Counselling expats, I’m privileged to be invited to hear stories from the private lives of those who trade comfort and familiarity for the unknown. While the expat experience is more often portrayed as glamorous and exciting, many find the reality of living in a different culture to be lonely and challenging, particularly in the first year or so. When what promised to be adventure sours, how can you recover a sense of satisfaction or happiness?
Over the past 7 years, I’ve worked with many clients isolated by geographical distance and culture. Some have been living in mining towns in remote parts of Australia, like Kalgoorlie or Roxby Downs. Others have moved to take jobs in global financial hubs like Hong Kong, Shanghai or Taipei or cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha or Riyadh in the oil rich Middle-East countries. Online counselling is different to ‘face-to-face’ sessions but comes with particular benefits.
Sometimes the circumstances under which a person commences expat life may compound, rather than ease, the move to a different country. For example, I have worked with both straight and gay men who have started working in conservative Arab cultures following the the break-down of an intimate relationship or while trying to recover from separation. Both have experienced difficulties in meeting new partners, either because of the prohibitions against intimacy between unmarried couples or the laws against homosexuality (gay men’s depression can be significant in countries where homosexuality is illegal). The triple change of new job, new home and new relationship status presents opportunities but can also contribute to loneliness and isolation when there is no realistic forward plan. Sometimes isolation or boredom manifests in the formation of unwanted habits, like those reported by men concerned about porn addiction.
While the pay and salary packages of professional life in these places can be alluring, when the reality of day to day existence kicks in, it’s usually your mood that suffers. If this is your experience, if you are struggling with expat life somewhere and experiencing depression or anxiety, you are not alone. The stories I’ve heard reveal that encountering cultural differences, language-barriers, adjusting to climate and managing new relationships can all affect how someone copes with living in unfamiliar surroundings. Add to that a few unexpected but normal aspects of life – for example, ageing parents, financial stresses and health difficulties – and being an expat can easily feel overwhelming, even if the salary is relatively good.
Tips and Therapy for Expats
From working as an English speaking therapist and counsellor, here are a few take-away tips for those who have made, or are just about to make the move, as well as for those who are struggling right now.
Get out regularly if you can.
Particularly in the early stages, regular trips to more a liberal or familiar culture can help sustain your motivation and improve your endurance. Clients in China and Saudi Arabia for example have told me that, if it is manageable, taking a flight to another city for the weekend every 3-4 weeks has often helped them left off steam.
Build your network.
It might be hard to make friends where you are but having some social contact might be important, even if you are not such a social person. If you are in a capital city and can get to know someone who works at an embassy, you may be able to get into the best of expat life. And if you don’t think there is anyone to connect with nearby, try making some contacts in a nearby city or on one of those weekend trips away.
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Try to get into the local life.
As strange or awkward as their customs might seem there will be some sense in following the local ways. Whether it is sport or night-life or cultural events, the locals get something out of their customs and you may too, if you give them a chance. Particularly in Saudi Arabia those who have relied on using alcohol to help relax from work will have to find new ways to deal with stress.
Cut yourself some slack.
Be patient. Adjustment can take time. If you need to spend a bit more cash, particularly in the early stages, to make life comfortable where you are living, think of it as an investment that will pay off in the months years to come. Your mental health is important so don’t risk it for the sake of saving money.
Find yourself a confidante.
If you don’t have anyone in your city right now who understands, look abroad. These days the Internet makes it possible for us to stay in touch over video at little or no cost from anywhere in the world. If you don’t have a friend to confide in, you might want to consider an online counsellor or therapist.
Getting an outside perspective can be important if your mood is starting to spiral down. You can access confidential support online regardless of whether you are in Japan or Singapore or Qatar. Contact me today for information on fees and consultation times.