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How to survive moments of self doubt when moving abroad

November 29, 2023 5 Comments

One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to relocate abroad to Serbia. When I think about how difficult life in the Gulf had become for me, I know that I made the right decision to get out of an environment that stifled me both professionally and personally. Moving abroad to Serbia has been gratifying in a lot of ways, but I’ll be the first to say it hasn’t been simple. Anyone who claims to always live an exciting and glamorous life in a new place is either delusional or hasn’t spent enough time abroad. Living overseas presents its own unique set of difficulties depending on where you move and your unique circumstances. Don’t be fooled by social media- after all, nobody’s life is constantly thrilling.

Simple tasks have turned into missions. What used to be a simple drive to the doctor is now a challenging procedure when it comes to receiving healthcare. I need to know what kind of doctor to trust, how to get there, and how this public transport system operates. What is the price of it? Who or where do I pay for tickets? The struggle is real.

The hardest part has been the self doubt and the knock my confidence has taken since I moved to Serbia. It’s common to have doubts about your intentions and self before relocating to a new country, and perhaps even after you do, given the drastic nature of this life transition. Here are 4 strategies I keep in mind when I start to have second thoughts about moving abroad:

Accept that you will doubt yourself

Doubts are to be expected while preparing to undertake a significant life transition like relocating abroad. It’s normal to experience that nagging sense inside of us that causes uncertainty to creep in since we want to minimise future suffering. Big changes invariably bring with them a host of problems, and our uncertainties would have us play it safe and stick to what is known and comfortable. Our mind uses doubt as a defence mechanism to keep us safe from the terrifying unknown.

One thing that really helps me is to accept that I will feel this way and allow myself to feel the full spectrum of emotions- from doubt to confusion to anxiety.

Experience has taught me that if I sweep these feelings under the carpet and ignore them, I am sure to have a meltdown at the most inopportune moment.

It doesn’t guarantee that your days will be filled with joy just because you’re pursuing your goals of living overseas and/or seeing the world. You will have to deal with difficult emotions like fear, worry, loneliness, and homesickness when travelling overseas. Not to mention that no matter where you live in the world, life is full of sad times. It’s crucial to remember the contradictory fact that while our emotions might become stronger when we deny and suppress them, they can also become more transient when we acknowledge and deal with them. 

I wish more people would talk about this on social media because I get a lot of DM’s from people experiencing this array of confusing feelings not knowing if they’re ‘normal’ simply because everyone else who has moved seems to be thriving.  Feeling doubt is NORMAL!

Talk to other expats about moving abroad

While most expat blogs will advise making friends with locals- and while I do think this is important- it might not provide you with the support you need initially. In the first few months of me arriving in Serbia, I was fortunate to be able to have friends who were also moving abroad (to Namibia, to the Bahamas and to Malaysia) and so we shared our experiences with each other. In spite of our different stories, we shared the commonalities of our emotions.

It may surprise you to learn that any emotional distress you experience following a traumatic event is a trauma. (Refer to the Oxford Dictionary definition). You don’t have to endure a terrible disaster or be abducted by terrorists. For most of us, moving overseas (ideally) does not have to mean risking our lives. It’s still a stressful situation, though.

According to research, the “ability to derive comfort from another human being” is the “single most important factor in recovering from a trauma” without acquiring new mental health issues. This holds true irrespective of the length and severity of the trauma as well as your pre-existing psychological condition (Johnson, 2003).

You realise you are not alone in your struggle when you talk to other expatriates about your experience. You begin to see that you’re not doing it wrong”. And this is the first point for understanding yourself and your new experience.

There’s no such thing as “should” in expat life

By now, you’re supposed to have this many friends. At this point, the language should be coming naturally to you. You ought to have received a promotion by now.  You shouldn’t give this or that thing too much thought. You ought to be resilient! The list is endless of things we should or shouldn’t be doing in our minds. 

Comparing oneself to other people is a very human tendency. It was around long before social media. Social media, with its endless highlights, has only made this human inclination worse.

The truth is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to the experience of relocation.

It looks vastly different for everyone. Everything happens in its own time or it might never happen at all… Don’t be fooled into thinking that people who move abroad are all the same and should therefore all have the same kind of experiences.

Negative and positive go hand in hand no matter where you live

Nowhere is perfect. The biggest fallacy I see people perpetuating is thinking that once they move to a certain destination, everything will go smoothly and work well. Each place has certain aspects about it that are probably amazing but they also have room for improvement. Be mentally prepared for things to go wrong, be delayed or just not function the way you need them to!

There are definitely moments where I miss Qatar- the sunshine, the convenience of driving, the endless options for eating out- but I also have to remember that I am looking back with rose tinted glasses and nostalgia. I try to remember the reasons I left and what I appreciate where I am now. Feeling homesick is like a barrier that becomes easier to overcome with time. But when you’re going through it, you’re more inclined to have a pessimistic perspective on things. It can be really reassuring to know that this is perfectly normal and temporary. 

*Note: Those of us who have spent a significant amount of time travelling or living internationally are aware of the fact that, after a while, “home” becomes more of a sentimental term for the places and people we have experienced. This is also unavoidable, and in my opinion, the best way to handle it is to find people who have had similar emotions. 

Reminding myself of my purpose 

On difficult days- or in my case, very cold ones!- I have to remind myself of my purpose in a place. Meaning I need to reflect on the question of, “Why did I move here?” “A stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” is how Stanford psychologist William Damon and colleagues define purpose. Put differently, having a purpose entails accomplishing something that has deeper significance and extends beyond ourselves. 

Reminding myself of my purpose helps me to find the peace to be in a space after moving abroad. Set goals that you are working towards rather than avoiding challenges. This aids in decision-making, problem-solving, and obstacle avoidance. As you progress through various life phases and over time, your purpose as an expat may also change. When you’re younger, seeing the world and making money might be your main goals. Your goals may change as you get older to focus more intently on developing your job and, if you have a family, to ensure their financial security both now and down the road.

Relocating to a foreign land can be frightening. When you relocate as an expat, a number of issues and difficulties are likely to arise. Expatriates must pick up on cultural quirks, conventions, etiquette, and expectations. These things can be hard to understand as an outsider in a strange land. Adjusting to your new job may take some time, depending on your personality and circumstances. Don’t worry, feeling overwhelmed is natural when there are so many things happening at once. And never forget that you’re not the only one going through this- even seasoned expats like myself still struggle!

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If you liked this post, you may also be interested in my earlier posts:

What should you do if someone you know is moving abroad?

10 lesson about expat life: a 10 year review

What I wish I knew before I started teaching abroad?

Surviving the first few months of teaching internationally

Stay strong if you’re thinking about moving abroad or if you’ve already moved but are having second thoughts. I swear, things will get better! Have you experienced anything similar when relocating abroad? What supports you when feeling uncertain of life? Let me know in the comments below!

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5 Comments

  • Pree November 30, 2023 at 4:59 am

    Thank you for taking the time to write a post on the reality behind the pretty photos and videos we see way too often on social media when it comes to travel!

    The “tip” about only trying to make friends with the locals wad something I also heard when I was abroad and it always bothered me. Sometimes the culture of the place you are in isn’t so friendly to foreigners. All of my close friends from Italy were expats.

    • expatpanda November 30, 2023 at 10:28 am

      Thanks for reading. It’s hard for local people to understand the very unique struggles of being an expat in a place. Even I would struggle to understand a non south African’s experience in my home country. Sometimes, locals do not want to be friends- this was my experience in the Gulf where locals keep you at arm’s distance despite being hospitable but it never translates into a meaningful friendship.

  • Rochelle | Adventuresfromelle December 1, 2023 at 3:40 am

    I always appreciate your posts– they’re a breath of fresh air and offer a balanced way of looking at travel and expat life. If I ever become an expat someday, at least I’ll know that the negative feelings of homesickness & loneliness are part of the package, and I’ll know to just ride each wave as it comes 🙂

  • 100 Country Trek December 1, 2023 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks for these amazing images . Hope all well with your homesickness. We visited there in South Africa.
    I follow your blog but can you follow mine Anita

  • Barbara Skinner December 10, 2023 at 11:23 am

    I love this! Really well said! 😊

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