expat life

Solitude is not loneliness

29 Comments 06 February 2013

expat loneliness

Solitude or loneliness?

But what’s the difference? What makes one person feel lonely and the other not?

While working on my expat book I’ve have been ‘talking’ to a lot of expats online in forums, on Twitter and on blogs about the loneliness of expat life. Loneliness isn’t a problem for many expats. They either cherish the time they have alone as a chance to explore and do their own thing, or they simply destroy any feelings of loneliness by going out and making friends. But for some, solitude is their misery. Some have said it’s difficult making friends with people in their host country because of the cultural or language differences, or admitted that they have never had to learn how to make friends because an easy social group was already in place for them at home. Some tell me they’re surrounded by well meaning people in their host country (perhaps a partner’s family) but that none of these people ‘get’ them and so even in the midst of a crowd, they’re lonely.

I’ve felt loneliness in my life, many times. I have felt like a little image at the end of a wrong way around telescope, small and distant and unreachable. I have felt so alone as to be hollow, a little shell of a girl, almost drained of any connections with humans. And people–friends and family, might be in the next room.

And I have also spent many happy hours wandering through world cities, enjoing the feeling of self sufficiency, the experience of making decisions about where I want to go and when without consulting another. I often think of friends or family while I’m doing these things because I think this is something they’d like to see or experience as well and I look forward to telling them about it later. Less frequently I am submerged briefly with regret that the person isn’t with me to share it right then, because telling them about it won’t be nearly as good.

As an only child I spent many hours creating worlds all by myself. I never had imaginary friends, but I did have great, complex plots I lived in for months, where (like the wardrobe to Narnia) I would step in an out of–when I went outside to the woods by my house I was stepping into the story right where I left off the day before.

But I also wished for playmates from time to time. And when I travelled with my parents or grandparents from campground to campground, the first thing I would do while the adults were setting up camp was to get on my bike and ride arond the campground looking for other kids. I met kids from all over the States that way, and we cut straight to the point the way kids do and just made friends. ‘Hi! Want to play?’ And they’d jump on their bikes and off we’d ride around the campground exploring the area, pausing at one family’s camp for a drink or getting into trouble for crossing the river. I learned early on how to make friends because I had to if I was going to have any. I didn’t have siblings around me to fall back on.

We are social creatures. Other people help us live longer (not many centanarians have lived alone with no social life). And one of the key factors in depression is the lack of social life–and while that could be a chicken and egg thing, there does seem to be strong correlations between unhappiness/poor health and few friends.

But I don’t think the answer to helping lonely expats is just teaching them how to make friends. It’s giving them ideas about how to make the right friends. People who will ‘get’ you. Because even in a group of people, we can still feel lonely unless there’s people who we can actually connect with.

Any stories or ideas you’d like to share, readers?


Your Comments

29 Comments so far

  1. I have always struggled a bit with this one, not making friends as such, but making the right friends.
    I spent a year in Sydney when I was in my twenties and felt incredibly lonely for the first 3-months. I met people and socialised with them but did not find a real connection with anyone. Then, just as I was about to book my return flight home, I was invited to a party where I met an a group of people who I got along with so well that we lived in each others pockets for the next 9-months until I returned home. We are all still in touch and a couple have come to stay with us in London.
    When I returned to London, I struggled again. I desperately wanted a ‘best’ friend. But, what I have learnt is that you can’t force these things. There is no way to make friends, even harder to know how to make the right friends. All I can say is that when one comes along, you will know.
    Most of my closest friends no longer live in the UK – some returned to their home countries and others have started a new life in a new one. When I first moved in with P before we were married, he was the only person I knew in the area. After we had Z, I thought I needed to make some local friends as was feeling more and more isolated so joined the WI and met some fab people there. I also met a few mums at Z’s nursery who I connected with too so that def makes it all easier. But, I still feel like a bit of a loner most of the time. Chatting on skype is not the same as a real life natter over a glass of wine. I miss that connection. Sorry – this has turned into a bit of an essay!

    • Michelloui says:

      You describe the experience so well! And you’re completley right–chatting on skype is NOT the same as a real life natter over a glass of wine. Maybe blogging will help you find people you can connect with even better? It’s an easier way to get to know people without that akwardness of seeing them every day at the school gates if it doesn’t quite work! Thanks for the essay–it’s good to have all of those thoughts! x

  2. Marianne says:

    I feel better just reading your post – so well written! For 3 years now I have lived away from family and friends with only my husband. No english is spoken here & Im no where near fluent in the language yet. I had so many friends in the U.S. & struggle very much with the lack of “social” life here. It does get quite lonely. Like Michelloui said, chatting on skype is not the same!
    Im happy to have found your blog :)

    • Michelloui says:

      Well I’m glad you found this blog too! Your situation is tough because no matter how great your relationship is with your husband, you’re still depending on him for a lot. Are there any expat groups near you? There weren’t any near where I first lived in England. Have you tried to find any groups on Yahoo groups? Although Skype isn’t a sustitute, do you find the connections you make online help alleviate some of the loneliness?

  3. Expat Mum says:

    After 22 years here, and with most of my close friends still in the UK, I think I have accepted this, as I spend almost every day entirely on my own.
    Being a writer, that goes with the job, but I really like the time I have during the day. About once every other week I’ll go out and have lunch with someone but that’s about it. (Having said that, it’s twice this week – wow!)
    To me, this is solitude but it’s not loneliness. The loneliness part comes from not having anyone around you who went to your wedding, remembers what you were like as a teenager, knows when your birthday is or even what your middle name is.

  4. Tammy says:

    The loneliest I’ve ever felt has been in a group of people I didn’t want to be around.

    Like you, I spent a lot of time by myself growing up. I loved it. Yes, there were times when I wanted friends, and I had some really close ones at school, but I have always valued that alone time.

    When I lived abroad, I was fortunate enough to meet some very friendly people who would invite me to things, and pleasant coworkers that made my time in the office rather enjoyable. I was social, and yet some of my favorite times were when I was out exploring the historical sites of my community by myself.

  5. louise mcg says:

    wow. I really could have been one of the people you spoke to, even though I wasnt…this is exactly what I’m experiencing at the moment, im not a shy person, quite outgoing actually, but right now I feel really lonely. I also enjoy my own company but the thing I miss most right now is the option. I dont have anyone here to talk to other than my husband, and as friendly as people I meet try to be, I just feel disconnected. skype and instant chat only go so far. I know I need to learn the language and that will help but that’s not going to happen overnight, and by that time I fear I’ll have changed, become disheartened. interesting topic. thanks for sharing.

    • Don’t get disheartened! I hope there’s some sort of expat groups near you to tide you over until that time when you know the language well enough to make friends?

  6. Iota says:

    I did notice that the taboo about confessing you’re lonely didn’t seem so strong in the US as in the UK. In the early days of mummy blogging, a newspaper article said that it was “lonely mums” who blogged, and it created a huge outcry. “I’m not lonely, thank you very much” said a million blog posts. It doesn’t seem to have such a loaded, judgemental tone in American English as British English.

    I might be wrong about this. It might be that it’s easier to admit to being lonely when new in a foreign country (who would hold that against you?), so perhaps it was just that at that point in my life, I personally found it easier to admit (to myself as well as to others?)

    I think there’s an interesting blog post to be written (not brave enough to write it myself) about whether being an expat can help you shed old friends. We seem to think of that as an entirely negative issue, but I feel it might have its positive sides.

  7. I love spending hours and hours by myself during the day – I’m not a chatty person during the day, but strangely enough I will attend the opening of an envelope in the evening. I guess that’s because I’m a SAHM, maybe if I had a job in an office I’d be satisfied with the home fires in the evening. My biggest regret is that my kids don’t read, that’s a solitary but never lonely activity

  8. Melissa says:

    You have captured loneliness so well in your post. There have been times when I have been really, really lonely living in the uk. It was worst when I knew no-one and didn’t have anyone to talk to. But it wasn’t much better when I did know people but still felt alone. Even with people I can claim to be very good friends with now, I often feel like a stranger looking in rather than actually being present (if that makes sense). I think part of the reason for this is because it takes a while to build up a sense of history with new people and you constantly feel as though these is a part of you missing, the part that you were growing up. I am pleased to say though that I have learnt to enjoy solitude and the ties to home are thinning so that more and more of my history is now here. I feel as though I belong more now, making it easier to connect and make deeper friendships.

    • You’re right, that sense of history is crucial to strong friendships. I think onehas to make a big effort to identify different types of friendships and enjoy them for what they are rather than what we wish they could be–a new friendship is great for doing things together like coffee or a gallery, but not good for calling up when you just need to vent about something. That’s what I have found difficult to compartmentalise but as I’ve learned how to do it over the years I’ve foun I enjoy time with my different friends better. It’s good to read you feel more like you belong now and can make the deeper friendships!

  9. Thanks for this post M! Love it when someone else puts into words feelings I can’t always express. I want to write a longer comment, but time is short, so I’m just going to leave a link to a post a very good friend of mine wrote which I loved and sums up the ‘superficial jockeying for social position’ that goes on when you move abroad!

  10. R. says:

    I can so relate to this post. I come from a diplomatic background where we moved to a new continent, let alone a new country, every 2 years. I went to international schools where all the other kids were in the same position as I was – you make friends quickly and know that you will be moving far apart from each other again soon. Now that I am back in my ‘native’ country (I have been here for 4 years) I struggle so much to find fellow ‘natives’ I can relate to. I didn’t go to the same schools, I speak with a funny accent, my outlook on life is so so different to everyone else. I keep thinking that if I move to a country where I am not the same nationality as everyone else, I will be able to make friends so much easier. Having moved around so much has definitely made me different from anyone else and I have become quite a hermit. Don’t get me wrong,I love it. I love being by myself, doing my own thing. But I am a 29 year old single female and crave having girlfriends to chat to. My family and I are very close so when I do socialize, it’s mostly with them. I have tried to make sense of this so many times. I love being on my own, but I yearn for acceptance. In my own country. Quite the opposite to what most people have commented on – I yearn to move to a ‘host’ country full of other expats so that I can fit in.

    • What about if you were to seek out expats in your home country? Foreign nationals who have the same mindset as you. I find that even though I am settled enough in the UK that I can comfortably call it home now, I still gravitate towards other expats (no matter their nationality), some new some longterm like myself. I don’t seek them out, but I just seem to click with them more quickly (for the reasons you outlined, probably).

  11. Very interesting post. It was my decision to move to Germany and there was already some kind of “social network” waiting for me. I have since made new friends, but being in my own company was never a problem for me anyway.

  12. This is so true. I have worked abroad and always ended up mixing with other British expats – which made me feel sad in a way, but happy in a way that nothing else could, for exactly the reason you say – that they got me and I got them, so we could all laugh together. And you’re right about how social media can bring you connections you never imagined – but they do come!

  13. HonestMum says:

    This beautifully written post really run true for me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so lonely after my first child was born. I was the first from my set of close friends to have a baby so was flung into ‘mummy groups’ NCT etc but didn’t quite fit in. I made a few close friends through friends of friends that ‘got me’ and who I was before my child. People I would have clicked with, without the mutual fact we all reproduced. I think as children it is drummed into us that we have to have a ‘best friend’. I’m greedy and in life (living abroad, university, the freelance life) have been lucky enough to find lots of best friends and I’m always open to more x

    • Wow, thank you for this comment, so well thought out and your experiences expressed so eloquently. It’s true that we’re conditioned to search for a best friend and that’s unfair because not all of us thrive with a single best friend-and as you say, more friends are great!

  14. I love this post – Solitude is not loneliness – so true. I often seek out solitude as I feel I don’t get enough of it. Mr B and I also sometimes dream of moving to another country and one of the things I look forward to is the solitude! However, I would miss my friends here. Like HonestMum, I have more than one ‘best friend,’ and they are close for different reasons – some of them have been ‘best’ for different seasons, and they all still hold a place in my heart even if I rarely see them now. I have also made a few friends through Mummy groups but only one or two have become really close. With the rest, conversation tends to stick to the ‘safe’ subject of our kids – but they all have their place! As for moving away to ‘shed’ friends… That would be an interesting post! And I agree with Lota that there are positives to ‘shedding’ friends at times… I could go on but I’d better stop myself there as I have a tendancy to ramble on!

    • Interesting comment! Can you find solitude where you are without moving to another country? I used to go for long drives in the morning after the school run–sounds really ODD I know! But it was nice, driving different routes, going slowly where I liked to look at the houses, checking out scenery on roads I always wondered about… all by myself. Lovely!

  15. Albert says:

    The way to being alone but not feeling loneliness is to practice the Art of Awareness. You will soon come to realise there are hundreds of people around with whom you have intuitive empathy.
    Your day will be measured by how many strangers have said “hullo” to you, and how many strangers you yourself have said “hello” to.
    Bon Chance,

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