Loneliness: Finding Solitude Working Abroad

Grab and Go Highlights

  • Don’t run away from the feelings of isolation you might feel when you move abroad. Take the opportunity to hear your own voice.
  • Take advantage of not having obligations to others and use that to throw yourself wholeheartedly at a hobby or goal.

For four years of college, and very likely the following year or two, you surround yourself with your closest friends. You live, eat, sleep, study,  and go to class with them. They are your neighbors, they work at the coffee shop you go to, they are everywhere, omnipresent among the madness of college.

And then you land a job abroad. And everything changes.

Once in your new country, with your bags put away and your apartment quiet, you experience an eerie, freeing, frightening moment.

Sitting on the edge of your bed, it will hit you that, for the first time in a long time, you have no social circle. You don’t have a single friend. For the first time in a long time, you have no commitments to anyone in an entire country.


And for the first time in as long as you can remember, you can hear your voice. Your own voice. You didn’t realize it until that moment, sitting there on your bed, but you can’t remember the last time you heard your own, uninterrupted thoughts.

And this is a greater opportunity than you may first realize.

Achieving Solitude

During those four years of college, you and your friends have melted together, and that closeness and bonding is what is so special about college. Not realizing it, though, you may have also lost part of yourself along the way.

On Aeon Magazine, writer and historian Cody Delistraty writes a beautiful essay about loneliness called “Only the Lonely.” In it, he describes perfectly the fear of losing yourself in others, and what the risk of not experiencing loneliness entails, writing:

“Although it is distressing to ponder, what happens if everything that comprises a personage – all that one loves, hates, desires, hopes for – becomes only the distillation of other people’s feelings? What if one becomes only a weak prism, reflecting the light of those who have risked diving deeper into themselves? What happens if we do not risk loneliness ourselves? The loss of identity, surely, is a more troubling prospect than loneliness with its risks and pain and drawbacks. For who are we if we cease to be ourselves?”

Girl starring off a balcony in Paris
                   Working abroad is a unique opportunity to turn inwards.

That is what living abroad affords you: a chance to start fresh, to dive deeper into yourself, to sift through your psychological bag and determine what is truly yours and what has been left over from others.

It is not the cliché I am finding myself abroad  moment. The important aspect of the experience is not being abroad, it is being isolated from everything you were previously accustomed to. It just so happens living abroad lends itself well to experiencing isolation. As Delistraty writes about trying to find loneliness upon moving back to New York City after his time in Paris:

“I tried to find pockets of loneliness. I went for strolls, up and down Manhattan, but even alone on the streets, streaked with bustling humans who didn’t turn a thought towards me, I couldn’t feel the same kind of loneliness as I had in France. There were simply too many people to talk to – too many text messages, and old friends coming to visit, and parties to be dragged to. I felt my freedom being closed down, my mind’s ability to wander, to make disparate connections, being molded. It felt good. No question. Not being lonely is a comforting feeling. But I knew that something sacred was leaving me.”

I want to stress only one point. The opportunity to exist outside of a social circle, to dive deep, to hear oneself again, to experience being alone, is unique and difficult to find. Do not rush away from it by seeking out other expats or desperately trying to recreate your social life from back home immediately upon arrival.

Marinate in that loneliness, and see if you do not surprise yourself with what you find.

Girl watching the sun go down.
Don’t rush away from the loneliness you might feel living alone abroad.

 What Solitude Affords

It is freeing to achieve, even if only in spurts, the intellectual and psychological space where loneliness becomes solitude. And it is a powerful psychological skill to develop. In 1851, German thinker and philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in his book The Philosophy of Life, that:

“For the more a man has in himself, the less he will want from other people—the less, indeed, other people can be to him. This is why a high degree of intellect tends to make a man unsocial.”

Loneliness and isolation is an opportunity to find satisfaction from within yourself, as opposed to external forces which drove your life in college. With practice, you may find yourself ultimately less reliant on others, just as Schopenhauer describes. Being content with yourself, sans others, is empowering, and can be addicting, because for the first time there are no outside forces distracting you from reading more or getting into shape or learning a new skill.

The obligations and distractions presented by other people have been removed; they are thousands of miles away. You are now fully autonomous outside of your job to explore, try, fail and succeed without the critical eyes of others watching over, or the desires of others pulling you in opposing directions.

Guy walking down train tracks.
Take advantage of the freedom from obligation working abroad alone affords you.

Your full-weight can be thrown in any direction of your choice, and never have your choices and actions been less adulterated. Nothing passes through the filter of concerns about others and their perceptions of you. You are completely on your own, and have the freedom and the purity of time that comes with that.

The more time that you spend alone, the better and more comfortable you find yourself being with yourself. It is a reintroduction after four years of separation.  You may even find, as Schopenhauer writes, that “…the more a man finds his sources of pleasure in himself—the happier he will be.” You may, as I did, find yourself surprised at how creative, focused, and driven you can be once you remove those distractions that were omnipresent back home, and the satisfaction you can derive from true solitude.

What do you think? Are you interested in moving abroad but have reservations about moving far from home? Given the opportunity to work abroad would you take it? Are you already working abroad and dealing with loneliness? Let me know on Twitter @12hrdifference.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.