If you’re considering living abroad, then I’m sure you’ve heard this story. Guy goes to Costa Rica on a surfing trip. He falls in love with the place. What was supposed to be a long weekend turns into two weeks. While he’s there he starts scoping out a place to live.
Guy goes home and collects his wife. They sell everything and buy a house near the beach in the tropics for forty grand. They move to paradise. He makes a living teaching gringos how to surf. She opens up a cafe in a beachside cabana. And they all live happily ever after.
Sounds great, right? Right? Wrong.
That’s not to say that the above scenario can’t happen. Apparently it did for that guy. It’s just that it isn’t the norm. In fact, it’s quite the anomaly. Hence the reason so many marketers like to tell that story, to make you think you could be next.
Unfortunately, though, thousands of expats every year live out stories that more closely resemble this one…
Guy gets tired of working behind a desk 50 hours per week. He’s sick of watching his taxes increase and his freedoms decrease. Guy says, “Honey, let’s move to the tropics!” His wife says, “Um…okay?”
Guy researches countries on the Internet and settles on one he thinks they’ll like. They pick a city in Central America and plan a trip down to visit. They stay at a local resort, sip piña coladas, and think “This is the life.” So they buy a little house and relocate their family.
Fast forward a few months. It’s the rainy season now, so it rains every day. The roof leaks, and they can’t find a single contractor who’ll finish the job. His “get rich quick” scheme is taking a little longer than expected.
The place they’ve moved has few expats, and they’re having trouble making friends. She’s sick of the weather and bored out of her mind. Frustrated, she announces that she’s moving back to the States. Alone.
While this second scenario is a much more accurate picture of many couples and individuals who try their hand at living abroad, it doesn’t have to be.
This couple just missed out on the next, and ultimately the most important, step in the whole process.
They may have picked out dishes and curtains for their new place. But they overlooked a lot of more crucial issues like how they were going to meet people, what activities were going to fill their newfound free time, and how they were going to cope when they encountered difficulties.
These and other considerations are all part of the mental preparation for moving abroad. Just as important as choosing a location, packing your belongings, and getting your paperwork in order is the need to formulate a shared vision for what your life will look like in your new home. And a carefully drawn plan of attack for you to implement once you arrive.
There are a lot of reasons that people cite for why they didn’t fare so well in what they thought was going to be the destination of their dreams. But almost all of them share the same underlying lack of sufficient mental preparation. Here are some of the most common mental mistakes expats make when living abroad, along with our suggestions of how you can avoid them.
#1. They have unrealistic expectations.
Erma Bombeck said it best. ”The grass is always greener over the septic tank.” And when you’re fed up with life in the U.S., it’s easy to see living abroad as the answer to all of the things that frustrate you about your current life.
While living overseas can be great, it’s never going to be perfect. Too many expats over-romanticize life abroad, only to be met with great disappointment when things don’t go exactly as planned.
Like the guy in our scenario learned, doing business in another country can be a real challenge. Your plan to meet a Latin hottie and live happily ever after, might make a better Lifetime movie than a reality show. Not to mention, living in a developing country presents a whole other set of issues that many expats just aren’t prepared to deal with.
The bottom line is that when you get your feet on the ground in your new country, and you remove those rose-colored glasses to wipe off the fog from the sweltering humidity, you may begin to see that everything isn’t always going to be sunshine and rainbows.
How to Prepare:
Don’t be naive. While it’s fun to let yourself believe that everything will work itself out and you’ll never have any problems, it just isn’t realistic. A better approach is to actively anticipate hurdles and be prepared to deal with them.
Learn some common complaints about the area where you’re headed and decide if they’re things you can handle. If they aren’t, maybe you should reconsider your destination, or even your move altogether. If the concerns are manageable ones for you, go ahead and decide exactly how you’re going to deal with them.
Living abroad, like living anywhere, is all about trade-offs. Think long and hard about what you value and what you’re willing to do without in order to have what’s most important to you. If freedom, opportunity, and adventure are your priorities, you’ll find them in Central America. If punctuality’s something you need to maintain your sanity, you’ll go crazy there.
Most importantly, and we can’t stress this enough, have a PLAN. Whatever your goals–launching a new business, meeting the man or woman of your dreams, becoming a world-champion surfer, etc.–map out the steps you’re going to take to make them happen. Be ready to get started as soon as you arrive.
#2. They get bored.
Many expats make the mistake of thinking that, once they move to the tropics, every day for the rest of their lives is going to be like a vacation. That usually lasts less than a month. When the honeymoon phase is over, even living abroad in paradise can start to lose its luster.
Lying in a hammock and drinking beer all day can quickly get old (not to mention wreak havoc on your health). And with nothing to fill your time and hold your attention, all the cracks in your new life will start to show through.
Besides, no matter what you might think, there’s virtually no one who can live [happily] doing absolutely nothing all the time. Sounds nice, but it doesn’t work. You’re eventually going to need a purpose. Or, at the very least, a pastime.
How to Prepare:
When making preparations to move abroad, try to see it as planning a life instead of just a really long vacation. Sure, you’ll have the time and freedom to do things you never could back in the U.S., but you also want to enjoy a meaningful existence. The hedonistic lifestyle can quickly become an empty one.
When you visit the cities you’re considering, look at the locals and other expats. See how they live and what they do. Think realistically about what you’ll do once you get there. Look at your current lifestyle and see what matches up.
Find opportunities to explore new hobbies, volunteer, and stay active both physically and socially. Not only will these activities stave off the boredom, they’ll help you get plugged in and find community in your new home.
#3. They aren’t on the same page.
Sadly many couples who move to the tropics have lopsided enthusiasm. One may be thirsty for adventure, while the other one hates being so far away from family. This partner may be gung-ho about a new business opportunity, which requires their companion to put their career on hold as a sacrifice.
It could even be as simple as a difference of opinion about where to move. He wants a small beach community, while she wants a more cosmopolitan city.
Whatever the discrepancy, it’s important to share the same vision and values. And it’s important to negotiate any compromises before you come, not after. The stress of an international move is hard enough. Throw in the lack of a support system and a whole slew of temptations in your new city, and it’s a recipe for disaster for a relationship that is already on the rocks.
Too many expat couples quickly find themselves getting a divorce, all because they failed to communicate about their goals.
How to Prepare:
Before making any decisions about living abroad, have a candid conversation with your partner about exactly what it is you want. Make sure you agree on important issues like where to move and what you’ll do when you get there.
With so many great places to live in Central America, there is almost surely a place that can accommodate both parties’ interests, so that no one has to sacrifice their dreams unnecessarily. If one wants a cooler climate, but the other wants to live near the beach, find a place on a lush mountainside overlooking the sea from a higher elevation.
The same compromise goes for your interests as well. If one of you is a theater buff and the other thrives on giving back, find a place where an established expat community has formed both a local theater group and a humanitarian organization that assists the local indigenous group.
#4. They have no idea what they are getting into.
Much expat turnover can be attributed to simply failing to do an adequate amount of homework. Many of the common complaints–such as unpleasant weather, inferior amenities, and lack of other expats–could be avoided with just a little more research into the destination city.
For families living abroad, a common mistake is to fail to take into account the needs of the children. If a city has a large expat community, but they’re all retirees, then the children might have trouble making friends. If the local school is subpar or there’s no private alternative, parents may need to homeschool.
While disappointment is never a good thing as an expat, it’s never more frustrating than when the issue could have been avoided entirely…with just the slightest bit of extra sleuthing.
How to Prepare:
Make sure your research on your destination city is exhaustive. Find out everything you can about it, from the perspective of a resident, not a tourist. Experience it in all seasons. Talk to other expats who live there. Talk to some who have left!
Think about what you require to live comfortably (e.g. high speed Internet, local yoga classes, etc.). Does your city have those things? Conversely, what are some of your biggest pet peeves (e.g. low water pressure, long waits at the health clinic, etc.)? Is there anything in your new city that’s likely to drive you bananas? What about the other members of your family? Will their needs be fulfilled there?
If you don’t yet feel like you could write a 10-page essay (from memory) on all the various aspects of your destination city and its surroundings, then maybe you need to keep researching. At the very least, you’ll go into the move with confidence knowing you’ve investigated every aspect as carefully as you possibly could.
That being said, realize that–if things don’t turn out exactly like you thought–there are still plenty of options available to you. If you’re unhappy in your destination city, there might be a better one a few towns over. One of the beauties of becoming an expat is that you have the freedom to pull the plug at any time if another, more appealing door opens for you.
#5. They don’t give it enough time.
Even expats who’ve lived and thrived abroad for decades will tell you that a little bit of homesickness and disorientation is completely normal, especially in the early days. But many new expats take it to mean something that it doesn’t.
Many react to those emotions by withdrawing and isolating themselves further. Rather than reaching out and embracing their new culture, they try to almost recreate their home country in their new country.
They eat at restaurant chains they recognize from home. They surround themselves with mementos and reminders of the things they left. They eventually begin to romanticize “home” and even start to forget or minimize the reasons they left.
Even those who seek the companionship of other expats can get caught in the trap of trying to only surround themselves with things that are familiar and comfortable. Before they know it, the only solution is to return to where they came from.
How to Prepare:
Rather than focusing on the challenges of your new city, especially as you struggle to acclimate yourself, remember what drew you there to begin with. If it was the weather, spend lots of time outside enjoying it. If it was freedom, glance at a few U.S. headlines now and then as a reminder of the negative things you gave up.
Living abroad is really all about attitude and optimism. It’s also about endurance.
Do yourself a favor and promise that you’ll give it a minimum of six months before you throw in the towel. It takes at least that long to really get settled into a Latin country. To find people you’re comfortable with and establish a routine.
Most importantly, be open to new experiences and let yourself be pleasantly surprised by the new things your new city has to offer. Remember that the opportunity to enjoy a new culture is one of the reasons you chose to live abroad, and you just can’t do that effectively at an Outback Steakhouse.
Avoid these mistakes when living abroad
Just as important as the physical logistics of moving abroad are all the ways you’ll need to mentally prepare to relocate. Don’t make the move without a plan for what you’ll do when you get there. Have those important conversations with your family now.