A quick google search can help you to find dozens of articles with a checklist of all the logistical things to take care of before moving abroad. Get your visa, organize a Power of Attorney, cancel your cell phone, notify your credit card company….these not to be forgotten tasks are just some of the many things that will help you to get yourself set to move abroad and hit the ground running.
Getting all of your logistical ducks in a row before making the big move will certainly help to prevent any major mental meltdowns when you’ve arrived at your new home away from home (I know someone who had a full on panic attack when arriving at the Madrid airport they discovered their phone carrier didn’t work overseas). However, it’s just as important to get yourself prepared both mentally and emotionally for the challenges that come with moving abroad.
Today I’ve compiled the top five questions I ask clients when they come see to better understand why they’re struggling abroad. Reflecting on these topics will help ensure you’re able to weather the inevitable bureaucracy triggered crises that await you as well as the transition shock that many people experience.
- What coping skills do you use at home?
Usually when I ask people what they’re coping skills are I’m greeted with a blank stare and a response of “I don’t think I have any.” Not true! Everyone has coping skills. This is the way you respond when greeted with unpleasant emotions. Now, you might not have very many, or you might not be aware of them, and some of them (i.e. drinking when stressed or napping when feeling overwhelmed) may not be healthy if they’re the only ones you use, but trust me when I say that I’m certain you have ways you cope. The goal here is to identify how you cope now so you can decide if you need to add to your coping skills toolbox before moving abroad. Do you listen to music? Meet with friends? Go for a run? Get a massage? Cook a new recipe? Cry? (By the way, crying is one of the best natural coping skills we have!) Now, how many of these skills are things you’ll be able to use abroad? You might realize that a lot of your ways of coping are dependent on where you currently live (visiting family, going on a run in your favorite park, calling up your best friend) and may not be possible with the distance and time difference you’ll be experiencing in your new home. If this is the case, it’s a great time to expand your coping skills repository. Check out this list for ideas.
2. What brings you joy?
What is it that makes you come alive? That helps you feel more like yourself? This might be something that’s on your coping skills list, but whereas coping is something you do after the fact, what brings you joy should be something that you need to be part of your routine in your new home in order for you to connect with yourself and feel a sense of familiarity despite all of the changes in your surroundings. Whether it’s dancing, pottery, having a book club, being part of a religious or spiritual community, joining a choir, participating in a community garden, or being with animals, you need to make sure that this is part of your life abroad. And I recommend that you start searching now for dance studios, churches, animal shelters, local theater programs, popular running routes now so that you can feel reassured that this thing which fills you with joy will continue to be a part of your life abroad. Keep in mind that you sometimes have to be creative about this. If you’re in a small town, you may need to resort to online videos to keep up your fitness routine, or if the language is a barrier you can consider searching out like minded expats who are interested in similar activities (meetup.com is great for this!)
3. How do you make friends?
Many people realize when they move abroad that they’ve never actually learned how to make friends. If this move is coming right after finishing college you may have always had the luxury of being in environments that made it easy to meet others. When you move abroad you may meet new people through your new place of employment, but for many people this is not the case. It’s time to take full advantage of social media and even start making potential friends before you leave. I know that I felt much more relaxed heading off for Madrid in 2009 after having exchanged a few Facebook messages with girls whom I found on the teaching assistants groups. I was even able to meet up with one of them beforehand and we discovered our parents had worked together for years. Life abroad is full of random encounters like this if you push yourself out of your comfort zone a little. Even last year, after having spent 6 years in Spain I posted in a Facebook group mentioning that all my friends were out of town and proposing a get together of fellow expats. If there’s one thing you’ll learn while abroad, it’s that you’ll get constant practice in refreshing your social support system. Note to the introverts out there: you might need to push yourself out of your comfort zone more than others to meet friends abroad. Don’t forget to respect your need to recharge your batteries with alone time while also spending time with others. Yoga and meditation classes, group hiking and other meetups that require less talking can be great places for introverts to spend time with others without overwhelming themselves.
4. Why are you going abroad?
While everyone has something that motivated them to make the choice to go abroad, they don’t necessarily always have to put it into words. That is until they wind up in therapy with me and I ask them why exactly they came overseas. This question is important to ask when moving abroad for two reasons. First, if you’re aware of what you were hoping to get out of the experience then you can make choices to ensure that your experience is everything you hoped it would be. Do you want to travel to as many new cities as possible? Then you might want to reserve your weekends for travel and choose to spend some weeknights in saving money rather than constantly exploring your new city. Want to make an unfamiliar city feel like home? Then you might do just the opposite of what I said above. Determined to learn a new language? Download DuoLingo, get a language exchange partner, and be prepared to push yourself out of your comfort zone and feel silly as you sloppily piece together sentences, it’s the only way! Now, the second reason this question is important is because very often people go abroad to get away from something. A past relationship, family drama, the question of what to do after university, etc. This is an important thing to be aware of because believe it or not, all of those things you’re trying to avoid will find a way into your suitcase and often feel even more difficult to manage with the added stress of a new culture, language, social group, job, etc. Many of my clients discover that what initially looked like difficulty with cultural adjustment is actually something that was already a problem back at home.
5. How do you feel about spending time alone?
One of the wonderful things about moving abroad and traveling is that you will have the chance to really get to know yourself. That being said, it is also one of the most difficult and frustrating parts of the experience and one that not everyone is ready for. Before I moved abroad I didn’t realize how often I spent surrounded by other people: family, friends, coworkers. Even people who enjoy spending time alone find that when they go abroad they stop enjoying it. A friend of mine ended her experience abroad because as she explained “I like being alone when I CHOOSE to be alone.” When you go abroad there will be times when you don’t choose to be alone, and while the loneliness that can accompany this can be difficult to manage, these can also be some of the best moments for self-discovery. I encourage clients to use tools such as journaling or meditation to help them with this process. If you’ve never journaled before, a list of self-discovery or travel related prompts might help to get you started. And if you’re new to meditation, many people find Headspace to be best for absolute beginners, but keep in mind that you’ll have to pay a monthly subscription later on. At that moment, I highly recommend the app “Insight Timer,” which has a flat fee of a couple of euros and is full of guided meditations with varying topics and lengths.
I hope these questions help those of you moving abroad to feel more mentally and emotionally prepared for what’s in store! I only wish someone would have asked me to reflect on these questions before I moved to Spain 7 years ago. I also wish that someone would have told me that struggling to adjust wasn’t something to be ashamed of and that there were mental health professionals out there who could have helped me. If you’re struggling to adjust to life overseas, don’t hesitate to seek out professional help. I offer online sessions to individuals all over the world and you can find out more about online therapy HERE