Over the years that I’ve been working with internationals living abroad, I’ve discovered recurring patterns and specific issues that my clients face. Even though each person is unique and so is their situation, there are definitely overlaps in how one feels when going through the different emotions that come with making the move. Today I’d like to address what I call “Expat Pains” and how to deal with these pains for your personal growth.
Simply said, these are emotional pains caused by relocation. An accumulation of negative emotions you experience after the move. Even though the move is something positive and exciting, negative emotions are part of the adventure as well. Negative emotions can be triggered simply because of the new, international lifestyle you are now living.
You’ve moved to a foreign country with a language you don’t speak, where the laws, culture, customs and ideologies are different. You’re dealing with all kinds of challenges, such as the administrative and financial decisions that come with purchasing a car, property or health insurance. On top of that, your support network is in another country, the place you used to call home.
Being an international living abroad, you’re emotionally more vulnerable because you’re away from the social network you used to belong to. And even though you might speak with friends and loved ones on a regular base, they don’t really know how your life looks like now. Not the deeper level of it, which is something you might not easily share over the phone.
Temporarily less bandwidth available
Did you ever experience this? While you could effortlessly travel from point A to point B before the move, now it takes effort. You might find yourself postponing an outing without even knowing why. How come?
Because in your former country, you had a map in your head, one that has point A and B clearly mapped out. Without having to go there, you know where all the other points of the alphabet are located as you have history in your old country: point D was your workplace, G was where you went to school, point K was where you had your first kiss and point M is where the accountant was. You could go to any of these places without effort, on automatic pilot, without using much of your energy.
Now in your new country, everything is new and going somewhere takes effort.
Maybe you don’t want to be challenged now. You’ve had enough challenges lately. Your nervous system has been stretched to the limit and you want to cultivate calm and ease.
On a subconscious level, you long for effortlessness because your nervous system is in the red zone and needs calibrating. This calibration can only happen when you start giving yourself that break. After all the necessary things are done, you just want to relax.
Albeit all the good and positive things that have happened to you, your system has been challenged and overwhelmed for an extended period of time.
There is no timeline for when you reach these points of wanting to stay in or going into “hiding mode”. It can happen within one to seven years after the move, depending on your capacity to understand your emotions.
Let’s identify some more emotions that internationals might experience: general anxiety, loneliness, homesickness, relationship problems, isolation, loss of purpose, feelings of not belonging, feelings of overwhelm.
If you experience any of these emotions, I want you to know that you’re not doing anything wrong. Experiencing these feelings is normal; it’s part of the package that comes with your new lifestyle of being an international living abroad.
Use your expat pains as an opportunity to grow as a person
For those of you who are keen on understanding their emotions and learning some skills on how to identify and transform them, here are some self-care tips.
We’ve now established that moving countries can stir up strong emotions. Without the ability to recognise your emotions, the emotions can take you over completely. What that means is: when the emotional influx comes, it takes over you: it controls what you feel, what you think, what you say and what you do. The emotion is in charge of you.
What is an emotion?
Much like a thought, it is an energy cluster. You can’t see it, but it manifests in your mind, feelings and behaviour and in your perception of the world surrounding you. Once you recognise the emotions, awareness comes to the fore. You realise it is not you, it is an energy inside of you, triggered by current events.
Without awareness, your emotions start controlling the way you think, which means feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, isolation or jealousy invade your body and mind. When you feel angry and this emotion takes over your mind, your every thought reflects the current mood. It becomes a vicious circle. The emotion creates thought and the thought amplifies the emotion. In the case of anger, you get more and more angry until finally you lash out!
I’d like to introduce the term “painbody”. What do I mean by this? The painbody is an accumulation of old emotions that still live in you as a cluster of energy, an entity. This accumulation of negative emotion has often begun building up in your early childhood and hasn’t left you. It still dwells in your body somewhere, for example in the chest or in the throat.
Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author, has first named this cluster of old negative, childhood pains as the “painbody”. To create awareness around this, it is helpful to look at it as a little entity, a gremlin that lives inside you. It’s dormant for periods of time, but it can’t stay dormant forever; it occasionally has to be fed.
Any current event in your expat life can make this gremlin enter your mind and suddenly you are controlled by this old emotion. The painbody can be triggered by a challenging event and you usually know it’s the painbody when your reaction to the event is out of proportion. The reaction is far greater than would be warranted by the triggering event. This usually means it has awakened old, latent emotion.
Moving to a new country is an excellent opportunity to bring the painbody back to life. You’re tired, new challenges have overstimulated you and made you more receptive. When the painbody takes over you, you are no longer the normal, balanced you. You are the pain(body). You temporarily turn into a weird, awful person who says or does unkind things to loved ones or even strangers.
Moving abroad has awakened your painbody and you can suddenly find yourself in the middle of a lot of drama – for example, you can’t get your postbox sorted; your parcel can’t be traced; and worse, Covid has forced you into lockdown …
Pain needs more pain
The painbody wants to be fed; it craves negative thinking. Thought is energy, it feeds the emotion and the emotion gets stronger; you’re back in the loop, which makes you more and more unhappy. When you start complaining to others and share your pain over and over again, you actually feed the painbody.
Some people can even be addicted to unhappiness and negative thinking. Why? The negative emotion wants to be fed by the thinking that reflects the same energy. Every negative thought feeds a negative emotion. A positive thought cannot feed a negative emotion because they are simply not in sync.
That is why some people love to hang out with other negative people, so they can complain together. When there is no awareness about the existence of the painbody, these people don’t see it as complaining, but as stating facts.
This is how the painbody operates; the emotion wants to speak through you and looks for something negative to say. It’s all unconscious behaviour. The unobserved mind is taken over by toxic thoughts, by old, childhood emotions that are triggered and are now awakened.
Without self-awareness, you are at the mercy of your emotions.
How to break free of negative patterns
When we grow awareness, the emotion may still be there, but you are not totally possessed by it. And that is an enormous step forward.
When you find yourself feeling unhappy about something, or lashing out at others, recognise that there is a strong energy within you that is not in fact you.
Take a deep breath – or as many as necessary – and be the observer of your thoughts and emotions. Your attention will follow the breath and leave the body.
The only place where there is freedom from the emotions of the past is being in the present moment. The moment you become aware is the moment you observe your inner state and step out of it. Freedom arises and you can see the outer circumstances for what they are, without being pulled back into the painbody.
When this happens, keep on breathing gently and generously, and start connecting with your body. The emotion may still be there for a while, but you’re not consumed by it; the emotion cannot renew itself and you free yourself from it.
This might be a good moment to go out in nature and release the last reminders of the emotion, including whatever it was that triggered it.
Being in the present moment is powerful! By practising awareness and recognising that the gremlin is just a bunch of old, resistant emotions – old pains from your childhood still lingering in your body – you can free yourself.
Being in the present moment helps you to connect with your body, and your gentle breathing helps to transform the emotion and calibrate. This is how you can turn your expat challenges into a personal victory, creating emotional freedom and emotional balance and start living the life you were longing to live.
By Ria van Doorn
Ria van Doorn is a life coach for internationals living abroad and founder of the Expat Centre Portugal.