How to deal with isolation as an expat
When you have to start your life from scratch in a foreign country where you potentially know no-one apart from your partner, where you are not familiar with the customs, where you don’t really know the location or even the neighbourhood, there is a very real danger that you will end up feeling extremely isolated.
This is especially true for accompanying partners. Because whilst your partner is out at work all day and has focus and motivation from the outset in your new life abroad, you’re the one at home dealing with the isolation and the newness of it all by yourself. And you know what? This can be scary, upsetting and of course, very lonely.
When you live somewhere familiar, ie home, there’s a lot you take for granted. Without even being aware of who they are or what role they play in your life the truth is there are so many familiar faces around you: whether it’s the person in the local petrol station or the shop attendants in the supermarket or the guy that walks his dog down your road – you may not know them but they’re familiar faces in a familiar place.
You’ve got experts in your life like your doctor, your personal trainer or your children’s teachers. If you’re at work you’ve got your colleagues. You’ve got your friends and your family but now, all in one magnificent swoop, they’ve all gone.
It might be in your previous life you treasured your alone time, but now, in your new life you may have far too much time alone. You might feel isolated and a long way away from people. This can be especially poignant if there’s a big time difference between you and home, or if you are somewhere where the culture is vastly different with a different language.
Being the accompanying partner it’s important you learn to deal with isolation. It’s just something you have to be able to cope with for a while. Accept it’s going to be there for a stage, don’t let it get you down and find ways to beat it!
So without further ado, here are some of my top isolation busting tips:
Go out and use the local stores, the local post office, the local dry cleaners, hair-dressers, beauty salons etc. You may decide that they’re not actually the best ones for you in the long-term, but make an effort to visit them regularly in the beginning of your new life abroad and notice how these people become familiar faces; they’ll recognise you, and you’ll recognise them pretty quickly.
Likewise, join a local gym or a nearby yoga class. Again, it may not be the place you’ll stay but it will be somewhere other than the house that is familiar and the faces will become familiar too. By building up a familiar network of local faces, even in your shops, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll start to feel ‘at home’ in your new location.
Find your feet
Get to know your way around your new town or city. Knowing your way around is one of the fastest and easiest ways to create a sense of familiarity or belonging. When you know your way around then life starts to feel more normal. You don’t get that bewildered, confused feeling each time you step out the door. You may still feel isolated but it will help take away that lost feeling.
You won’t necessarily be able to do things exactly the way you did them back home and the trick is not to let this defeat you. For example, you may want to hire a cleaner. At home you would probably ask around the people you know to get a personal recommendation because you don’t really want a complete stranger in your house. But abroad, not knowing anyone to ask (another issue of isolation), you need to think outside of the box and come up with a different solution. For example, if you live in an apartment complex, put a little notice up by the mailboxes asking for recommendations. Or get ask work colleagues for recommendations. It may not be exactly what you would have done at home, but it’s just a different version of it.
Think laterally. When faced with a challenge where you don’t have people to ask for advice, ask yourself how you would do it at home. If you think, I can’t quite do that, what can you do that will work in the same way and get the same results?
Take the initiative
Moving overseas forces you to take the initiative to get the most out of your new life. If you sit inside your new home on your own, don’t reach out and don’t make things happen then I’m afraid isolation will stick around.
Accept that isolation might be a temporary phase but stay determined to beat it. Make an effort to explore your neighbourhood, know your town and join some groups. You don’t have to make huge commitments, just take baby steps, and very quickly the place will feel more familiar and those feelings of isolation will fade.
Expatability Chat Podcast
If you’d prefer to listen to me talk about this topic, here is my podcast episode about Expat Isolation. Published in the middle of the COVID pandemic, July 2020, I naturally address that crisis, while also recognising the similarities expat life can bring about with the ‘isolation’ aspect.