Living as an HSP Expat

Do you live in a country other than your native land? Do you wish you could, but feel that your sensitivity might hold you back or make the whole experience traumatic? Being an HSP and living abroad does present some unique challenges, but it is also an amazing and totally worthwhile adventure even for us sensitive types! Before I delve into that, I want to take a moment to elaborate on something Elaine Aron says in her book about Highly Sensitive Persons;

The Brain’s Two Systems

One system, the “behavioral activation” system is hooked up to parts of the brain that take in messages from the senses and send out orders to the limbs to get moving. This system [moves] us toward things, especially new ones. When the activation system is operating, we are curious, bold, and impulsive. The other system is called the “behavioral inhibition” system. This system is said to move us away from things… It makes us alert, cautious, and watchful for signs. …This system is hooked up to all parts of the brain…noted to be more active in “inhibited” children.

(My note; Aron gives the inhibition system a new name; the pause-to-check system, and notes that though this system seems stereotypically undesirable, it is vital for survival and that everyone has this. HSPs merely have a more sensitive inhibition system.)

Some [HSPS] might have only an average-strength pause-to-check system but an activation system that is even weaker. This kind of HSP might be very calm, quiet, and content with a simple life.

Another kind of HSP could potentially have an even stronger pause-to-check system but an activation system that is also very strong – just not quite as strong. This kind of HSP would be both curious and very cautious, bold yet anxious, easily bored yet easily overaroused. The optimal level of arousal is a narrow range. (My note; Arousal here meaning stimulation to the nervous system by sounds, sights, social interaction, work, stressors, etc.) One could say there is a constant power struggle between the advisor (pause-to-check) and the impulsive, expansive warrior within the person.”

Aron goes on to ask a series of questions; “What type are you? Is it easy for you to be content with a quiet life? Or are the two branches that govern you in constant conflict? That is, do you always want to be trying new things even if you know that afterward you will be exhausted?”*

I’m this way. I love novelty. I desire to get out there and see new things; experience life. That’s why I love to travel. But there’s always been this tension within me, and I realized after reading Aron’s book that it was because I had both a strong activator and a strong inhibitor. I was always bold yet anxious.

I’ve moved abroad twice in my life (talk about bold), once with a friend and once alone. But it was challenging when literally everything around me was stimulating to my nervous system. I couldn’t rest my eyes or ears anywhere around me. There was nothing familiar or safe.

As an HSP, how did I handle that? I’m going to share with you some tips if you’re an HSP looking to travel long-term or move abroad. It may not work for you, as each HSP is unique, but hopefully, these ideas will put you on a path to adjusting well wherever you go.

Research the Country

I did a huge amount of research about Taiwan and Korea prior to moving. I read books about the culture, language, stories, blogs from other teachers who lived and worked there and watched documentaries and Youtube videos. (Eatyourkimchi is the best for Korea and, more recently, Japan.) I even looked up the area I’d be moving to in Google Earth and virtually walked around the neighborhoods. It was incredible! But more than the fun factor, seeing it – the differences in building types, car designs, road layouts – helped me acclimate before I ever moved. Sure, it’s wonderful and exciting to see how different cultures live, but as an HSP, you have to adjust slowly or the shock could be devastating.

Keep a Low Profile at Work

My first semester at school I hardly spoke up. I wasn’t a total newbie at teaching, but I was new at my work, new to the culture, new to the team, new to everything. My ideas wouldn’t have fit at the time.

I listened at meetings. I listened to the other teachers, to their problems and solutions, their ideas and complaints, and absorbed it all quietly. Only after my first few months did I start offering my own suggestions, and by then I’d built enough of a reputation as being reliable and efficient that people listened to me. This advice is good for anyone entering a new workplace, but it was essential to me as an HSP. I couldn’t have handled taking on the extra responsibilities I have now. I lead committees, head events, organize camps, and do a whole host of other jobs besides teaching. My first semester, as a new teacher and new expat, I needed to survive. And that meant doing only what I could handle at work. I don’t like to advocate the bare minimum, but it’s hard enough adjusting to a move overseas and a new job even for extroverts. Hang back at first while you get your bearings, and then start to be more adventurous.

Practice Intense Self-Care

I qualify self-care here because when I think of self-care, I tend to think of bubble baths and pedicures and those small, luxurious, unnecessary to survival but fun things that adults do. For HSPs, those things are nice, but often what we need is something more. We need quiet, dark places to rest. We need a home that feels welcoming and safe to return to every day. Some of us need our books or art or whatever it is we love around us.

The first weeks in a new country are the hardest. You’re adjusting to it all, and everything that should be easy is new and scary. Grocery shopping, figuring out bills and trash, getting a phone and internet; it’s all different, and if there’s a language barrier, even harder to access.

If you know what to expect, even if what you can expect is tough, it helps. Try to build familiarity with your area as soon as you can, which will mean pushing yourself out of your comfort zones for a while. You need to pound the streets, getting used to the sights and smells and sounds of the place. My grocery store down the road feels safe now because it’s familiar. Same with the local cafe and convenience store. There might be better ones just as close, but since those are where I went during my first months, they’ve stayed in my zone. Small things are also a huge help when you’re adjusting. Find a drink from home, or a drink or snack you love that you can return to again and again to get that feeling of familiarity.

Find Your Tribe

After you settle in and have found some safe places, find a tribe. It might take longer to do this, but that’s natural.

For me, this was D&D. I had never actually played in the US, but the people I met in Korea were like me; nerdy, introverted, witty. For you, it might be joining a writing club, or a jogging or photography club. One guy I know goes to soccer games every weekend and volunteer coaches. Another friend volunteers at homes for orphans and with North Korean refugees. Find a church, a club, a gym, something you can go to to find like-minded people. Even for introverts, it’s nice to have somewhere and someone to help you feel integrated into the new world.

Make a House (or Apartment) a Home

If you don’t intend to live overseas forever, it can be hard to make your latest abode feel like yours. Especially in Asian countries, the apartments provided by the schools tend to be small. Really small if you’re single. When I first moved into my new place, I felt like I had reverted to a dorm. It was much smaller than my old apartment. We’re talking one room, kitchenette type. I resisted putting anything on the walls for ages. I just couldn’t make myself do it. I knew I wouldn’t stay in that place, even if I did stay in Korea. But after a year, I decided to try and decorate.

It really does make a difference. Adding in my own touches makes my small apartment feel more welcoming, and more like me. I look around and see things I like. I see my imprint, which makes it more comforting.

There are tons of ways you can spruce up a tiny living space, even on a budget. Pinterest, of course, has millions of ideas. My solutions? Paper flowers, printed quotes, floral themed kitchen supplies, cute mugs, and a really pretty wall calendar. Simple, small touches.

Connect With Other HSPs

It was important for me not to feel too weird and out there as an HSP. I’m sure some of my friends are, but I had no one who identified as one besides me until I went online.

This is more general advice for HSPs than for expats specifically, but it’s doubly important when you need comfort overseas. Finding other HSPs helps in many ways. If you’re new to the idea, knowing how many others like you are out there helps the disingenuous feelings that sometimes come when you discover something new about yourself.

It’s also nice to reach out and say, “Help!” when you’re not sure what’s going on and connect to someone who’s gone through something similar.

Fandoms are also a nice way to stay involved with people who share your interests. They might not all be HSPs, but being able to geek out together is precious. 🙂

Are you an HSP living overseas? Was it easy or difficult to get adjusted? I look forward to hearing from you!

*P.S. If you think you are an HSP, or you might know one, I encourage you to read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. Reading this passage without the background and further information might give it a false connotation.