Excess baggage: experiencing difficulties and social anxiety while living abroad
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Clients who come through my office tend to do so after about 6 months into their stay in Buenos Aires, rarely before. Why is that? Well, often it's because the honeymoon of travel abroad is over and the reality of expat life begins to sink in, with its challenges and frustrations.
However, what surprises most clients is not so much that living abroad can be challenging (many of them traveled with the hope of embracing that challenge and being exposed to a completely different environment) but that many of the issues that they experienced back home are not only still present in their lives…but sometimes even exacerbated! Somehow, their excess baggage smuggled its way into their carefully packed backpack.
On one level, this is not surprising. In fact, it is a well-known fact that our problems tend to travel with us. My professional experience has led me to conclude that the level to which this happens tends to be related to someone’s reasons for leaving home.
For example, there is a difference between traveling to explore and traveling to put as much distance between a situation and oneself as possible. Whether it be a bad break up, difficulties in meeting a partner, family conflicts or merely not knowing what career move to make next, traveling abroad can seem to be the ideal – albeit temporary – solution to a problem.
However, after the novelty of travel wears off, the reality of these conflicts tend to sink back in. Sometimes spurred by a visit home or a visit from home, or even just by settling into a more “real-life routine” abroad, these issues seem to inevitably crop back up again. Furthermore, it can now be coupled with new difficulties, such as defining a career path in a work market that is limited to what it offers to foreigners or being far away from those with whom we haven’t resolved pending issues.
However, there are certain issues that, surprisingly, might even be accentuated with the lifestyle that comes with traveling or living abroad. In my professional experience, I have seen this occur most often in the sphere of social anxieties. People that suffered from social anxieties at home, from a heightened sense of self-awareness and social discomfort, tend to find these symptoms accentuated and exacerbated abroad.
This is, in part, because living abroad implies a great deal of social instability. On the one hand it requires that someone be extroverted enough to make the constant effort to “get out there and meet people.” This means finding motivation to attend social events, having the ability to be chatty and charming in social settings and being open to meeting people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. These attitudes require a certain level of self-confidence and practice that not only do many people not have, but also many suffer from a lack of.
On the other hand, the fact that the expat community experiences constant ebb and flow means that this process needs to be continuous – living abroad often implies renewing social circles on a regular basis (particularly if you are one of the few that actually exceeds the one or two-year living abroad limit!)
This social strain can lead to several, uncomfortable and disheartening effects. Amongst those are increased levels of anxiety, heightened sense of self-vigilance and self-criticism and an increasing tendency towards isolation coupled with difficulties leaving the home environment. The problem with these effects is that they create a vicious cycle by which it becomes even more difficult to meet people and create a support network with any sense of ease and pleasure.
What’s the solution? Tackling the problem at its core and dealing with the social anxieties that smuggled themselves into the luggage. Although throwing oneself into the deep end of a pool in order to learn how to swim - with no vigilant buddy or backup life vest – can seem like a quick solution to a lifetime problem, the sense of drowning can be overwhelming and traumatic when abroad and alone. We should be careful with exposing ourselves to situations that are difficult for us without our usual support system and stripped of our cultural tools. Not only can this become an extremely negative experience, but it can also make a mountain out of molehill. Sometimes, exploring the root of these anxieties with someone (or others), acquiring a few, useful tools and generally accepting some help can be of great relief.