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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  • I’ve had a bit of an unfortunate week. Nothing serious has happened but after two months living in Germany the cultural and linguistic dissonance hit me fairly hard.

    In Germany it’s not that hard to get by without the language, but it’s still invaluable. I’m in the process of learning and language learning is one of my stronger points, but I haven’t been working on German for very long and it’s a process.

    In any case, every time I walk out the door in the morning to go to work, or walk out the door from work at the end of the day to head home, I’m immediately assaulted with a wave of mild anxiety. Anyone I run into on my half hour commute across the city is going to talk to me in German. They may speak English but they’re going to start with German.

    I’m not sure why that bothers me as much as it does, but it’s a state of constant alertness and a mild sensation that things are different and that I am out of place. It’s not usually that big a deal but this week was a little different.

    On Monday of this week I was accosted by a police officer checking train tickets at the bottom of the escalator down from the platform on my way home from work. I had entered in my destination when I bought my ticket two stations back into the machine so the price I paid was supposed to be valid.

    The officer didn’t think I paid the correct amount and told me that I was only supposed to go one station and that I had gone two. Obviously I knew that I had gone two, I make this commute every day both ways and always pay the same amount – exactly what the machine tells me it costs from there to my destination.

    In any case, he was wrong, I was right, but what can I do when we don’t share a language and it’s his word against mine. I thought I was going to get slapped with one of those hefty fines they give out for transportation violations. He ended up letting me go without really explaining why. For some reason I was shaking uncontrollably for the rest of the walk home. I was furious and scared and confused but really to a totally unnecessary point.

    I’m not really prone to anxiety and am generally quite composed in situations such as these but it was as if all of the stress and cultural isolation that I’ve experienced here came crashing down in one relatively minor incident.

    He wasn’t going to deport me or arrest me or shoot me. He wasn’t really rude or anything. It was a freak circumstance that didn’t actually end badly except for mild embarrassment, but it really ruined my entire week. It’s Friday now and I still get anxious getting off of public transportation, thinking I did something wrong and not knowing what it could be or what could happen.

    This mood has made other tasks throughout the week more frustrating. In this case I just let it slide and kept going with my life. I keep telling myself that if it happens again I’ll know what to say, how to say it and handle it much better than last time, but it has really disrupted my week. :-/

    • Irina Pravet

      Hi Brian, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sorry to hear it was a pretty unpleasant week because of this incident. I can relate to the feeling of mild anxiety, knowing that at any moment, someone could try to interact with you and you may not be able to interact back in an easy or natural way.

      It doesn’t seem to make sense that we’d get to upset about it but it can be quite rational: you want to connect with people in your surroundings and currently there’s a sense of disconnect. Yet you’re right about it being a process and it sounds like you’re taking it one day at a time, learning from each situation and putting that to use in the future. You’re doing exactly what you need to be doing to improve day-by-day, so be sure to show yourself some compassion and encouragement as you take these big steps forward.

      They say it takes at least 5 positive events to outweigh a negative one, maybe even more if it’s super negative. You could try playing a little game to shift the focus off this episode: look around and count all the things you like about where you live and work or are grateful for, all the stuff you didn’t have back home that you have here. They can be really little things, that when added up will slowly help you to shift the focus.

      Hang in there! Things will turn around soon.

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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. Read my story & more about what I do here.

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