Overcoming Isolation

Isolation is the companion of loneliness. It can be a reality if you live in the middle of nowhere or it can simply be a state of mind. If you chose to be cut off from the rest of civilization, then you probably like it that way, in which case this blog and my ‘Five Tips for Overcoming Isolation’ are not aimed at you!loneliness

During my twenties I lived on my own; I was happy – I had my own place and felt very grown up – I embraced my independence like a longed for best friend. And yet I remember arriving at work and asking my co-worker, Jacquie, if she’d spoken to anyone since I’d said “goodnight” at the end of the previous working day. people on waterloo bridgeWe laughed about the fact that we travelled home on packed commuter trains, walked the half mile from the station to our homes, prepared and ate our dinner for one, watched some television, slept alone and repeated the same routine going back into work the following morning. And yet we had not spoken to another living soul even though we were surrounded by people on the streets of London; nipping through Waterloo Station and riding the escalator up to our platform, no words were exchanged with our fellow commuters.

Why? I guess it’s because city life is made more bearable by the anonymity of crowds. People hate being packed into a confined space where they can feel each other’s pointy elbows pressing into their sides and even smell their breath! We all get it – we really don’t want to speak to each other.

According to the New York Times ‘MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.’ Interestingly, their report even suggests that living alone can make people more sociable.

Sometimes I felt isolated and a tad lonely despite having a buoyant social life. Balancing this was the knowledge of a trade-off; I could have a lodger and the potential companionship that might afford, but I preferred my privacy and less hassle. You know the kind of thing; waiting to get in the bathroom before work, your Gran’s familiar old frying pan burned and ruined, doors banging at unsociable hours. I did try it for a while (and I was fortunate to have a choice).

So, Isolation can be caused by a lack of communication and companionship or, as I’ve alluded to, you can feel isolated by your own thoughts, hemmed in by secrets that can’t be shared… There are many such examples; family members who harbour an alcoholic – each feels forced to play their part in concealing the truth, the married partner who yearns for an old lover, the secret gambler who’s blown the family’s savings, the child starting a new school who has no friends but doesn’t want to worry their mum and dad, the parent with an ‘empty nest’ or the elderly person who has lost their mobility and contact with the outside world. These people and others (the potential list is endless) might feel they cannot confide their loneliness.  man praying

For me, there was nothing in my experience quite so isolating as arriving in an unfamiliar country and trying to orientate myself, whilst experiencing the losses of ‘home’ and all the while thinking I should be grateful for my new existence. Fortunately not everyone feels like that, but it’s easy to see how they could.

My earlier foreign posting and the subsequent repatriation had gone fine. The problem with the second posting was that I did not feel that sense of a personal ‘ trade-off’.

An accompanying expatriate spouse, who had stalled their career by moving countries, I found life a struggle without that focus and as for many expat spouses, my partner had his head down in a new job which required significant periods of time away from home.DSC_2919

With young children at school, most of the day (and evening) hours were suddenly very quiet. In time I picked up the threads and made a new life, I adjusted, but the transition was very challenging.

I have learnt that self care and a preparedness to take action are key to coping with such challenges. Here are FIVE TIPS FOR OVERCOMING ISOLATION:

  • Firstly, have some compassion for yourself. Imagine observing yourself as someone you care deeply for; what do you notice and what advice would you give that person?
  • Keep in touch with established contacts (if you have them) but be prepared to go out in the world and form new bonds. Remember it takes time to build new relationships; they require care and attention – think of a house plant that needs regular, small amounts of water in order to thrive.
  • Acknowledge the losses and get the feelings out there – do something creative – a new hobby perhaps? It will provide an outlet for your emotions. It may also provide an opportunity to make new friends if you join a club or a group activity.
  • People often find it helps to keep a journal of their feelings; the therapeutic benefits of this are well documented. More on journalling below.
  • If at all possible speak to someone you trust about how you feel (professional therapist or otherwise). Please don’t suffer in silence…

JOURNALLING

A journal can take many forms, you could begin with a diary describing the day’s events or you might like to include how you felt when you got up and how you feel at the end of the day. You could find yourself writing pages of thoughts and feelings. Your journal will quickly become a place for you to clear your mind, a dumping ground and perhaps a highly creative, exploratory place. Whatever model works for you, there are many benefits to writing from your authentic self. Your mind will have a focus that could, in turn, benefit your health.

Throughout the day we have thousands upon thousands of thoughts, most of which come and go in a second. Many of these thoughts will link us to memories, often the same ones being replayed over and over, again and again. The result is we reinterpret how we feel based on repetitious ways of processing. By writing these feelings down we can observe our own thought patterns as they emerge, clearing a path for new ones. Essentially, by grounding our thoughts on paper and thereby observing them, we create ourselves space for alternative ways of thinking.

It takes time to process and integrate change and loss. If we know what is wrong we can take the necessary action to make adjustments to our life. And if we let go of the past we can more easily give our attention to the present.

If you would like to learn more about the process of journalling and how it helped me survive a depressive episode, follow my adventures in An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity.

Finally, I’m looking forward to talking about recognising depression at the forthcoming Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) later in the month. If you would like to register for the confererence, the deadline is Wednesday 13th March. Among the presenters will be Linda A Janssen, author of an exciting new book The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures (to be published soon). You can find Linda at www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Please go ahead and comment on the topic of this post.

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Christmas in prospect; a SWOT of possibilities!

Is Christmas better in prospect than reality? Does it live up to your expectations or struggle to measure up against the picture perfect images of an ideal home beamed at you by a hungry marketing machine.

Unless you are living a very quiet life, you will have encountered advertisements for Christmas merchandise from early November. They are in the ‘pop ups’ on your computer, the television (of course), billboards lining the streets, taking up aisles of your supermarket and you’ll hear the playing of (often jaundiced) Christmas music as you browse around the shops. Sometimes it even gets in to that most personal of spaces; our mobile phones!

I wonder what effect those omnipresent messages have on you. Perhaps they do tip you into a festive mood, giving you a warm glow in readiness for what’s to come or maybe they signal the beginning of weeks of shopping for presents (that you hope will demonstrate you purchased them thoughtfully) and a massive food shop which makes you wonder how you’ll make it through to January without considerable expansion.

I have noticed all of this and there are weeks of preparations to go yet!

I don’t wish to be a curmudgeon and I’m all for celebrating the birth of Christ, but the expectation to have a good one can weigh heavy at this time of year, particularly if there is another challenge to factor in.

Expats may feel they want to (or have to) travel to see family at Christmas, which adds a whole level of complexity to preparations. Such as what to do about presents – they can’t all be transported in suitcases and then there’s where to lodge – you don’t want to outstay your welcome and pressure to see everyone while you are back and so on.

For others who long for the familiarity of a family Christmas in their ‘home’ country, they will miss the people and special traditions. It can be difficult to get through Christmas day in a far off place…

Or in fact they may be really glad to be away from it all and possibly feeling guilty to boot – or not!

My memoir An Inconvenient Posting recounts my feelings on our first Christmas in Texas:

‘I yearned for family and aspects of home that made it feel like Christmas; cold weather, dark afternoons, the Queen’s speech, dubious television Christmas specials and wrinkly relatives.’

Christmas is especially difficult for those experiencing loss of some kind; when it feels like the rest of the world is in festive mood (clearly an illusion) how do you make it bearable? Some people may be reminded of happier times gone by, or be anxious how this Christmas will pan out when so much has changed in the last twelve months. They may just want it to be over and long for a distraction of some kind…

What are your pluses and minuses? I have thought of a few. I imagine you have others you could add to your own SWOT of thoughts (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). Possibly some of the ‘strengths’ I’ve noted might be considered a ‘weakness’ or vice versa.

STRENGTHS

Lots of social events.

Break from work.

The relief of knowing its done for another year.

Community coming together through events such as Christmas lights being turned on, carol services, school fairs, grottos etc.

Enjoy traditions; Christmas pudding, smell of pine needles in the house, stockings hung on the fireplace, a garland on the front door or maybe a bbq on the beach if you are in a warm a climate!

WEAKNESSES

Loss of routine.

Might be exhausting

Hours spent writing cards and wrapping presents.

A lot of travelling to see people.

For the providers, it goes on for weeks.

OPPORTUNITIES

Might see people you don’t get to meet very often; older children are often at home.

Excuse to spend time with extended family.

Play games/bond with children.

Nice presents!

Can put your feet up and read or watch TV.

Time to be thankful for what you’ve got and hopefully feel good about it.

Opportunity to give to others.

THREATS

Feeling you have to attend functions you are not keen on.

Over doing it at the Xmas party.

Pressure to finish work tasks and others “before Xmas” events.

Too much pressure to shop.

Might get the wrong presents.

Too much time with family!

Enforced time together can lead to tensions and flare ups.

Expensive.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing on the 25th December, Christian or not, celebrating or not, I hope you are feeling okay about the run up to it.

If you would you like to read more about Christmas as an expat and how I faired you can buy An Inconvenient Posting by Laura J Stephens published by Summertime Publishing on Amazon.

My article in Among Worlds Magazine: Hidden Immigrant or Foreigner?

“What do you mean a bath?” boomed my friend’s Dad with disdain. He sounded to me like the news readers I had heard on the BBC. I became aware of the pounding in my chest and heat rising up my neck. Looking down at me again, he countered: “For heavens sake, speak the Queen’s English child – its baarrth, not bath”.

Laughing and shaking his head, he turned his back and continued buffing the paintwork of his Renault car. In all likelihood he was oblivious to the wound he had inflicted upon me.

Back in 1971, I was only eight years old, but was fully aware that the joke was on me. I slunk home feeling I had behaved shamefully. I was struggling to cope with the losses of our recent move from Northern England to London. A smaller house, a smaller garden and a smaller life. Ridiculed for my Geordie, North of England accent, I was finding it hard to make friends at school.  No one it seemed wanted to befriend the kid who was difficult to understand.

I had a small success making friends with Paul, but his father’s retort had made me feel an outsider again. If I could not even speak in an acceptable way, how would I ever belong?

Like countless other children, before and after me, I quickly learned the answer to my dilemma, which was to change the way I spoke. As a result, I developed what my French teacher referred to as a “phonetic ear” – the ability to imitate an accent. Aged eight, this was my first experience of finding the chameleon from within.  It was not my last.

Thirty years later, as I touched down at Singapore’s Changi Airport, I became what Ruth Van Reken1 refers to in her Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs as a “Foreigner” – the definition being to “look different from the culture and think different from the culture”. A theoretical model which has helped me to understand the challenges of moving to a place where the “surrounding dominant culture” is different.

On moving to South East Asia as an adult I expected cultural diversity. The outer physical differences between myself and the Singaporeans were obvious and to an extent so were their inner – thinking, values and belief systems. Of course, I still experienced significant culture shock, but I was also able to resurrect the skills which sprouted from a need to survive a childhood move.

I could be found lurching around Singapore in the back of a taxi, trying not to stick to the black vinyl seats, I would holler “U turn back please la”. I was copying the Singlish accent and was relieved to be understood.

Having returned to the UK, another move this time to Houston, Texas came along four years later. I imagined that I would be culturally aligned in this new posting, with hindsight (a wonderful thing) I was ill prepared for the move.

On arriving in Houston, I was a “Hidden Immigrant” – look like culture and think different from culture. I was surprised to find that the British, with their deep historic ties to the Americans since the Pilgrim Fathers, thought very differently on many issues even some of the deeps ones – the values and beliefs.

As I learned to negotiate the ribbon of freeways, I was alarmed to see motor bikers without helmets and workers with their dogs, huddled untethered, in the back of open trucks.

As a “Hidden Immigrant” I looked like a local, but was thinking differently. I felt more challenged than in Singapore, where I clearly was different because I looked it. Now isolated, alienated even, I tried to function in my new home. At first, questions such as why is it considered a good thing that “everythin’s bigger in Texas” – including the gargantuan portions of food, flummoxed me and highlighted the contrast in our values.

Winston Churchill, the British wartime Priminister, is famously credited with referring to Britain and America as “two nations divided by a common language”. I could relate to this, my radar was broken as I tried to cope with what I perceived as an over familiarity in communication style, underpinned with little depth in conversation. I was confused about how to begin and where to end. What should I hold back and what should I bring forth?

After many months of tussling with my identity – a period of great adjustment, I found it helped to remind myself, that there does not have to be a right or wrong, just alternative ways of being. With acceptance, came integration and gradually I felt my former life had transitioned to the new one. Now I could enjoy the posting. It also helped to discover that even Americans from other States, have experienced culture shock after arriving in Texas!

Now, more than a year since I arrived, I appreciate the warmth that is offered to me as I move around Houston. “How are you t’day and where ya’ll from?” is a typical greeting. Houstonians often like to make acquaintance, if only for a minute, as you pass through the supermarket till. What I mistook for insincerity was merely people operating from a friendly bubble.

I have learnt how to respond in my new environment and function effectively.  I have also traded my cultural way of communicating, but part of my identity is retained – as soon as I speak most people know I am British (or Australian!).

Having three children under the age of 12, I am focused on helping them cope with their cross cultural moves and appreciate the diversity they encounter. As I look back and try to make meaning of my emotional journey as a “Foreigner” and a “Hidden immigrant”, I notice how difficult it was for me as a child, to verbalise my dilemma.

How do you explain to a potential play mate, why you have a strange accent? (which until recently you were not even aware you had). How do you cope with giving up a part of yourself, which you thought was perfectly normal? That is before your world was transformed overnight.

Children are by nature, ill equipped to analyse their experience and cope with the loss of their culture and identity. It can be tough to feel what Linda Bell[1] reports in her book Hidden Immigrants as “coming from outer space”.

I have tried to give my children the words to explain who they are. For example, they might say “I come from Kent – which is near London, but I am living in Houston”. It sounds simple enough but can be complex – my youngest child was born in Singapore, should she mention this? Perhaps not, simplicity is easier.

And I wonder, what of the children who continually move countries, those that have not lived in the place where their parents grew up or their extended family live. How they look and think may be more complex.  They will need words too.

There are, as we know many upsides arising from exposure to cultural diversity. One of the potential attributes being a confidence upon meeting new people. Learning to be cautious and observe, before leaping into relationships is another skill. Not a surprise then, that this growth phenomena can spawn the development of sophisticated social skills in TCK’s.

My experiences have taught me to make a judgement regarding how much of myself I will trade off. As an adult, I can choose to give up some of my own culture or at least keep it temporarily hidden in the interests of fitting in or making a friend. To have done otherwise and denied any experience of culture shock, might surely have made me culturally incompetent.  These decisions are often made at a subconscious level as we act on our gut instinct. But we can all become aware of what is okay for us – how much of the inner identity we show through our outer self. Which parts we might change in order to be accepted and effective in our environment.

It can be helpful to know we have a choice and support our children in theirs. And with a little curiosity and a sense of adventure, we can usually experience the joy of learning about others and new ways of being in our adopted home.

Copies of Among World magazine  are available at:

http://www.interactionintl.org/amongworlds.asp


1 David C Pollock/Ruth E Van Reken (1996) Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs.  Pol/Van Cultural Identity Box Copyright 1996

[1] Linda Bell (1997) Hidden Immigrants. Cross Cultural Publications/Crossroads