How to Live Abroad as a Highly Sensitive Person

Highly sensitive person living abroad

Living abroad may be overwhelming at first, but it enables HSPs to be truly exposed to (and moved by) all the beauty in their home away from home. 

You may think living abroad is for the brave and adventurous. After all, it asks you to change much of what you know to be important and to live outside your comfort zone on a daily basis. 

After living abroad on and off for eight years, I’ve realized that living abroad as a highly sensitive person (HSP) presents difficulties that not every expat can relate to. As an HSP, we’re already extra sensitive to external stimuli — but imagine those stimuli in a foreign language, whether it’s unfamiliar music blaring through store speakers or hearing numerous people speaking a language you don’t understand; it can get overwhelming. If you’re thinking about moving abroad and are concerned that your HSP spidey senses won’t be able to handle it, think again. Anything is possible. 

Living Abroad is a Complete Change of Environment

As a country girl and an HSP living in Normandy, France, it took me a while to understand why my environment in France felt so overwhelming. Then it hit me: population density. 

I grew up in rural Central New York. As a child, I was constantly surrounded by forests, mountains, and lakes; it was an HSP’s dream location. I moved to Normandy when I was 26, after my French husband accepted a job in international trade in Le Havre, France. My home abroad can feel overwhelming sometimes because I’m not used to seeing so many people on the sidewalks, having so many homes very close together, and hearing so many of my neighbors’ conversations. 

How to adapt: The best thing that an HSP can do to respond to a change in their environment is to reclaim it and make it their own. Control what you can. This includes your home, as well as the area surrounding it. 

To feel more relaxed, you can declutter your home, for example. By selling and donating things I don’t love or need, I’ve been able to spend less time cleaning my home and more time outside, which we HSPs need to be happy and get recentered. I like going on pleasant walks to my town square, where I can relish the smell of warm baguettes baking and wet earth after rainfall. 

Similarly, apartments and houses in France seem smaller than traditional American houses, which taught me the joy of keeping my bedroom solely a “bed room.” By having an electronic-free bedroom with only a bed, closet, and fan inside, I’ve been able to sleep better. It’s simply a quiet and calm place, my HSP sanctuary. In fact, I make sure every room in my home is a calm place that I can retreat to — each one has a different purpose, but every purpose is filled with happiness. 

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 to the mix, too, daily tasks and interactions can easily become more stressful — and stress is not an HSP’s friend. 

Social interactions can also make an HSP abroad feel very anxious — we need to be sensitive to our communication and language abilities. Social interactions and physical gestures are often different — American hugs and firm handshakes are swapped with kisses and light handshakes in France.

Similarly, idioms and expressions conveying humor or wisdom are often different across countries. Between France and the U.S., there are many expressions or deep ideas that are unique to each respective language and culture. For example, the common French expression: C’est la vie literally translates into English as: “It’s life.” However, the meaning of this French expression is actually closer to: “It is what it is,” a pillar in the philosophy of Stoicism — meaning that, in order to be happy, we must accept what we cannot change. 

As a result, an HSP may feel like it is difficult to build meaningful connections abroad, as so many ideas and feelings get lost in translation. So a certain amount of misunderstanding has to be anticipated, and accepted, if you decide to move abroad.

How to adapt: In order to break through these linguistic barriers, HSPs have to put themselves out there and cut themselves some slack. Learning a language takes a lifetime, so it’s normal that HSPs living abroad will sometimes feel lost in conversations. 

Instead of bottling myself up over an expression or cultural reference that I don’t understand, I ask for an explanation and then explain the equivalent expression/reference in my language. Most people don’t realize how much cultures can differ from one another, or how differently foreign languages are taught from country to country. 

HSPs can avoid feeling like they’re being criticized (which we despise) for not understanding something by using misunderstanding as a learning opportunity instead (for both yourself and the other person). So, instead of being misunderstood, be innovative and open.

Living Abroad Means That Your Sensitivity May Be Misunderstood Sometimes, Too

When I was a university student, I remember that I felt better when I was studying in the U.S. than I did in Germany. In the U.S., my professors seemed more invested in students’ feelings than my professors were at my German university. It was challenging to accept that not everyone was going to hold my hand through the ups and downs of being a highly sensitive student

For example, my American professors encouraged students to ask questions privately after the lecture. Many European professors of mine, on the other hand, preferred that their students ask questions during the lecture so that the professor’s response could benefit everyone. I had to learn that in countries where universities are basically free and overcrowded, it seems 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 an informal friendly atmosphere to a formal one, where there is a strict separation between your private and professional life. For instance, many companies in France do not have a human resources department. In turn, positive and kind interpersonal relationships among employees are generally seen as less important in France. This can be really hard when you are new to a country and need someone to show you the ropes. So it’s important to remember that the majority of people you meet abroad will not know about the work culture where you’re from. While the U.S. is famous for its “customer is king” mindset in the workplace, in many European countries, the customer is not seen as “king,” but just as a person in need of a good or service. 

How to adapt: The good news is that living abroad presents an environment that allows an HSP to be misunderstood. Most people are kind and understand that it’s difficult for foreigners to adapt (sensitive or not).

On the flip side, because of the feeling of isolation that a language barrier often presents, it can make an HSP more sensitive or reserved than they were in their home country. Perhaps one of the hardest misunderstandings that I’ve had is that people think I am highly sensitive because I live abroad and not because I am just wired this way. I’ve been told that my sensitivity means I am a “weak” person and that being an HSP is simply an “American concept” that could never exist in France. Of course, I strongly disagree with both of these sentiments and hope more of the world begins to understand that highly sensitive people are who they are due to genetics. (And, for the record, us being HSPs is a strength, not a weakness.)      

We HSPs are empathetic, intuitive, and generous, and these are real skills that are needed in many professions, no matter the country. So in order to overcome some people not understanding my innate sensitivity, I had to create a world in which being sensitive would be better understood. 

Working in competitive open office environments can be catastrophic for an HSP in their own country, let alone abroad and in a foreign language. As an HSP — in order to avoid those open office environments I hate — I decided to start my own business project where I train adults online and one-on-one in Business English. Working for myself has given me the chance to use my empathy to find purpose in helping people who themselves feel vulnerable for needing to learn another language and culture. I am proof that high sensitivity is a strength in the workplace, not a deterrent. 

The people that I help are in situations similar to mine, so there is a shared sense of humanity. When I talk to my adult students about being highly sensitive, they tell me that they love how open Americans are about the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve overcome them. They tell me that, in France, anything well-being or mental-health-related is taboo — society does not “get” what being highly sensitive is — and that they hope one day this will change. So if you’re an HSP abroad trying to figure out the best work situation for you, remember that you are not alone: The world is full of people who will need, and appreciate, your empathy and passion. 

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The Beauty of Being an HSP Abroad

HSPs are HSPs no matter where they live — for all the challenges being highly sensitive presents, living abroad also presents many unique opportunities that allow us to flourish. One of the best quotes I’ve heard about living abroad from a former classmate 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: Living abroad gives you the chance to learn more about your true self and where you’re from. 

Because we HSPs are insightful and perceptive, living abroad enables us to understand (and compare) each other’s countries — in a good way. For example, watching documentaries in a foreign language enables us highly sensitive folks to increase our power of perspective. This is something we might not be able to do in our home country.

And although living abroad may not always be easy, it enables HSPs to be truly exposed to (and moved by) all the beauty in their home away from home. I am nostalgic for the smells of pine and burning wood and cold snowflakes falling on my cheeks — things that remind me of my former New York home. Nevertheless, in my French home abroad, I am moved by the rainy cliffs and beaches, 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 being misunderstood, living abroad gives HSPs the courage to embrace the misunderstandings, gain perspective, and feel beauty on a recurring basis. Just know it’s going to be OK, fellow expat HSPs: We’re ready for this adventure. 

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