When we live abroad, particularly if we live in an exotic or famous place, people can expect us to be enjoying ourselves on a moment-to-moment basis. From the outside our lives can appear to others as a fantasy or dream. Those looking at our lives from the outside can’t see or feel the daily stress that creeps into our lives because of different languages, cultures, social norms or learning to find our way around. This dissonance between what we live and what others see from the outside can create a social pressure to give people what they expect. We can feel the unconscious obligation to perform.
Many times we have been taught that feeling stress, anger, or being overwhelmed is a sign of weakness. Somehow we are supposed to have complete control of our emotions at all times and be able to manage all the difficulties we encounter independently without it affecting us. And, on top of this extraordinary expectation, we are supposed to do it in a foreign land.
The fact is that this is impossible. There will be days when we shine and navigate well in our new environment. However, there will be other days when the wheels fall off the cart and there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that we can keep our emotions in check or solve our problems independently. It’s on these days that trying to present a happy face costs us the most.
The cost of pretending
Language barriers, getting lost for the fifth time, not understanding the cultural norms, or simply bad luck can wreak havoc on our day. When faced with stressful events, all the built up tension needs to be released. Often times that release comes in the form of emotional expression – yelling, tears, aggressiveness, withdrawal, etc.
The feelings we feel are our internal barometer. They tell us what the situation means to us, how we are doing in that situation, and how we are experiencing ourselves during the situation. When we begin to present an artificial emotion (i.e. happiness) on our outside while experiencing a different feeling inside, we create even more internal stress. We end up making the situation worse for ourselves.
No one can honestly be happy every day when living in an environment that is complex and confusing. It is also unreasonable to expect that the difficulties of daily life aren’t going to affect us. We won’t always be able to control our emotions or manage everything by ourselves. Living abroad often means we have to open up ourselves to be vulnerable and ask for assistance with things that we normally wouldn’t if we were living at home. We are also more vulnerable in making faux pas that we wouldn’t cause at home.
Of course, that is going to create a bit of anxiety in us. We may want to cover that anxiety with a façade of happiness and put on a front that we are doing well. Yet, that keeps us from acknowledging our needs and getting the support we require.
Allowing the inside and outside to match
Opening ourselves to accepting what is happening to us on an emotional level can create opportunities to improve how we feel and how we interact with others. Letting those people that are looking at our lives from the outside know that life is life wherever you live can help them realize that we aren’t living a fantasy. Everyone needs to go to the grocery store, find kid shoes that fit, call a plumber, or navigate in traffic. Giving them information so they can lessen the pressure on us to appear happy will give us breathing room to just be and not feel the need to meet expectations.
Also, speaking honestly with those whom we associate (i.e. other parents at school, work colleagues, etc.) who may also be living abroad can help. Being honest about a difficult day, common struggles or an embarrassingly bad experience can create bonds between people. Similar to sharing war stories, there are probably a lot of similar experiences happening among other expats. Being brave to talk openly and honestly can create a community where people share insights and hints for easier living.
In addition to creating bonds, friendships may be fostered in this safe environment and help relieve tension. Having safe zones where we can share those intimate feelings that touch us deeply can be very healing. Knowing that we have someone we trust, who is living a similar experience, and to which we can relate all those tiny tragedies that we experience while living abroad is a great sanctuary. In community, we can talk, share, and heal.
Only by allowing our inside and outside to match can we create the kind of connection we need to feel confident and in control. Hiding behind other people’s expectations or our fear of showing our humanness can only burden us with more stress and frustration. Opening ourselves to present our authentic experience can create new support systems that feed our soul.
Knowledge is Power
What new information did you learn from this posting? Did it help you identify something in your family you would like to change? Share your experience below and what steps you plan on taking to guide your family.
About the instructor
Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.