Settling In: Living Abroad, Year One

Contributed by Jennifer Patterson, MA, LMFT

The first few months of living in a new country are full of excitement, discovery, and most likely a healthy dose of frustration. Adaptation, the act of adapting, is also known as adjustment to different conditions, and sets in around 6–12 months after The Big Move. Some things are no longer as difficult or frustrating, or you’ve given in to the idea that even though you show up when the office opens to get your ticket, you’ll probably still be there for a few hours (if not all day). You probably understand cultural norms a little better and are feeling more connected to the language and local community.

Maybe you’ve started nesting with more intent; you’ve switched to local products and are no longer wishing someone would come visit to bring you that thing you can’t live without. At the one year mark many people have a pretty good idea of whether or not they are starting to set down new roots. Do you still think about yourself as an expat, or have you started to identify as an immigrant? There is a lot of discussion about what these identifiers actually mean… many people see the term expat as referring to people who are transient, on specific job contracts, digital nomads, professional gypsies, or people who are planning to return to their home country. Immigrants are seen as those who plan to become permanent residents of the country they are living in.

No matter how you identify, the fact is that if you are still feeling like a bit of an outsider, you’re probably experiencing the growing pains of Year One. The flurry of visitors has died down, but people still pop up and you get a little annoyed that you have to explain that even though you live in this “exotic” locale, you are not on perpetual vacation. You still have work and rent and bills to pay attention to. Perhaps it feels confusing when people come to visit, because after living outside of your home country for a year, you see things with a different perspective. Sometimes when our lens changes it makes us feel unsettled and caught between different worlds. This can have a big impact on our sense of who we are and where we fit.

Life abroad is a constant balancing act between approaching things in a practical or matter-offact problem-solving way and waves of nostalgia or longing. Luckily for this writer, here in Portugal there is a word for this type of longing, called saudade. Saudade has no actual single definition, but refers to a collection of feelings that induce heartfelt melancholy, wistfulness and yearning for something that may or may not exist. As a therapist I fully embrace a word that essentially describes all the feels. But experiencing all the feels while missing your crew and feeling like your language skills are one step forward, three steps back even when you’ve been studying and going to class can be really hard.

The best way to manage this type of complex homesickness of being happy where you are but still missing something is to do your best to embrace it. The things and people that you miss are a part of who you are and it’s completely normal to feel sad and lonely. Finding a way to meet yourself where you are at and practice self-compassion is essential to your mental health and well-being. BUT HOW? That’s also complicated, because everyone is different and has different needs.

Some things you can do include celebrating any and every accomplishment, no matter how tiny. Take the time to reflect on these accomplishments, make lists of what you have done and try not to get stuck in what you haven’t done. Find out your language learning style, do your best to not compare yourself to other people (ugh! So hard!), and attempt to remember that trying is so much better than not trying. Keep up with the hobbies that you loved in your home country. Finding the supplies or places could be a hilarious adventure, and you might connect with like minded people. Make the time for the things that make you feel good, are grounding, and foster your creativity.

No matter where you live, being human is hard. Feelings are hard. But these things are also wonderful all at the same time. Feeling like you are in a struggle for balance and identity and having a schedule when you aren’t living a traditional life is a real thing. Do your best to embrace it all. And if you need help, ask for it. Talk to your fellow adventures, we are all full of stories and resources. And if you need a little more than a buddy to talk to, there are English speaking therapists and counselors in most major cities around the world, as well as a handful of online therapy sites.

[Note: This piece has been re-posted from the Jennifer’s website with permission from the author.]

 Author: Jennifer Patterson, MA, LMFT

Jennifer Patterson is an American trained and licensed psychotherapist and board-certified art therapist living in Lisbon, Portugal. Information about her practice can be found at