Living Abroad as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

Living abroad is for the brave and adventurous. It asks one to change or even forget much of what they know to be important and to live outside one’s comfort zone on a daily basis. After living abroad on and off for eight years, I’ve finally come to the realization that living abroad as a highly sensitive person (HSP) presents difficulties that not every expat can relate to and that’s okay. 

Living abroad is a complete change of your environment 

As a true country girl and a HSP living in Normandy, France, it took me a while to understand why my environment in France often felt so overwhelming. Then it hit me, the population density. I grew up in a rural area in Upstate New York. As a child I was constantly surrounded by forests, mountains, and lakes. When I was a kid, I remember that everyone used to joke that our town had more cows than people. I cannot recreate this calm environment that I grew up with in France because there is a higher population density in France than from where I am from. Subsequently, as a HSP, my home abroad can feel bombarded because I’m not used to seeing so many people on the sidewalks, having so many homes close by, and hearing so many of my neighbors conversations, even though I do live in what they call the countryside here.  

Living abroad means being misunderstood sometimes 

Abroad, being misunderstood is intensified by having to communicate in a foreign language. Having a handle of a foreign language is hard enough, but when you add learning a new educational system and business culture, daily tasks and interactions can easily become more stressful. Social interactions can make a HSP abroad feel very anxious because they need to be sensitive to their own language abilities and at the same time to the other’s culture. Social interactions, including physical gests, are often different abroad. American hugs and firm handshakes are swapped in France with kisses and light handshakes. 

Similarly, idioms and expressions conveying humor or wisdom are often different across countries. Between France and the US, they have some identical or similar expressions but there are also many funny expressions or deep ideas that are unique to each respective language and culture. As a result, a HSP may feel like it is difficult to build meaningful connections abroad as so many ideas and feelings do get lost in translation. For HSPs living abroad, there is a certain amount of misunderstanding that has to be accepted that one wouldn’t normally experience in their home country. 

Being sensitive may be less accepted when you’re abroad 

When I was a student, I remember that, as a HSP, I felt better when I was studying in a small department at a public American college in comparison to when I studied in a large department at a large public university in Germany. I remember thinking that in the US, my professors seemed more invested in the students’ feelings than my professors were at my German university. It was challenging as a young HSP to accept that not everyone was going to hold my hand through the ups and downs of being a highly sensitive student. I realized in Germany that it wasn’t all about me and my feelings. Similarly, I learned that in countries where public universities are basically free and over crowded that it’s normal that professors don’t have the resources or time to be both a professor and a mentor. In addition, working abroad may be difficult for HSPs if they go from working in a culture that is invested in their employees’ feelings and that is used to giving constructive feedback to a working culture that is more blunt or direct with employees and that is pure results oriented. For example, many medium sized and large companies do not have a Human Resources Department in France; which in turn means that positive and kind interpersonal relations among employees are seen as less important. It’s not easy when you’ve convinced yourself that the people in your home country are more empathetic than the people that you’ve met abroad but it’s important to remember that the majority of people you meet may not know what it’s like where you’re from or what being a HSP is.

The good news is that living abroad presents an environment that allows a HSP to be misunderstood. Most people are kind and understand that it’s difficult for foreigners. No one will generally mind if you are an introvert, or shy, when they realize that you are not communicating in your first language. On the flip side, because of the feeling of isolation that a language barrier often presents, it can in turn make a HSP more introverted than they were in their home country. Perhaps one of the hardest misunderstandings that I’ve had as a HSP abroad is that people think that I am highly sensitive because I live abroad and not because I am just this way. 

The beauty of being a HSP abroad

HSPs are HSPs no matter where they live but for all the difficulties it presents, living abroad presents unique opportunities that allow us to flourish. One of the best quotes I’ve heard about living abroad was, “I didn’t know what it meant to be American until I lived abroad.” This idea, no matter where you’re from, is true in the purest form that living abroad presents one the chance to learn more about themselves and where they’re from. HSPs are insightful and have perspective. Living abroad enables HSPs to understand and compare the wisdoms of other countries. For example, watching journalistic documentaries in a foreign language enables HSPs to increase their power of perspective. This is something we might not be able to do in our home country.

Finally, although living abroad may not always be easy, living abroad enables HSPs to be truly exposed to and moved by all the beauty in their home away from home. I am nostalgic for the smell of pine, the smell of burning wood, and falling snowflakes hitting my cheeks, things that remind me of home. Nevertheless, in my home abroad, I am constantly moved by the rainy cliffs and beaches of Normandy, the smell of hot baguettes, and the taste and feeling of gooey camembert cheese touching my lips. 

Whether it’s being rattled by constant change, one’s environment, or misunderstanding, living abroad is not always a simple task for a HSP. Living abroad is a choice, although not always an easy one, a choice that comes with the harnessing of one’s true abilities as a HSP. Living abroad gives a HSP the courage to embrace some misunderstanding, to gain perspective, and to feel beauty on a recurring basis. It’s going to be okay fellow expat HSPs, we’re ready for this adventure. 

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