This is a summary of the first meeting of our Online Support Group which took place on 23 April. The topic was ‘Expats: Loneliness and Isolation’. Friends from Congo, Jerusalem, Cape Town, Singapore and Jakarta took part, and Barbaraexpat from Melbourne chaired the discussion.
During the meeting, participants had the opportunity to share their experiences, and then discuss the problems they had encountered and solutions they had found to overcome them.
Loneliness is a vicious circle: the lonelier we feel, the harder it is to go out and dive into things, and this results in an ever-increasing sense of isolation. Loneliness leads to depression, lack of motivation, and an increased feeling of insecurity.
Everyone agreed that in order to break this vicious circle, it’s important to find an activity that motivates us to go out, to get together with a group of people who share our interests, or to join a course (for example, yoga or craft).
Unfortunately the problem goes much deeper than this. Sometimes we go all out to join activities which are supposed to make us feel less isolated, but that hollow of inner loneliness just doesn’t go away. There was unanimous agreement amongst the participants that it’s not enough to socialise at a superficial level: there is a need to find a connection with one special person, someone who understands us, and who is interested in knowing how we feel: someone with whom we can share a sense of belonging.
But finding a soulmate is not easy. We have to build up a wide circle of acquaintances, and once we have identified someone our gut tells us is the right person, we have to open up to her, exposing our weaknesses, whilst at the same time trying to avoid giving the impression of invading her personal space.
Everyone agreed that the best strategy is to expose ourselves to the largest possible number of people, to increase the chances of meeting that special person who will help us face the loneliness of life abroad. Welcome groups, courses, school (for women with children), and voluntary work are all good ways of meeting people.
We noted a difference between expats with a fixed contract, who have the opportunity of moving on elsewhere, and those who have settled permanently abroad. People in this second group need to make contact with local people too, rather than simply within the expat community, otherwise they may never feel integrated.
But here another factor comes into play: the gap between local habits and customs, and your own, and the difficulty of accepting these/adapting to them. Different ways of integrating socially can also be a factor which increases loneliness, even when you force yourself to become a social being and take part in numerous community events.
The conclusion was that with a pinch of optimism, and digging deep into our store of energy and motivation which underlies our expatriate essence, the fact of merging our own habits with those of our host country can be both fun and enriching.
Another major factor which increased loneliness abroad is the lack of a support network, especially when we are faced with practical problems and emergencies. Here experiences vary: some participants suffered a lot from the lack of such a network; others found a strong support group on which they could count in times of need.
Lastly we spoke about how relationships with distant friends change, and how this change can also increase our loneliness. The difficulties ranged from time differences across the world to the fact that often, when me move to a new country, we change. Despite the wonderful ways of keeping in touch across the miles, sometimes the fact that we are not meeting regularly, and sharing everyday life, increases our sense of isolation.
After an hour and a half of sharing, listening and support, we went back to our lives in various corners of the world, feeling a little less lonely and isolated!
Barbara Amalberti (Barbaraexpat)
Translated from Italian by Paola Fornari