The Quest for Belonging: Navigating New Friendships Abroad

Living abroad offers a unique opportunity not just to explore new places but to explore the depths of our own identity. The quest for belonging in a new country teaches us that true acceptance comes from within and that the most profound connections are formed when we've the courage to be ourselves.

The Quest for Belonging: Navigating New Friendships Abroad
Building meaningful friendships abroad takes time

The path to belonging in a new country is often fraught with difficulties.

Language barriers can be a significant obstacle, making it hard to express oneself fully or understand others at a deeper level.

Cultural differences can also lead to misunderstandings or make it challenging to connect on shared experiences.

Furthermore, the transient nature of expat communities can make it hard to form lasting friendships, as people often come and go, leading to a sense of impermanence and superficiality in relationships.

The Key Distinction Between Fitting in and True Belonging

Living abroad is an exhilarating journey, filled with new experiences, cultures, and friendships. However, it also presents a unique set of challenges, especially when it comes to fitting in and finding a sense of belonging in a new environment. The distinction between fitting in and truly belonging is profound, particularly in the context of forming new friendships abroad.

Belonging is being accepted for youFitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. — Brené Brown

Fitting in is often the first instinct when we find ourselves in a new country. It's about assessing the situation and molding ourselves into who we think we need to be to be accepted. This might mean altering our behaviors, interests, or even values to match those of our new peers. While this strategy might offer temporary comfort and a semblance of acceptance, it's a precarious foundation for relationships. Over time, the effort to maintain a persona that isn't truly ours can become exhausting and isolating.

Belonging, on the other hand, is fundamentally different. It doesn't require us to change who we are; instead, it demands that we be authentic. To belong is to find a space where our true selves are not just accepted but valued. It's about forming connections that are rooted in genuine understanding and appreciation of each other's uniqueness. This level of acceptance fosters a deeper, more resilient bond, but it's not without its challenges, especially when navigating the cultural and social nuances of a new country.


Feeling left out and misunderstood is tough

Finding Connection

Everyone yearns for human connection. According to scientist Matthew Lieberman, our desire for social bonds is as fundamental as our need for food and water. This universal need binds us all, yet our approaches to fulfilling it are varied and often complicated.

Sharing a personal insight:

My friend moved to a new country and hoped to make friends. They met an Argentinean family with a kid who got along well with their daughter. Initially, things looked promising, and the kids enjoyed playing together, spending time after school. However, after a couple months, when another Argentinean family joined their school, the two Argentinean kids became closer because they shared the same language. My friend and her daughter felt left out, especially when the moms spoke mostly in Spanish during walks home, making it hard for them to join the conversation. Trying to address the feeling of exclusion, my friend reached out to the other mom. The other mom expressed concerns about the interactions between the children, mentioning her current personal circumstances that limited her capacity to address these tensions. This situation made my friend sad and frustrated because they were unaware of any issues before. Feeling left out and misunderstood is tough, especially in a new country. It's even harder when it feels like your child is being judged too. My friend just wanted their daughters to be friends and to have a good relationship with the other moms.

My friend's story highlights the challenges of making friends abroad, dealing with language barriers and the importance of communication and understanding in navigating new friendships.

This journey also involves patience and resilience. Building deep, meaningful friendships takes time, and there will inevitably be setbacks along the way.  It’s important to keep trying and to talk about how we feel. Sometimes, it's through these tough times that we learn and grow the most. Remember, each interaction, each shared experience, and each moment of vulnerability brings us closer to finding our tribe. These are the people who will laugh with us, cry with us, and support us, not because we fit a certain mold, but because of who we are at our core.

Have you faced similar challenges in new environments? Did you find it difficult to find your own voice to express your thoughts and feelings?

Being brave sets you free

What separates someone who hides their true self for approval from someone who lives freely, not worrying about others' opinions?

The answer is courage.

Belonging to yourself, before trying to fit in anywhere else, requires a lot of courage. It's about having the courage to be yourself, to be noticed, to be different, and to ignore what others think. It's about having the courage to create your own path. Standing out isn't easy at first, and it's impossible if you're afraid to step out of your comfort zone.

The picture shows that 'fitting in' and 'belonging' are opposites. 'Fitting in' doesn't care if you're being true to yourself, but 'belonging' is all about being genuine. You can't truly belong if you're just trying to fit in.


Designed by Ysa K. from Mind Cafe

The Key to Real Belonging

Listen to Your Heart, Not Just Your Head

To be true to yourself, you need to know what really matters to you. This means looking deep inside to understand your true values, desires, and dreams.

When you're about to leave your comfort zone and grow, it’s where doubts start to come in and sometimes, our own thoughts can be unkind: 'Are you sure about this?' 'Will people think you're showing off?' 'Who are you to give advice?'.

Remember, your inner voice wants to protect what you have and get what you want. But here's the thing: to truly be yourself and belong, you might have to let go of some things you have. That's the big challenge. Moving away from old habits can be tough. The more you listen to your soul, heart, or inner guide (however you want to call your inner compass that guides you toward the right path), the easier it becomes to understand what it's telling you. Starting to pay attention to this inner guide is a good first step.

To align more closely with your true self and navigate the journey of personal growth amidst doubts and fears, consider adopting the following actions:

  1. Journaling: Start a daily or weekly journal to explore your thoughts, feelings, values, and dreams. Writing can help clarify what truly matters to you and identify the areas where doubts creep in.
  2. Meditation and Mindfulness: Practice meditation or mindfulness to connect with your inner self. This can quiet the noise of the outside world and your own critical thoughts, making it easier to hear your inner voice.
  3. Set Personal Goals: Based on your values and desires, set small, achievable goals. These should be aligned with who you want to be and what you want to achieve, regardless of external opinions.


Brave leap to belonging

Enjoy The Transition! 

Moving from trying to fit in to truly belonging can feel scary. There's often a gap between stopping the effort to fit in and finding real friends who accept you for who you are. It's like jumping from one rooftop to another. You run, jump, and trust that you'll land safely. Fitting in feels safe, belonging feels even safer, but the middle part is frightening. You've left behind superficial connections but haven't yet found where you truly belong. It's an awkward, in-between stage.

During this time, the most important thing to remember is that you have yourself. I've been through this many times, especially when I moved to New Zealand. Moving there with three small children and my husband was hard. Everything was different: the people, the culture, the language and even the weather. I missed my friends and family. Sometimes, I felt very alone, because making new friends, finding a good work-life balance and managing the kids while my husband was at work was not easy in a foreign land. But going through these tough times, I learned a lot about myself. I found out what I really liked to do, what was important to me, and what I was good at. I had to be brave and try things on my own, which was scary but also exciting.

Looking back at these in-between times helped me get to know myself much better than if I had kept trying to fit in. I started to enjoy my own company more every day. Now, I can't imagine wanting to fit in like before.

Here are some thoughts that might help you in this process:

  1. Reflect on Your Progress: Regularly take time to reflect on your growth and the changes you’ve made. Acknowledge your progress, even if it's small, and adjust your goals as needed.
  2. Learn to Let Go: Identify which habits, beliefs, or relationships no longer serve your true self. Letting go can be challenging, but it's essential for growth. Start with small steps and gradually build your confidence in making bigger changes.
  3. Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself, especially when doubts arise. Remind yourself that growth is a process, and it's okay to make mistakes along the way.

Guide yourself towards genuine connections

Finding Your True Circle

You've been getting along with others by trying to fit in. But honestly, there are too many people around you, and not all of them are truly meant to be in your life. When you begin to embrace who you are, live by your own standards, and act in a way that's true to yourself, you're going to shake things up.

And what will happen when you do that?

Yes, some people will drift away.

But you shouldn't worry. The ones who leave are often those who were just along for the ride, not genuinely part of your journey. By being true to yourself, trust that the right people will stay with you. Be thankful to those who leave because they help simplify your life.

If you're thinking about your relationships and wondering whether they're more about fitting in or belonging, consider this: How do I feel during and after spending time with these people? Your feelings will guide you in the right direction.

Strategies to support you in this phase include:

1.      Embrace New Experiences: Actively seek out new experiences that push you slightly out of your comfort zone. This could be a new hobby, class, or social event. These experiences can help you grow and understand yourself better.

2.      Seek Inspirational Resources: Read books, listen to podcasts, or watch videos that inspire personal growth and self-discovery. Learning from others who have walked this path can offer motivation and insight.

3.      Professional Guidance: Consider seeking the help of a coach, therapist, or counselor if you find it challenging to navigate this journey alone. Professional guidance can provide strategies and support tailored to your needs.

Final thoughts

If you're still trying to fit in, remember this: Fitting in means changing yourself. Belonging means just being yourself.

Doesn't that seem much simpler? So, take a step back, appreciate who you are, and let the world see the real you. The right people, the ones who truly matter, will love you for it.