First of all, I want to thank everyone who participated in and read the 8-week mindfulness journey that I hosted on Expat Backup over the last two months. It was quite something, to be participating in daily mindfulness meditations and practices with other aid workers all over the world. I am humbled and grateful for the feedback I received, and judging by how well it went, we’ll likely be taking a journey like that together at least every year, although in a slightly different format.
For those of you who just read along, or for those of you who are new to the Expat Backup community and are just joining us now, I invite you to join the journey. It’s not too late! To create a mindfulness journey that is easy for you – should you chose to take it – I created a free 8-Week Mindfulness Course that you can sign-up for here and receive by email every week, straight to your inbox. You can even gather a small group or friends or family together and take it together to create a supportive environment for yourself. However you chose to embark, I’m here to support you with whatever you need – just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I grew up in an aid worker family and every summer, we’d fly back to the U.S. to spend a few weeks with relatives and at my family’s lakeside cabin in Montana. As we moved around and I got older, my parents encouraged me to visit friends I’d met at summer camp or that I’d left behind in our previous homes. It was wonderful to establish connections again, after having them wrenched away by transglobal moves.
In most cases, we deeply valued our time together, but sometimes after so much distance, things just didn’t click. Because I felt that I’d invested so much in the relationship, sometimes I would hold or for too long after it was clear that we weren’t the best friendship fit. I was prone to ignore little signs that we weren’t quite right for each other, because I valued what we’d shared in the past and I wanted our closeness to continue.
Growing up as a third-culture kid, this is all very normal – but it taught me some things about expat aid worker friendships that I want to share here, because I think this is an issue that resonates with our wider community. It’s summertime, and many of us are traveling back to visit family and friends, to reestablish connections and bridge separations we might have keenly felt.
As Expat Aid Workers, It Can be Extra Hard for Us to Make Friends
I see many expat aid workers in friendships that are expedient, just for the moment, just for the host country, and that one or both sides don’t fully enjoy or appreciate – but because there may be no one else around, we take what we can get. We tell ourselves it’s better than being lonely. Especially when we’re working in a very small host country community, it can be challenging to find people that we deeply resonate with. And that’s okay. It makes the people we do connect with all the more precious and worth holding on to.
What I want to acknowledge here is that if these friendships don’t deeply nourish us, and we find ourselves feeling angry or resentful at the people we keep close, we need to be honest and open with ourselves that we might not be acting in their – or our – highest good.
Likewise, if we’ve been in host country after host country, we can get friendship fatigue and just not bother reaching out, because what’s the point? We’re just going to leave again anyway. This kind of social apathy is very easy to spot, but hard to overcome. It’s usually a sign that we need to find people we more deeply resonate with before we decide to share too much of ourselves, or get too close. True friendship is an intimate act and best embarked upon only when it feels right.
I want to encourage you, though, to step outside your friendship comfort zone and actively seek out people whom you might not have ever been friends with, had you stayed in your home country. This is one of the unexpected gifts of the work that we do, to make connections where there might not have been any before, and to carry the shared understandings that we create with us to make us wiser, more empathetic and more compassionate people.
I also notice that it can be easier to seek out friendships where we’re most familiar, be that within our own organization, professional community of other aid and development workers, or even our wealth class that usually puts us within the elite of the host country we’re working in. Friendships with others outside our income bracket can be challenging and confronting to our assumptions and our privilege, but they are beautiful ways to bridge the separation that our “us and them” lifestyle seems to carry and encode.
Letting Things Be and Leaving Things Open
Still, there are going to be times when a friendship just isn’t working for you. I find this is especially true with friends I made a long time ago, who don’t share the same focus of helping others that I do, or who aren’t engaged with or very interested in the world at large.
This is not to say that all my friends are change-makers or and that we share the same opinions. On the contrary, some of the people I enjoy the most have viewpoints that couldn’t be more different than my own, and we enjoy vigorous debates and conversations about our thinking and beliefs as a core gift of our togetherness.
But I do think that, often, us expat aid workers are more prone to stay in relationships that just aren’t serving us, because we think they’re all we’ve got. We’re afraid of loneliness, of being untethered, of having no one.
It’s a valid fear. For us, it’s harder than most to keep relationships together, especially when we’re busy and overworked, and have in-person time to see each other so rarely. This is why it’s all the more important to invest time and attention in those people who truly feed you, wherever they come from, whoever they are – and wherever they live now.
Only by making space for what doesn’t work can we allow room in our lives to develop new relationships. By gently letting one friendship go, we allow ourselves to refocus and create a friendship that speaks deeply to our heart and lights us up with joy. This is not to say you should “dump” your old friends, but give yourself some space and time when you see a relationship doesn’t serve you. Be compassionate, and if you find this especially hard, consider that you don’t have to always say “yes” or be the first one to reach out.
Only by actively choosing what truly serves us will we create the health and happiness that we long for. It takes some social grace to extricate yourself from a friendship that isn’t working for you, especially when you want to do so with love and kindness. But it’s always worth saying “no” to what you don’t want, so that you can make space for what you do.
I hope you enjoyed this and benefited from it in some way. I’d love to hear what your challenges are and what’s important to your health and happiness as an expat aid worker – email me at email@example.com. I always write back!
If you’re reading this online and want to get Expat Backup delivered straight to your inbox, you can subscribe for email updates here. This is the best way to read my writing, as I don’t post regularly and I’d hate for you to miss anything.
Last but certainly not least, if you know another aid worker who might benefit from what I share here, I hope you’ll send this to them. By encouraging and supporting each other in our challenges, we build a stronger global community and are able to do even more awesome work to impact those who need it most.