sure, moving with a partner makes the move less daunting. But any expat accompanying spouse can vouch for the amount of time spent alone.
Motherhood can be a great conversation starter, but kids can also wreck a social life on a practical level: you can’t socialistic because your kids are sick / sleeping / with better social lives than yours.
The loneliness lottery
Sometimes, it’s the luck of the draw meeting the right group or person you connect with. I’ve been very fortunate to meet some incredible people through book clubs, parenting groups, Facebook, work and now, this blog.
Other times, I’ve worked damn hard. As an expat you start your friendships from scratch and you have to put yourself out there, not wait for others to come to you. Organise your weekend, prepare for small talk or spend it on your own.
Living in France as an aupair in my teens my work hours meant it impossible for me to join courses or clubs. I wasn’t comfortable socialising on my own at night. I eventually plucked up the courage to go to the cinema alone. (Side note – why do we insist on going with others to a dark space to sit in silence?)
In Angola, horrendous traffic and security issues meant it was often too complicated to socialise. I’d meet some incredible people, but then couldn’t get a driver sorted to see them again.
Pregnant in Switzerland I was too sick to venture out of my house. Who’d want to make friends with the vomiting girl?
Expat life makes us stronger
Loneliness sucks. It’s my primary motivation for founding The International Women’s Club, a new initiative linking women around the world with other expats, consultants, groups, experts, networks and like minded women.
But loneliness does have a benefit. It make us stronger.
I now have no qualms about dining on my own. I keep busy on my own. I’ve done so many years of small talk that I’m rarely intimidated to strike up a conversation with a stranger. I’m much more proactive making friends, finding work and doing cool stuff.
Tackling the loneliness epidemic
Mims Davies, UK minister for loneliness, you don’t need to pay me £11.5 million, I’ll give you a few tips for free. The key to combating loneliness?
Firstly, socialise in a proactive and innovative way. Don’t have a hobby? Get one! Don’t speak the language? Learn it or link up with other English speaking expats via social media.
Secondly, be patient. Stick at it. It takes time and a lot of awkward small talk to find your friend tribe.
And finally, and most importantly, be proud. There’s no shame in loneliness; there’s no shame in having the guts to start a new life abroad. Give yourself a pat on the back: a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do what you’ve done. It’s OK and it’s normal to feel lonely. We’ve all been there.
Expaters, you may feel lonely, but you’re definitely not alone.