Do Expats Get Lonely? Traveling and Loneliness Explained

Do Expats Get Lonely? Traveling and loneliness

Loneliness is not the feeling of not having anyone to talk to. The truth is, there are people to talk to everywhere. You can talk to your neighbors, your barista, and the person sitting next to you in the cafe, but that might not stop you from feeling alone. And in this article, I want to talk about how, and why, expats struggle with feelings of loneliness, and what you can do as a traveler or immigrant, to feel more connected to your local community.

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First of all, every single expat or nomad that I’ve met has admitted to sometimes feeling lonely. While most expats have a wide range of meetups and events they can visit, and often get to meet a lot of people throughout their travels. At first, it doesn’t necessarily dawn on you. You’re so intoxicated by the high of being able to experience something new and different. The feeling of freedom, of being able to go anywhere, meet anyone, or do anything, is so stimulating and rewarding. But over time, there’s a feeling of isolation, a homesickness, a feeling of wanting to belong somewhere. 

I’ve been living life for seven years as an expat in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. And in August, I let go fully and decided to become a digital nomad. Soon, I found myself in the busy, popular, and fun Barcelona. A place of nonstop sun, warm temperatures, tourists galore, and so many youthful people high on life. This, for me, was meant to be an easy introduction to life as a Digital Nomad. 

Why Nomads and Expats Struggle With Loneliness

The process of integration or assimilating to a new country is not without it’s challenges. While most people tend to enjoy their first time in a new place, cultural clashes soon become imminent. Not knowing the language, and not knowing anyone, becomes a big block that can cause many to doubt their life decisions. Perhaps I was happier at home? Perhaps there’s somewhere else I’m meant to be? These are issues that have been studied extensively in psychology.

Feelings of not knowing whether you want to go home, not knowing where you are meant to be, and not knowing whether to commit or to leave, create anxiety and indecision and most of all, the root problem is a feeling of isolation. You’re The Stranger in Albert Camus novels. The person who has nobody, knows nobody, and belongs nowhere.

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But that’s not true, not ever. You’ve probably got family that miss you, and for most people, not a day goes by without somebody thinking about you, what you are doing, or how you are doing. Just think about how often you, yourself, think about other people. We’re ultimately social beings that crave connection. We all want to belong. We naturally form connections to everyone we meet and the more we talk, the deeper our bonds grow. But what can we do to build and maintain these deep relationships? 

How To Stay Connected

It’s said that you can feel alone even when surrounded with people, and perfectly happy, even when completely alone. And there’s a truth in that. People that know who they are, and feel connected to a cause, community, or group of people, are rarely alone, even when they’re by themselves. Being alone doesn’t change the fact that you have people you care about and love, and that you trust that they love and care about you too.

When we walk outside in a foreign world, the people around us appear different to us. They’ve got a different background. They were raised in another culture. Another world. A different school, perhaps a different religion, and most problematic of all, a completely different language. These are all things that make us look at other people as if they are walls to be climbed. At worst, you can walk in this world, feeling like you’re different, wrong somehow, or in the wrong place. And here’s where it’s important to know that we are all human. And if you’re able to create a connection, there’s always a chance to build something beautiful together.

I’m known to always have been a very open-minded person. At school, I would hang out with everyone. It didn’t matter who they were, I was always eager to get to know others. As an extrovert, I didn’t have the walls and inhibitions that introverts often struggle with, though, naturally, I had my own struggles in life, they had nothing to do with starting up a conversation. And I’ve learnt that the key to starting up a conversation is to let the other person talk. There’s something interesting to learn from every single person in the world. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, if you’re out grabbing coffee, if you’re sitting on a park bench taking in the fresh air, there’s always a chance to make a connection.

Now, you might say, I have no issues with starting up conversations and making conversations. Well, great. In that case, let’s proceed to step two. Having a good conversation. 

I’ve found that when out meeting other expats, it’s easy to focus on the easy and light subjects, like where they’re from, what they do, and what their country is like. These are neutral, and mostly safe topics for far more polite people than myself. And they usually leave you feeling the same way you felt before the chat, which is, nothing at all.

How To Have Good And Meaningful Conversations

People love to talk about how much they hate shallow and superficial conversations. I want to say that these conversations aren’t as bad as we like to think. In fact, they’re a completely normal, and valid starting point, a way to probe or see, if the other person is open to a conversation, or would rather be left alone. But the questions can be made a lot better.

Rule number one, make general questions personal

Instead of asking a person about the country they are from, ask them how they felt growing up in that country.

Instead of asking a person about their work, ask them why they got the job that they have today.

Instead of talking about the weather, ask what the other person likes to do on a rainy day.

General questions get you to know about general things. Personal questions help you get to know who the other person is.

Rule number two, express how you feel about the other person

While it’s completely valid to just have a general open conversation about life or our personal experiences, I’d like you to consider how you feel when you talk to this person. Do they make you laugh? Do you relate to what they say? Do you feel there’s anything different about their experiences, something you’ve never heard or thought about before? 

Personal questions invite us to get to know and connect with another person. They let us know how the person feels and what they’re like. But expressions of how we feel about what they feel, that’s an invitation for a friendship. When you allow yourself to have reactions to other people, you let your emotions mix with theirs. And this is where you, and the other person, get the chance to feel that you’re bonding.

Ofcourse, not everyone will respond positively to this. By expressing how you feel about talking to another person, or hearing their stories, you invite friendship, but you don’t guarantee it. Political clashes, sensitive experiences, and personal struggles, can cause us to have misunderstandings, breakdowns of communication, and trust issues or differences can make us vary to connect with another person. Yes. The other person might not feel the same way. Yes, the other person might not like how you interpret or understand their story. Like in chemistry, when two chemical substances meet, there’s a chance for, well, chemistry. But there’s also a chance for a small explosion. 

Rule number three, always build bridges

There’s few reasons to burn bridges. While sometimes, you’ll run into people you’d rather keep at an armslengths distance, there’s generally little reason to burn a bridge. You don’t have to cross the bridge, but there’s no reason to burn it, all the same. There’s so many chances for misunderstandings and conflicts when you deal with people from other cultures. It’s easy to trip on things like passive vs direct communication, political differences, or different views on gender and relationships. But most of the time, these are not reasons to stop talking and getting to know one another. They’re opportunities to learn how different people think and see the world, and why.

When I talk about building bridges, I mean inviting future conversations. Leaving questions unanswered and open, to build curiosity for the next chat. Suggesting to meet up next week, or asking the other person for their number. You might never message each others, but ask, all the same. People appreciate being wanted. It’s nice to know the other person liked speaking to you, and would be open to talk to you again. 

With friendships, it’s important to remember, that the more you have, the easier, they are to make. The first friendships can be difficult and awkward. When I talk to people who feel socially shy or anxious, I can tell that they’re anxious, nervous, and at first, they sound monotone, but the more comfortable they become, the more you get to see of their real personality. For lonely people, there’s so much more pressure. Because you desperately crave conversation, you sabotage yourself, and let anxiety get the better of you. It happens. Usually, it’s best to get back on the saddle again, as soon as possible. Every single person you see is an opportunity for a new something. What that something is, that’s for you both to find out. A hungry person is desperate for a meal, and might lack manners, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to eat.

How To Break Feelings Of Loneliness

That said, even if you do have great conversations, make new friends, and do your best to go out and have good chats, you can still end up feeling lonely. 

Because, it turns out, loneliness is not the feeling of not having anyone to talk to. It’s the feeling of having nowhere where you belong. 

The feeling of loneliness is a struggle that can take years of therapy to unpack. It can have so many causes and reasons. There’s people that have lots of friends and family members, and still feel lonely. You can be in a couple, and still feel like you’re not socially fulfilled. There’s questions of authenticity here: of knowing who you are, and of expressing who you really are. Perhaps there’s hobbies you’d like to talk about. Ideas or feelings you don’t admit to anyone. Perhaps it’s just that there’s something you’d like to do, or something you’re looking for, what, you don’t know yet. But with every year you live, it gets easier. You learn more about yourself, through every relationship. 

Being a digital nomad, traveling, can be a lonely way to live. But it can also be a way to bring feelings of loneliness to the surface. Perhaps you were lonely before too – you just didn’t realize it. When we travel, our identity is growing, and changing, and we have the potential to discover new things we did not yet know about ourselves. Do your best to put those feelings on paper if you can. Admit they’re there, and reflect on why, and what conversations you’d like to have, and what kind of people you’d like to meet. What places are you drawn to, and why? And if you don’t know the answer to those questions yet – any path will get you there. 

For more tips, check out this blog.

Did you use to struggle with loneliness, and found out why and did you manage to find your community and place where you belong? What did that look like for you?

Are you a nomad and traveling? What’s the best conversation you’ve had so far and what made it a good conversation? 

Do you feel stuck somewhere in life, in a town or place where you don’t belong? What small steps and actions do you think you could take tomorrow to confront and deal with those feelings a little by little?

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