When You Start to Feel Unbalanced

Balinese fishermen walk through the shallows. Bali, Indonesia.

Balinese fishermen walk through the shallows. Bali, Indonesia.


Starting to feel unbalanced

One of the issues that I see working with and around other expats is that when they start to feel unbalanced, they don't treat those feelings with the proper respect. They simply aren't in tune with their own internal warning signs. There tends to be attitude of "I can handle it" even if "handling it" is to the detriment of longevity, physical health, and relational / emotional health.

Stressors and confusion start to wear down people's resilience, fatigue impairs their decision making and slowly but surely they lose their balance. In their home-culture they have ample resources (extended networks of friends, neighbors, family, a faith community, co-workers, activities which are sure to leave them refreshed) but overseas those resources tend to be limited.

Consequently regaining balance becomes a lot more difficult. Living overseas provides new situations and stimuli that bring a lot of internal issues to the surface. External stimuli causes internal chain-reactions and it's easy to end up feeling confused about why we're even feeling unbalanced (if we can identify that we're starting to become unbalanced in the first place!). For each person, there's going to be a different cocktail of tell-tale signs that indicate the start of imbalance (or its full-fledged, long-established presence). It is far wiser to assess and correct before things get too out of balance, but for those of you who might be like myself, and struggle with knowing just when you're starting to feel out of balance, where are a few warning signs.   

Warning signs indicating escalating imbalance:

1. More media escapism than normal.

I get that we all love to binge on Netflix from time to time, but when that becomes an escape from the stressors of real international life, there is the risk that the stressors snowball and we up feeling so overwhelmed with the stuff we've got to get done that we decide that we should just watch one more episode of….[insert your guilty pleasure here]. 

2. Decrease in laughter and overall happiness.

When we stop enjoying ourselves in life we should stop and ask what's going on. Sometimes it is really clear, sickness of a loved one, a surge in work-related obligations, the sadness of being away from your family for the holidays, but other times we're not sure what is stealing our happiness. That's when it's worthwhile to brew a cup of coffee (I suppose tea might somehow do the trick for others) block off an hour and sit down with a pad of paper and a pencil in a peaceful, well-lit place to try to identify what might be allowing the joy in our lives to seep away. 

3. Not prioritizing getting recharged.

This phenomenon hits people with a highly idealized view of duty (think military officers, aid workers, church clergy, new teachers). Duty should be 100% dispensed of before rest can be considered. The problem is that in many cases the duty doesn't have a clear "done" state. There is always more to be done, which, the logic dictates, you're not done with work. So don't even think of taking an afternoon at the spa! Don't book those tickets for Australia! The catch-22 is that you'll become progressively worse at your job as you constantly expend energy without getting refreshed. You need to figure out how you'll get rejuvenated, recharged and reinvigorated so you can bring your best to your chosen profession. 

4. Increasing frustration with yourself, your new country and those around you (expats and nationals alike).

When you find that you view the surrounding culture with distain, that you don't like any of your expat friends, and frankly, are kind of turn off by yourself, that's a sign that you need to take a step back. Frustration is part of the adjustment period in any new culture, but that frustration can turn toxic if left unchecked. If this is you, find someone who can listen to you in an understanding way, but won't enable this momentary madness, because that is what it is - the symptom of a momentary madness. It will pass if we can address what's going on under the surface. 

5. Lack of focus and inability to prioritize.

Feeling overwhelmed often causes avoidance, eventually followed by a fight or flight response. When responsibilities stack up we avoid dealing with them until we end up feeling crushed by the weight of the obligations. Instead of focusing on the positives that accompany stressful situations, we end up frantically trying to get something, anything done. This vacillation between lethargy and unfocused near-mania is ultimately ineffective and unhealthy. In the long run, you will end up accomplishing much less and hating it more.
While getting things done is important, it's not as important as getting the right things done. When you're unbalanced, researching electric cars makes sense, even if you live in a country that can't power an electric griddle, let alone the stunning electrical demands of a Tesla (this is a completely hypothetical example, right?). Losing that ability to prioritize and focus on the most important tasks is a red flashing warning light on the dashboard of balance. Pay attention to it!

Take Action:

Take a moment and do a self-assessment. Are you feeling perpetually stressed? Are your shoulders always tight and your stomach quick to knot up? Are you enjoying your overseas life? If you're not today that might not be a problem, but if this the new "normal" take head - you may need to brainstorm on some ways to bring balance to this season of your life. Make an action plan, maybe it's taking an adventure, maybe it's dealing with something you've been avoiding. Write it down, and take action!