How to deal with growing pains abroad

Do you ever have those days where it seems that everything would just be easier if you’d stayed home or moved back there?

Me too.

And the thing is, time doesn’t necessarily make it better unless something else changes too. There’s some growth involved, and with it comes some pain as well, but fear not! I wrote this post to help you understand two things:

  1. why we get into bad moods/funks in the first place (and why you’re especially likely to develop them if you live abroad) and,
  2. how to shift out of them when they happen.


Part 1 – Why you’re more susceptible to bad moods and funks when you live abroad

When people are involved, so is communication. And with it comes the opportunity for miscommunication. When different cultures and languages as involved, the opportunity is multiplied.


Largely due to social scripts.

In simple terms, a social script is an expected way of behaving socially, that can vary from culture to culture, and language to language. While we’re growing up, we tend to internalize certain ideas of how something ‘should’ be from our surroundings.

For example, asking for something and saying please, holding the door for someone and expecting them to thank you, the things you’re expected to do, say or not do or say when listening to someone.

These scripts are numerous and they can range from being very brief to quite long.

When you’re dealing with a new culture, it can feel like you’re acting out a play you don’t know the lines to. Or ever worse, you’re acting out a different play than the people you’re interacting with!

Many people tend to hide their scripts behind ‘common sense’ and ‘common courtesy’ but this is a very rigid way of seeing things. You can’t really decide if something is common or not before you firmly plant yourself in the other ‘play’ and decide what is common from that point of view.

When I first moved to Finland, I remember feeling very clumsy.

I said the wrong things. I spoke at the wrong time. There were lots of awkward silences (and not the good kind).

I tried to figure out what was expected, all the while feeling like I was falling short. My moods were all over the place: from uncontrollable anger to inconsolable sadness.

The feeling of always getting it wrong can feel impossible to overcome on some days.

Time can help us figure this stuff out, but only if we can change the way we perceive things. You can be here for years and still feel like this. There usually isn’t anyone there to tell us how to avoid these feelings.

So to counteract that, I put together 4 steps to help you move past the funk and the bad moods, and process the growing pains. It’s not a list for the faint of heart, so proceed at your own risk.


Part 2 – How to get out of a bad mood or bigger funk, in 4 steps.

Step 1: Recognize it.

So simple, yet so evasive.

When we’re feeling crappy, we WANT to feel crappy. We hold on to our crappy feeling and guard it against invaders.

Good mood – stay away! Why are those people smiling?

It’s hard to take a step back and see that we’re hurting ourselves by being rigid. So when we notice our thoughts turning negative, our pulse accelerating or the fact that we’re holding our breath, plant a flag in your thoughts:

“This is bad mood. I’m in a bad mood. This is an opportunity to grow a little.”

If you can do this, you’ve won half the battle. (Sometimes I even do a dance to try to lighten the mood.)


Step 2: Get curious about it.

Now that we know we’re in a bad mood, and there’s an opportunity to grow (which is the last thing we want to think about right now) we want to figure out why we’re there and how to get out.

Likely there are lots of thoughts in your head pointing towards the reason, but they may not be spelling it out clearly.

It’s tempting to put the blame on others: friends, neighbours, bus drivers, etc.

Since blaming others won’t do anything to alleviate our pain or lift us out of our bad moods, get curious about what could.

If bad moods are about rigidity and holding on to your script, ask yourself:

What beliefs am I holding onto that are causing me pain?

Then crack open a journal and write down your answers, where you can see them. Don’t filter your thoughts, just write them down so they’re no longer floating around in your head. Once they’re out in the open and you can see them they’re not trapped in your head hurting and confusing you. Now they can be observed.


Step 3: Re-frame the story.

After you’ve had the chance to see your story as you wrote it, and identify whatever belief or beliefs are holding you back, ask yourself:

  • Can I see the situation from the other person’s point of view? (Maybe give them the benefit of the doubt?)
  • Can I see the situation from an independent but compassionate third person point of view?
  • What is it that I need to learn here?
  • What belief can I let go of that’s no longer serving me?

Then, re-write the story.


Step 4: Show yourself compassion.

Growth is hard work.

It isn’t about being right or wrong. Nor is it about pretending that we weren’t hurt. Whenever we feel angry, we feel hurt. And it’s important to acknowledge this pain we feel is very real.

It’s just that staying angry and refusing to see things from different perspective eventually hurts us too. Our egos suffer either way.

To grow, we need to challenge your preconceived notions of how things ‘should’ be, and sometimes see ourselves in a not-so-favourable light.

So while you’re doing all this brave and courageous work, don’t forget to show yourself some love.

Just as you would with a loved one who’s making mistakes and learning from them, extend yourself the same love and understanding.

Be patient with yourself.

Be kind when you speak to yourself.

You’re doing awesome.

And when you least expect it, you’ll emerge on the other side of that bad mood.

It may take a day, a month, a year or more (depending on each situation), but trust yourself, trust the process, and trust that you’re exactly where you need to be.

I went through this process myself when trying to deal with my feeling over being spoken to in English instead of Finnish.


The process doesn’t work unless you put it to use, so tell us: Have you recently experienced growing pains? How did you manage to snap yourself out of a bad mood or a longer funk? Did you use any of the steps above?


Leave a comment below!


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Acknowledgements: This post has been inspired by so many things I’ve read and tried over the years, that I don’t think I could properly acknowledge them all. But as a starting point, Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong has had a big impact in how I consciously try to approach such situations, as have the words of my coach Samantha Thomas, spoken at just the right time. Thank you Brené and Sam!

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Hi! I’m Irina.

I’m a multibelonger to Finland, Canada and Romania, without ONE language or culture to call my own – I have several. My intention is to be present where I am and find inner peace and harmony where ever life takes me. I’m embracing the gems of the ongoing cultural and linguistic transition which is my life and hope to inspire others interested in doing the same. Click here to find out more!