When living abroad, it’s common to find ourselves complaining about the way things are done in the country we are living in now, versus how it is done in the country we were born in. This type of comparison usually goes like “back home it was better", doesn’t it? I am sure you caught yourself at one point saying that about how people interact, communicate, show affection, are polite/friendly… and the list goes on.
The ways people do things in different cultures can bother at first and that’s natural. "Why?", you ask. Because it’s more challenging for us, it is unknown, we need to make sense of this new way of living and this requires some work. So it is normal that we complain about things. But what's important that we don’t fall into the trap of making this a constant in our lives. We don’t want to become bitter and we also don’t want to become that friend that is constantly talking about how things are wonderful and perfect in their country of origin (let’s be honest, we all had this friend).
When we enter into the "complaining mode” we cannot see that one of the gifts of living abroad is simply to understand, as the time goes by, that the way we live is not the only way. But why is it so painful to learn that?
From my experience, there are three reasons for that:
Living in a different time: In our daily lives, we've got used to living in the past or in the future. "What’s wrong with that?", you might wonder. Well, the problem is that we end up creating excuses to be unhappy in the present moment, as we are not living whatever it is that our mind fantasizes with. We then initiate the complaining mode when we focus on the difficulties in our life instead of facing our reality, no matter how bad or great that is. We compare how our life was in the past, how it “could” be if X circumstances were true, how it is different (and mostly worse) from someone else we might not even know that well (thanks, social media!).
It's not me, it’s them: If truth be told, we love to create excuses to enter into the victim mode. When we are constantly comparing and complaining, we are creating a false sense of comfort by taking any responsibility away from ourselves. Our unhappiness is all due to external factors and it doesn’t depend on us to change, but rather the world, the others, the society.
Distorting the reality: As we enter into the victim mode, we tend to create fake memories. Maybe because we genuinely miss our family and friends, or because we are stressed and tired of having to learn everything anew. In these situations, we fantasize about how things were back home. We create the idea that things were better, people were more friendly, it was easier to make friends, it was easier to find a job, it was easier to meet a boyfriend/girlfriend.
If this sounds familiar to you, I would like to share a few things that have helped me to change these thoughts as an expat.
(I am sure you’ve heard a lot about this, but keep reading)
To me, being mindful has to start with a reason, with a goal. What do you want to achieve, how do you want to feel, what would you like to change… and why? Maybe entering the complaining mode as an expat is stopping you from learning the language as you’d like to, or maybe you cannot make genuine connections, make friends. Or perhaps you cannot find happiness in any job you get in this new country. Once you’ve answered these questions and understood why it is so important to change and to be mindful, then you can start noticing when and how much you complain and compare. By creating awareness of this trick that our mind plays on us (that the grass is always greener at our country of origin), we also understand that we are, in fact, in control. Being mindful comes with a gift of questioning the thoughts on spot, which helps us to understand our triggers and the reason we use comparing and complaining. That could be, for example, because you have been studying the language in a while and you still can’t have a conversation in a bar with a group of friends. So the language triggers you to think that in your country people were nicer. By being mindful, we start focusing on what’s here and now and understand that we don’t need to be the victims, we can be the protagonists of our lives and take active steps towards improving our life, being it by changing thoughts, by changing behaviours or changing actions.
Once you become mindful about the moments that trigger you to compare and complain, how often it comes and what makes you do that, you can act upon it. I know it is not easy to stop complaining, but there are a few things you can do.
Create a new habit of finding the good things about the new culture and society and make a list of those things. You can do it when you commute to work, wait at the bus stop, drink a coffee. Simply create a note on your cellphone and when the thought comes just put all the things that you appreciate about living where you are.
Surround yourself with people with the same mindset. If that’s not possible, try not to engage into complaining when someone else starts it next to you. You don’t need to be rude to the person, but there is always a way to change the subject.
Ask yourself: is it true? In moments when we defend so strongly the fake ideas and memories we talked about before, take a moment to ask yourself “is it true?”. It always helps to put things in perspective.
Picture the other way around: what if you were an expat in your home country? Wouldn’t there be things that'd be difficult to adapt there too?
TALK TO A LOCAL
Take the opportunity to speak with him or her your observations. Maybe you can also ask why things are done in a certain way, sometimes there is a cultural explanation for that. Open your mind to this exchange and to understand about the new culture from a native friend, instead of talking about these subjects to other expats or people of the same nationality as you, as this will definitely make you enter into the complaining mode.
Are there other ways you use to get out of the comparing and complaining cycle? Share it here in the comments, it will certainly help a lot of other expats to find happiness abroad!