Most of us can identify with what loneliness feels like. Whether it is a brief period of isolation or something more prolonged, a lack of social interaction can lead to mental health complications, such as depression and anxiety.
Loneliness is especially a challenge for expats, as they leave their home country and venture into a new world of unknowns and unfamiliar faces. Join me in this article to find out the three types of loneliness we can experience, and of course, how to cope with them!
I’ve been there, my fellow expat.
I know how much it sucks to be alone and abroad.
Most likely, you have beloved friends that support you, and with them, you spend lovely moments. Yet, they come back to their partners/family, and you go to bed alone.
Or maybe you have a loving partner but still feel a lack of community; you haven’t found your tribe abroad.
Perhaps you get along with colleagues, but you haven’t found friends like the ones back home; it is difficult to find the time/energy to build profound relationships!
Are you ever going to meet a person to fall in love with? that dear friend? that supporting tribe?
You want to make the best of it. You appreciate other aspects of your life. But still, you want to have this intimacy that you share only with meaningful connections.
The three different types of loneliness (according to Dr. Murthy)
According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, an American physician and former Surgeon General under the Obama administration, loneliness is the ‘silent epidemic.’ Not only is it not readily visible to the outside world, but those going through it may not even be able to identify their feelings or symptoms as loneliness.
So, they remain silent, facing on their own a challenge that should not be addressed alone. Especially for expats, even those that do identify with loneliness may feel hopeless about what to do about it.
Here are the three different types of loneliness (according to Dr. Murthy) and how they impact expat life:
1.- Intimate Loneliness – Away from Home and Single
Intimate Loneliness is the first type of loneliness in which a person is missing a connection with a trusted confidant. Experiencing intimate loneliness means missing the person you can be your complete self around without having to put up a facade.
This is typically a best friend or partner with whom you connect emotionally without being afraid of showing vulnerability or the “not so shiny” sides.
Once the initial shock or excitement of expat life begins to wear off after moving your life to a new country, the reality sinks in that you might no longer have this trusted or favorite person to turn to regularly for advice or quality time.
Your goal now is not to replace that person but to forge solid and profound connections, which is critical when you feel this loneliness.
Being single abroad can be challenging, but it is also an opportunity for you to have fun, know yourself better and know what you want for your life and which aspects of yourself you want to share with that lucky person you will consider your partner!
2.- Relational Loneliness – In a relationship, but still lonely abroad
Relational loneliness is the second type of loneliness. It involves missing friendships with people you would spend weekends, dinners, or a birthday party. Missing these friends means experiencing relational loneliness.
At the same time, these might be the friendships we “have,” even if we don’t always “experience” them. Experiencing friendships, according to Dr. Murthy, means conversations, phone calls, and visiting each other.
In other words, it is the lack of social interaction or experience of friendship that leads to loneliness.
Many expats sometimes feel tired of making efforts to finding friends because they have had many bad experiences (rejection, disappointment).
What to do? Think about it from another perspective. It is not all about finding friends, but also about meeting people. Open your network—someone who knows someone who knows someone.
It helps find a job, of course. But also to meet people who might share some of your interest/hobbies.
The key here is connection. To find a sparkle that starts the fire.
When it comes to relational loneliness and expat life, you may begin to feel like you are meeting all kinds of new people, yet these friendships might be superficial, at least for a while.
Meeting in larger groups back home was different because you probably connected on a deeper level with all or most of those people.
Yet, as an expat, it can be challenging to have meaningful conversations and forge authentic connections in the crowd when going out to specific events or parties. Once you find people that seem worth the effort of getting to know on a deeper level, try to open up and let them see the real you.
3.- Collective Loneliness – Find your tribe, wherever you are
Collective Loneliness is the third type of loneliness. It is our social roles that we value and make us feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves.
It can refer to a job, group membership, volunteer organization, institutional affiliation, or social identity. Whenever we miss being part of a community with a common purpose or shared identity, we are experiencing collective loneliness.
Whether or not you realized the extent to which this might affect you, being in a new country and culture means you are missing some common ground and something that once gave your life more meaning. Expat life is both a critical and opportune time to get involved in something local.
Volunteering is not only a great way to cope with loneliness, but it could be an excellent opportunity to meet people who share similar interests and values.
Giving a helping hand will remind you that, though your loneliness can be terrifying and depressing at times, there is always someone who needs the help that you can offer. Also, it can be a fantastic tool to cope with anxiety!
No matter what type of loneliness you are experiencing, or all of them, remember that you are continually undergoing a significant transition that did not just end the day you entered a new country. It may take you a long time to settle, adjust, and foster new friendships.
The days ahead will not be without their loneliness and challenges, so be patient with yourself. Utilize virtual connections with your loved ones often, but do not let them keep you from engaging with the real world outside.
Trust in your adventure and believe that things will get better. Be present with your feelings, and be present in your new daily life, and try to find ways to make your host country feel like home.
If you are struggling to work through your feelings of loneliness, you are by no means alone. As an online psychologist specialized in expat women living abroad, I can help you work through these struggles and identify productive ways to manage this significant transition and journey.
You are not alone in this, never forget it!
Take the reins now and live a fulfilled and happy international life, wherever you are, wherever you are heading!
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By your side,
Gabriela Encina is an online psychologist specialized in expat women and supports them with the guidance and tools they need to feel confident, make the best decisions for their lives, build and maintain meaningful relationships and prioritize their well-being.
Her approach is practical, solution-oriented and focused on the present.
Gabriela offers counseling to expat women in Spanish, English and German.