This blog post was written by Maja Meglic. Maja is an expat from Slovenia, living in Brussels for six years. She has 12 years of experience in telecommunication in three different countries and currently she is in a middle of career transition. She is also certified professional coach, interested into work-life balance, well-being @work, mindfulness… One of her big passions are people and their stories, life of expatriates and their experiences. You can follow her on LinkedIn!
By sheer coincidence, some weeks ago in Brussels, I met a girl. She was much younger than me, perhaps late twenties, early thirties, but as it turned out later in a conversation, we had quite some things in common. She was an expat in Brussels, originally from another European country, moved here for work, working in one of European institutions.
Somehow our conversation came around to my current situation; living a nomadic life, renting out my apartment, crashing on my friend’s sofas when in Brussels in between my travels. She wanted to know more about how I came to this point, how I managed not to work (at least not for now and not in a 9-to-5 job). Once I briefly shared my own story she told me how she can hardly go to work anymore, how she struggles daily to get to the office. Her words about how difficult it is to sit at her desk day after day still resonate. But what left an even bigger mark was the pain I felt within her, the pain that was revealed by tears on her face, flowing down her face while talking to me, a complete stranger. Just like that, out of nowhere. We only talked for a few minutes, as I didn’t have much time that day. We quickly agreed to meet again, once I am back in Brussels.
This short encounter is still very much with me. Such a young woman, feeling so sad. Feeling so alone, so down, struggling…. I only saw a few tears, but felt they were just the tip of the iceberg. Thinking of her I can’t help but wonder how many other expats and foreigners living in Brussels or elsewhere abroad feel this way? It also reminds of me of the sobering fact I came across in one of the articles when doing my research among expats (for more on this read one of the previous blog posts). The article was listing results of research findings on how employees living and working as expatriates in general experience a much higher range of risk for mental health and substances abuse disorders (e.g. alcohol abuse) in comparison to their non-expat counterparts. As per that article (see the source below*) three-times as many expatriates as non-expat workers express feelings of being trapped or depressed. The article further explains that living as an expatriate involves very significant levels of stress due to high demand for adjustment. While these demands can be very exciting, engaging and interesting, they can also lead towards significant mental health or psychosocial problems.
Talking to her I was reminded of my first year in Brussels, when I was going through a tough adjustment period and was very often feeling down. In my case there was a different twist – at the end of the day we are all different – for I loved going to work and it was the work environment where I felt great, feeling like I belonged there, while everything else around me was crashing and causing me to feeling a lot like the girl I met.
This encounter gave me inspiration to examine ideas about how to deal with such and similar struggles, when and if they arise. How did I deal with this challenge? What worked well for me and what I wish I would have done differently?
1. Know it is OK & that you are not the only one
My first and most important advice (you know it already if you read my first blog post) is: Know, that it is OK if you feel down and alone and lonely and lost and without any joy and not motivated and sad and stressed or any other variation of it. Know that you are not the only one feeling like that and that it is a normal process of the so called expat U-curve of the adjustment to the new environment (stay tuned; I will write more about it in the next post). It is easy to think you are the only one when you look around and see others going out and having fun, socializing and smiling and looking happy. But the truth is you don’t really know what exactly is going on deep down within those people, behind the façade of their happy faces. I am not claiming that everyone feels down and struggles. All I am saying is that when we are out there, we try to put a smile on our face, we try to show we are OK, try to be fun and happy, because it is much easier than to admit to the world that it is not easy, that we struggle, that we are driving on a very bumpy road. It is a simple fact: Not many people like to reveal their struggles. But once you dive into someone’s inner world, look “behind the curtains”, you often realize that there is more than just what we see on the surface.
2. Talk about it, write about it, get the feelings OUT
Secondly it is very helpful to talk about your struggles and feeling. You might ask “Whom with, I just arrived in a new city and have absolutely no friends yet?” I know…I hear you. Been there. It took me more than a year to get the first close friends, friends I could trust and could share my most difficult struggles with. But often we have friends back home and with Skype and What’s Up and other similar applications I am sure you can find a way to reach out to some of the closest people in your life, even if they are not in the same city. It is not the same, I know, especially if many of your friends never moved away or moved abroad and there might have a hard time relating to and understanding your situation.
If indeed you find that no one really understands you or you can’t share it with anyone, well, then, write about it. Be it in a journal, a letter to a friend that you will never send…. but write, let it all out. Or participate in blogs and chats on the web dealing with the topic. Important is to surround yourself with people in a similar situation, to be able to share … whatever works best for you, but get the feelings out there, because suppressing them will not really help and do you any good. You might be surprised that once you open to others, many might open up to you as well with similar difficulties.
3. Find groups sharing the same interest
What did wonders for me, loving nature and biking, was finding an international group of mountain bikers. Google directed me to their webpage and despite initially finding it very difficult to get out of my comfort zone and get again on a bike with people – all total strangers to me, all fitter than me, all much better riders than me, and to boot all mainly guys – at the end of each ride on Saturday mornings I felt great. Totally exhausted, but with the passing of time starting to feel much better. I only wish that it did not take me nearly two years before I finally put enough effort into finding this group and joining them.
This is something I would definitely do differently if I ever went through a similar struggle again. I would reach out earlier. There are meetup groups (meetup.com), Facebook groups gathering expats living in Brussels and / or in Belgium (or other bigger cities around the world), there is Internations.org. It might take some effort to find the right group, the right people. It will probably take some patience and persistence, as you might not immediately get to know people you click with instantly, but with some persistence you will get there.
4. Get professional help
Finally, if of all the above doesn’t make a big enough difference for you and you see no end of the vicious cycle, if the burden is too heavy, I would advise you to seek professional help. Don’t wait too long, it is not worth it. I did see a therapist as well. It was tough to take that first step. Truly difficult at the beginning, as it felt like a “life-defeat”, but looking back today, it was a start of an interesting and gorgeous journey, that brought me where I am today. It was one of the best steps I took in my life.
So, where to go? Where to start? There are many options. What I deem very important is to find someone who is also an expat and/or lived through similar experiences of moving abroad. It is also very important to find someone who speaks the same mother language as you or at least a language you are very comfortable with. Even more importantly you need to feel you click with that counselor. My first appointment was a disappointment for many reasons, but I didn’t give up and searched some more. Only the third person I talked to was the right fit. You could start by searching on the web and asking around for recommendations. For those living in Brussels I suggest you try Community Health Center http://www.chsbelgium.org/en/ as one of the options.
I wish you good luck! And remember, no matter how much it hurts now, one day in the future you will look back and realize your struggles opened new horizons and changed your life for the better. I know, it is hard to believe so today, but it is actually very much true.
Interested in more? Read my previous blog post here.
* The Mental Health Status of Expatriate versus U.S. Domestic Workers: A Comparative Study Published in “International Journal of Mental Health”, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 2011-12, 3-18
1. Me on the bike, exploring Belgium - what helped me a lot through the tough times