When you work in international aid loneliness arises. Loneliness feels painful.
Okay two more sentences:
Loneliness and anxiety arrive, too often, together. Loneliness feels really painful and the pain comes and goes in waves.
Loneliness = normal emotional response to lack of connection or community.
In this post, I will write about loneliness and then a quick fix that might help you not stay too long in its grips.
There is no need for you to complete an assessment to see if you are lonely. Loneliness is a subjective experience – so if you feel lonely or think that you are lonely then you are.
My bias is that loneliness, like all painful emotions, can actually be a strong catalyst for positive change. However, from my own experience and from working with clients, if you “hang out” in that black-out kind-of-loneliness too long it does not help at all – it just destroys.
Which international aid worker would never be lonely? No one!
Take a minute to imagine your most grounded friend who seems to have blossomed in your home country. (I am going to make this friend female to avoid the he/she in all the sentences). Imagine if she had decided to work in international aid... what would have happened to her emotionally if:
- Her external reality changed all the time: Rotating duty stations every 2-4 years, frequently changing her professional focus and/organizations, transitioning from emergency/post conflict to headquarter settings like it was “no big deal” or vice-versa;
- She spent years in a professional culture where relationships rarely felt great and definitely did not feel emotionally safe, and where relationships often have a transactional feel laced with an underlying competitive flavor – like bad bubble gum;
- On the romantic side of things, a lot of things could have happened: separation from her partner, frustrating long distance relationships, managing the dynamics of having a "following" partner which can get tricky in terms of relationship equality, or simply being unable to create a romantic relationship because of her work;
- She repeatedly had to make new friends and her social support network was periodically dissappearing;
- She felt strangely attached and estranged from her home country and friends;
- She was on the move all the time: spending too much time in soul-less environments– hotels, airports, offices with no aesthetics, living in guest houses, working in containers, living with the hum of a generator, etc.
International work and life makes it hard, if not impossible, to meet the three conditions that sociologists consider essential to make close friends. (FYI “BFF”= “best friend forever”)
- Proximity (Where is your BFF from your Sudan days now?)
- Repeated, unplanned interactions (right, how many time are you going to run into your new BFF strolling down the main street in Kabul?)
- Sharing time in a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other (totally, I felt really safe to open up with everyone when I was working in Darfur! and you?)
For me, the interesting question is not IF you feel lonely, because I take the stand that most of us experience this, but WHAT are you willing to do to help yourself skillfully deal with the natural loneliness that arises in this line of work?
What is your loneliness budget?
My experience is that international aid workers do too little to help themselves with their own loneliness. They are caught up in their unrealistic expectations of themselves and feel bad that they feel lonely. Let me write that again. First, they feel really horrible because of loneliness and then they beat themselves up for feeling lonely. Come on, you have enough hard knocks – you don’t need to beat yourself up too.
If you get one thing from this article let it be this – If you work internationally and you feel lonely – you are normal and alive. It means that you have a good heart and strong needs and that this international lifestyle is just not meeting your emotional needs for connection and community.
So recently I have been experimenting with this quick fix for loneliness by moving forward with personal passions and with a “to-do-list”.
Let me tell you where this idea came from....I was stationed in Africa a few years ago and I was feeling super lonely (I mean the crying-by-myself kind of loneliness).
At that time, I had one serious passion– yoga and one serious thing I needed to improve – my French.
So this is what I did: I hired a French tutor for French lessons (he came to my office during my lunch hour) and started hosting yoga classes in my living room twice per week (yes– I had up to 20 UN/NGO/IO staff sweating it out in my living room twice a week for 2 years!)
So here is a recipe for a loneliness quick fix: SHARE and SPEND
SHARE your Passion: Focus on something that you can share with others – an activity that will create a community for you.
SPEND to make progress on your to-do-list: Focus on something that you want to get done or want to improve and hire someone to help you. This allows you to support the local economy and gets you into regular contact fast. As a plus, this type of activity gives you a sense of achievement too because you are moving forward with your work or improving a desired skill.
Now it is over to you, what are you doing with your loneliness?
P.S.Just imagine what you could do if you actually had suppo
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