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Beating Loneliness as an Expat Living Abroad or Working Overseas

Updated 12 Aug 2010

Expat life is a rollercoaster of emotions but one sensation sure to hit hard is a feeling of loneliness. Amanda van Mulligen talks to Debby Poort, an expat therapist in the Netherlands, about the effects of loneliness and how to overcome the hurdle of isolation when living abroad or working overseas.

The transition period of an overseas relocation is hectic, taken up with exploring your new home, learning a new culture or language, familiarising yourself with new customs or routines and helping your family to settle into their new life. When the dust settles, many expats feel alone and out of their comfort zone; they miss the company of friends and family and the familiarity of the life they left behind.

Debby Poort, founder of Yellow Wood Integrative Psychotherapy Practice, says that feeling alone is common and the reason why many expats come to her for support.

On the outside looking in

“For a multitude of expats, making new friends is not easy,” she explains. “Furthermore, the more isolated and lonely we feel, the harder it is to get out and meet new people and consequently we become even more isolated and lonely – creating a vicious circle.”

Loneliness is not only an issue in itself; the absence of close friends often diminishes an expat’s ability to deal effectively with other problems that come their way, problems they could have readily solved back home. For this reason, Debby initially asks about a client’s social life during the intake process and this often becomes the focus of the therapy,

“Once a client has a stronger foundation with people around, other problems are often resolved faster and easier,” clarifies Debby.

Each person that turns to a therapist or expat coach for help is a unique case, and while feelings and situations are often similar, the solutions need to be tailor-made to fit the client and the way they lead their life.

However, Debby reveals that debunking the myth that the client is the only expat without friends is an important step in the therapy process.

Building friendships is hard work

“The reassurance that clients gain through learning they are not the only one can really help motivate them to do the work necessary to meet new people.”

And it is no coincidence that Debby uses the word ‘work’ to break the cycle of loneliness and isolation. It takes tremendous effort and nobody should be under the illusion that going to a therapist or coach takes the work out of their hands; but the support does provide the momentum to move forward. A listening ear and a safe place to discuss fears and real or perceived barriers can inspire an action plan, which is usually the stimulus a client needs to take the first steps to venture out and break the vicious circle.

“Supporting an expat in making new friends may take on many forms. It may seem obvious to some that there are several opportunities available to expats to meet friends, yet I have heard from both clients and acquaintances (and experienced myself) that it can be very difficult to even determine where to start,” explains Debby.

Making meeting people a priority

To meet new people, expats need to make the time to get out but they also need to know where to go to meet others. Debby therefore gets her clients going by providing information about what is available to get them out and meet people.

She advises expats to sign up to an activity where meeting others is inevitable: a social club, a mother and tots group or a gym. She emphasizes the fact that lonely expats need to make meeting people a priority; no matter whether they are a stay at home mum or they work for a multinational corporation.

However, getting out there does not necessarily mean that expats automatically gain a pool of good friends. It’s a given that expats do not share the same culture and shared experiences as locals, and what’s more, they are often shocked to learn that they also have little in common with expats of other nationalities for the same reasons.

Additionally, expat communities often suffer from a constant flux of people coming and going, so establishing long-term friendships can be problematic.

Opening the door to others

To counteract this, Debby recommends that expats lower their expectations of friendship, “This does not mean lowering your standards for how a friend should treat you. It means that by changing your view on whom or what an ideal friend should look like or believe in, you can allow more people into your life who could potentially be a friend to you.”

If after several attempts her clients are still unable to form friendships she looks to barriers that come from within, “Sometimes not making friends serves (or used to serve when the client was a child) a hidden purpose. Gaining insight about whatever it is that is blocking the client and then working through it often yields new choices that the client was unaware of before. Discovering that stopping the cycle of loneliness and isolation is completely within their control is empowering.”

Final words of wisdom

Debby offers one last piece of advice,“My biggest tip would be not to suffer in silence. If you are feeling lonely, isolated or are experiencing difficulty making friends, get the support you need whether it is from a professional or someone else who is close to you. Remember countless expats are or have experienced something similar to what you are experiencing, even though your journey is unique.”

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