Lost in between worlds - or how can I be myself abroad?

Updated: Jan 4, 2020

So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here. Never enough for both. Have you ever felt like this? I believe that this phrase from the brilliant Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo makes a lot of sense for many of you who have made the decision to live abroad. Being away from home is living in a rollercoaster of feelings, in which in one moment you feel like there is nothing like your country of origin, where things were done in the "right" way and people were "better", and in the other moment you thank the universe for not living there anymore and not having to deal with the way people see and live life. How to deal with this?

Getting some distance from our culture helps us to get to know ourselves better, understand what we like and what we don’t like. It is healthy to have our cultural identity, as our country of origin will always be part of us, but living in a different culture is also a great opportunity to strength our individual identity and separate what is serving us or not. And with that, embracing the new in other culture. It is not about accepting everything from this new country, integrating fully without questioning the new habits and ways of living, but rather reflecting if these different ways of seeing things and living life resonates with YOU.

And who are you in this foreign land? Dealing with changes in our identity is a common struggle for us who live abroad. This is because we have learned to identify ourselves based on our nationality, the place we were born in, our family, our job, the language we speak. But when we migrate and these things are so distant from us, we learn that the concept of nationality is not enough to define who we are. Suddenly we start questioning the ways we see and do things, as we discover that maybe that’s not really our own way of thinking and acting, but rather how our parents and other people around us think and do things. We have simply learned it and got used, and this process of learning something new, even if it serves us better, is not easy. It involves a lot of humility to also admit that there are ways of living that we were not aware of before and that, maybe, these are a better fit for us. It is a process of deconstructing things that we had considered our truth and this process can cause some pain.

In the journey of self-discovery, holding on to parts of who we were before only limits who we can become. Even thought this can happen at any time of our lives, close or far away from home, living abroad exposes us much more to the opportunity to change and reinvent ourselves.

To let go of these parts of ourselves that don’t serve us anymore, more than looking with kindness to the new culture we chose to live in, it is crucial to accept that things in this new country are not as it was back home. By accepting it, we can also see with more clarity what is actually that we don’t like in here and why. Is it because it is too foreign for us, it forces us to get out of our comfort zone and we resist to even see the positive sides of it? Or is it because it goes agains our values? The two cases might be true, and knowing this difference for ourselves is the key to understand more of who we are and how we like (or would like) to be.

A very powerful tool for that is to make a "Values Checklist":

  1. List at least 20 values you hold deeply

  2. Take a moment to look at each one of them, question why this is important to you

  3. Ask yourself where does that come from (parents, family, partner, culture, social constructions, etc).

Another interesting exercise is to check in with yourself on a daily basis, following some of the New to Native methodology.

Just to be honest, it is not going to be easy, it is not going to be comfortable, but taking some time at the end of each day to check in with yourself about how you feel, the way that you have thought and behaved during the day, the conversations that you had, the actions you took will help you a lot.

  • Ask yourself if it feels authentic, if you are comfortable with the things you’ve said and done or if certain thoughts and behaviors do not feel quite alright for this new you

  • Make a commitment to change the things you don’t feel good about in the next day, even if it’s a tiny step (maybe it’s even better if it’s small, as you will feel more at ease to accomplish it and more motivated once you manage it).

Completely related to the feeling of being or not being enough, is the concept of perfectionism. Think with me here: we want to feel accepted for who we are but to be accepted, to feel good enough, we think that we need to be perfect, to match the expectations of the people around us. I see this in myself and I am sure that in some level you might have felt the same too, living abroad or not. 

When putting it in the context of an expat, we end up being too hard on ourselves in the hopes of finally being accepted, feeling like we belong to this new group, to this new culture. We want to speak the new language fluently, to be okay with everything that this new way of living includes, even if we don’t agree with parts of it. Beware of the dangerous of this.

Not only may this cause us to loose ourselves in between worlds, making us confused about who we are and what we can offer to the world, but also to let go of values that are important for us. When we live abroad, we also run the risk of ending up in the opposite trap of questioning and comparing everything with our hometown, which is accepting things you would normally not accept back home. How many of you, for example, have started hanging out with people you would never be friends with back home? Or maybe didn't ask someone to repeat what they have said in this new language because that would seem like you don’t speak fluently, when back home we also sometimes do not understand and feel totally fine in asking “could you repeat, please?”. Having a list of our values and getting to know who we are can help us to stand up for ourselves more.

Living abroad bring us questions that are normally hidden when we are in our comfort zone, living with our family, in our country, near our friends, speaking our language. Living abroad exposes how little we actually know about ourselves and force us to look deeper within to finally understand the things that we like, that we don’t like, and what is it that we are carrying with us that not only doesn’t serve us anymore, but also do not reflect who we are.

Finally, in this new year that soon starts, I would like to invite you to an inner journey:

  • Take the time to reflect upon the year that has passed and how you've transformed. And it doesn't need to be only before midnight of December 31st.

  • Think about what you experienced and felt good and the things that did not feel good. But not with heaviness or guilt, but with the understanding that you’ve learned and grew. With every moment, with every experience, we understand more about ourselves, about who we are, who we want to be and what is standing in between.

  • Reflect upon the things you’d like to see more in the new year. Maybe small actions or thoughts you want to have or new habits that work FOR YOU. It doesn’t need to be a 360 degrees transformation by establishing 10 new habits from one day to the other. In fact, let me tell you a secret: those don’t really stick.

And if you need help with that, soon you can find my eBook “A Brand New Year: living my true self” in the website!

But if are not good at doing these things alone and would like to have a more personal New Year planning, stay tuned to my next newsletters (or subscribe here if you haven’t yet!). I will be sharing a very special and transformative workshop happening this January in which I will walk with you, hand in hand, through the version of yourself you want to see in 2020. If you want to be on the waiting list, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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