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In my personal and professional life, boundaries are the most important thing we can learn to have a better relationship with ourselves and others (there you go, I said it). But living abroad takes it to another level.

If you are curious and want to learn more, I recorded an episode on my podcast We are here, too, and I have included below a detailed blog post on boundaries when living abroad.

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Why learning to set and respect boundaries is important?

One of the lessons I have learnt in my years of therapy and counselling training is about boundaries. It hasn’t always been such an obvious learning, and I rarely named it boundary. It sometimes looked like having clearer and franker conversations with the people in my life. Other times, it was like voicing my preferences or again listening empathically without the urge to impose my worldview and course of action on others. Sometimes, it would look like a shield that would allow me to separate me from them when judgements would come my way and try to convince me otherwise. 

Learning about boundaries gave me room to breathe.

The importance of boundaries when living abroad

Moving abroad means boundary clashing, and that’s inevitable. New (different) habits and customs may not be coded the same way, and we may feel resistance when embracing a new culture because it just doesn’t align with our values. 

Boundaries are the limits and guidelines we set to ensure our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. When moving abroad, these guidelines serve as a compass to navigate life abroad to be ultimately integrated into the new society.

Boundaries are a way to care about ourselves when we prioritise our needs and energy, which means respecting yourself and learning to respect others too. 

When living abroad, boundaries are a way to mediate a cultural exchange between the old and the new, so we can learn from each other. 

Advantages and disadvantages of boundaries when living abroad

In my experience, boundaries are never a matter of advantages and disadvantages; they are instead a way to let us know what is safe and what isn’t. For example, touching, like holding hands, may be interpreted differently in your host country than it is back home, and the boundaries around that may vary. 

Learning about boundaries teaches us to accept that other people will communicate their boundaries in a way that, at times, may have a different sensitivity than ours due to cultural differences and upbringing. 

I think of boundaries abroad like a dance: you don’t necessarily have to know the sequence, but understanding the tempo makes it easier to dance. 

Walls keep everybody outBoundaries teach people where the door is.” – Mark Groves.

The link between boundaries and mental health when living abroad

Maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial for preserving our mental health when living abroad. Living in a new and unfamiliar environment can be challenging: looking for a job and a place where to live, learning about new customs, getting used to new cuisine and making friends all add up fairly quickly. 

Going through these challenges can feel overwhelming, stressful and isolating, so setting and negotiating boundaries can support our mental health by giving us back a sense of control and safety, which is necessary for our well-being. 

Boundaries are also important to reduce the risk of burnout when living abroad, and this is because we may initially be tempted to go over and beyond to “succeed” in living abroad and to feel accepted by the new community. Prioritising your needs and well-being (and learning how to communicate that to others) is a way to avoid burnout and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and understanding, offering us a sense of community, support and connection.

Negotiating boundaries in the host country

Negotiating boundaries is important to living abroad because cultural differences can often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts around what is considered appropriate behaviour (and I have many examples of different eating habits from around the world!). 

The art of negotiating boundaries usually requires an ability to communicate clearly and respectfully our needs in relation to the ones of others. When living abroad, being aware of cultural differences looks like recognising that different cultures may have different expectations for personal space, physical contact, and other behaviours while educating ourselves on the host country’s cultural norms.

Boundaries are a way to negotiate adaptation

it’s a give-and-take that allows us to maintain a sense of who we are in the new country and to what extent, teaching us about flexibility and adaptability. When boundary-setting is a perpetual struggle, we face the difficult decision to either move elsewhere or compromise our boundaries (and there are many reasons to choose either option).

Boundaries are a way to exercise control

When we move abroad and settle there, it’s difficult to find a sense of stability, especially in the first few months of living there. Most things may be unfamiliar, out of control and unpredictable. Setting boundaries abroad (so taking power in the negotiation) offers us an opportunity to regain a sense of stability and safety that we may have lost when moving abroad. 

 

Read more Lost and found: in search of self

Negotiating boundaries in the home country 

When living abroad, negotiating boundaries in your home country is essential to building healthy relationships with family and friends. For most of us, they are our original emotional support network when we first move abroad and what allows us to maintain our cultural identity and sense of belonging.

When living abroad, these relationships can become difficult: distance, less time spent together, and moving on with life in separate countries can create complex dynamics that can affect our emotional and mental well-being

Sometimes boundaries can look like managing expectations about the frequency and length of our visits. Other times, they can be a compromise on the number of people we can see during one visit (because there’s never enough time for everyone) or accepting that not everyone would have the time to see us, too.

 

Read more Why am I feeling this guilty?

Conclusions

Negotiating boundaries abroad, whether with the new reality or our old support network, can be difficult and tiring. Nonetheless, it is a crucial aspect of being abroad.  

Although the terms of these negotiations are specific to you and your circumstances, there are two tips that I would like to share that feel relevant.

Be curious: we don’t know what we don’t know. Approaching any scenario with fear would increase defensiveness and decrease empathy; when that happens, we can feel disconnected and isolated. Curiosity is like a bridge that allows us to connect and associate.  What do you need to stay curious when relating to the new culture or the support network back home? 

Use non-violent communication: whenever we connect, we want to feel valued and meet where we are. Non-violent communication is a tool towards compassionate connection, a way to learn how to express ourselves clearly while listening to our needs and those of others.

If you need support, I can help

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