Updated: Jul 15
"Feeling sorry for yourself, and your present condition, is not only a waste of energy but the worst habit you could possibly have" - Dale Carnegie.
This quote struck me one day, as I realized how much self-pity party I have thrown over the last few months due to my situation as an expat spouse. Questions such as ‘Why is this happening to me?’ or ‘How unfair this situation is’ or ‘Why can’t things just be easier’ were lingering around my head, days and nights, days and months, draining energy as I try to move forward with my life. Growing up as an overachiever, efficiency has always been on my top vocabulary list; every activity and idea was navigated to optimize the limited amount of time I have in my life. Having constant reviewing and reflecting on my goals and achievements -- how then I managed to beautifully screw a portion of my prime age time to go to waste?
The ‘Expat Spouses Have A Lot of Time’ Illusion
I mentioned to a fellow expat spouse how empowering the above quote is for me, and her first response was, “What do you mean a waste of energy and a waste of time? If it is, we are probably the first person who has the most energy and time in the world.”
A few months ago, I couldn't agree more with her proposition. Expat spouses are often being seen as having no demanding activities, thus the amount of freedom they have is assumed to be limitless. I probably used to be one of those people with a similar mindset until I had to be an expat spouse myself. Oftentimes, we hear people tell us as well about how jealous they are of all the time we have in the world and that we can do anything we want with all those luxuries. In contrast, my feeling was the opposite, that what I did with all those times was never enough; I didn't have a work permit, a job, or a salary. Don’t get me wrong; I did do more than a number of productive things: updating my portfolio, learning new software, making albums, learning a lot of new recipes, traveling, reading, and studying, but it didn’t feel enough. My mind kept telling me, “I should have managed to do more A, B, C, top it up with a G and Z, but I didn’t” -- and I started to understand why.
"As an accompanying partner, as we are quite limited with our financial contribution, we tend to overcompensate with going above and beyond to feel better about our position in the family."
As an accompanying partner, as we are quite limited with our financial contribution, we tend to overcompensate with going above and beyond to feel better about our position in the family. Preparing not only regular food -- but great food -- served on the table every night is always in the agenda. Since time is expendable, diligent planning of our travel in detail should never be compromised. Furnishing our living place with the most optimized value-for-money items is not to be forgotten. I even said no to having a cleaning person because “I have time.” “I’m in charge of our sanctuary, so I have to make it perfect.” Some spouses might go further with taking care of all the bills, in charge of any single household problem, every single one of them. All these small things shockingly require a lot of time and energy. By the time we want to go extra for our luxurious time to do our stuff, we don’t have the optimum energy we thought we have.
The Dark Hole of Self Pity
“He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn't work. It wasn't just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that--it didn't work.” ― Gary Paulsen, Hatchet
There is nothing wrong with doing what we did since we did want to do it. It is our initiative. We want to make our partner happy and feel appreciated. Sadly, I didn’t realize that by overcompensating daily activities to justify my existence as a dependent expat spouse, I sacrificed the time that I thought I had. The time I should have spent -- at least some part of it -- pursuing my dream to be able to advance myself professionally. Suddenly the sun is set, we’re out of time. We feel inadequate since we didn’t manage to do the thing we planned to do.
"...the more we spent our time over-compensating, the more we feel bad, the more the negativity lingers, the more it builds up. It’s as if we trap ourselves in a dark hole that sinks us deeper and deeper every change of day."
The worst part is that this bad feeling tends to linger, as all negative mindsets do. When we wake up in the morning, it is there, when we do our activities, it is there. The resentment built up, making us feel bad when doing both things for our relationship and things for ourselves, draining our energy more and more every day. Days and months passed by, and the more we spent our time overcompensating, the more we feel bad, the more the negativity lingers, the more it builds up. It’s as if we trap ourselves in a dark hole that sinks us deeper and deeper every change of day. Once we are awake from the nightmare, we realize that it is not only our energy which has succumbed to the negativity, but also our time and happiness.
Some of you might have similar situations, or perhaps other sources of self-pity generator in your life. Maybe it is family-related, or kids-related, or career-related, which I do believe are all justifiable. However, at least for today, the focus is not the reasoning nor the sources. The main question would be whether it is beneficial for us? Does it help us to move forward in our lives and thrive? Or is it just holding us back from doing the things we should be doing, to embrace ourselves, and to be happy?
Understanding The Danger of Self-Pity
“Self-pity is spiritual suicide. It is an indefensible self-mutilation of the soul.” ― Anthon St. Maarten
There is nothing normal with taking a leap of faith as an accompanying partner for an expat worker. Whenever the discussion comes up regarding the topic, there are almost always two kinds of responses. It is either positive such as “how lucky you are” and “how exciting your life gonna be,” or negative, such as “how much sacrifice you’re going to make,” “will you get a good job?,” “will the new social circle accept you?”, and so on so forth. There’s no in-between. There’s no just “okay” response or a small shrug as if it is familiar and easy to navigate.
For us, deciding on moving abroad is one thing, but living it to the fullest is another thing. The decision to stay with our partner and to face what life can give us together every day is definitely reasonable and attainable. And contrary to what some people believe, we do understand the consequences, that we might have to start a lot of things from scratch: our social circle, career advancement, even hobbies, and activities. Nevertheless, we also need to understand that we did choose to move together, but we didn't choose to have a dependent tag and to face an unnecessary rigorous process of obtaining a work permit. It is a consequence that comes within the choice. In a way, we were forced to choose the most optimum package from limited options in a limited amount of time and put it in our cart.
Having a non-ideal situation as such, it is in human nature to resort ourselves in finding another exit to blame. And the easiest to point our fingers at is the unfairness of our situation. The presence of a feeling of uncertainty and despair were not highly surprising. For some of us, it might even include dealing with feelings of jealousy seeing our partner thriving in his career or generating a new social circle, talking about how dynamic his day to day life is. In contrast, we are still scrambling and crawling, trying to make amends and deal with our current status and situation. Therefore, understanding how dangerous harboring self-pity behavior in our actions is important not only to save our mental health, but also our relationship with loved ones.
Self pity is defined as pity for oneself, a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It is often accompanied with internal monologues such as "What did I do to deserve this?" along with feelings of sadness and a heightened sense of injustice (Charmaz, 1980; Grunert, 1988 in Stoeber, 2003).
"When we pity ourselves all we see is ourselves. When we have problems, all we see are our problems and that's all what we love of talking about. We don't see the good things in our lives" -- Ann Marie Agular
Self-pitying persons are characterized as likely to overindulge in their failures, hardships, and losses, and the circumstances elicited by these setbacks, thus becoming self-consciously preoccupied with their own suffering (Charmaz, 1980 in Strober, 2003). There is a great sense of insecurity behind it. What started as a feeling of injustice soon grew into a feeling of ‘not being enough.’ If this overindulging nature of self-pity isn’t being addressed early enough, it might lead to self-esteem problems, anxiety, and even depression.
The worst part is that self-pity doesn’t only affect oneself, but also others around us. It affects our relationship with our career, our partner, and our family. Self-pity can also be highly addictive. The good news is, like most addictions, it is very much possible to overcome it.
Back to Basic -- Why Do We Want What We Want?
“Bad things happen all the time to good people who've done nothing to deserve them. Only you can choose how you handle it. Whether to press through and overcome it or succumb to self-pity.” ― Melanie A. Smith
Similar to other types of negative mindsets, the road to recovery always starts with acceptance, not only about having self-pity, but also accepting that our situation isn’t an easy one. Nobody has the right answer for all the problems the world has to give. Every person is struggling and trying to figure out their own life, even without having to deal with moving abroad and adjusting to new routines. Even geniuses like Einstein and Marie Curie haven’t had their life figured out. Instagram and other social media might convince us otherwise, but all these life advertisements do not represent the majority of one’s life. Do we really believe that someone who manages to get a job or get promoted at work is going to have sustainable joy, just because of one event in his/her life? He/she might feel great for a while, but this won’t make self-pity feeling disappear unless there’s a sense of self-acceptance.
What is the essence of our desire to work or to be productive or to be something? We, as humans, want something because we sincerely believe that it will make us happy.
It is more than okay to take your time and slowly look out for chances and opportunities. There are plenty of reasons to be devastated and fearful of life, but it is in our hands to take it as a challenge or a disaster. “With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose,” -- Wayne Dyer.
Another point that might be beneficial for us to dig deeper is the reason why we want what we want. What is the essence of our desire to work or to be productive or to be something? We, as humans, want something because we sincerely believe that it will make us happy. Therefore, we want to work because we think it will make us happy. Even when we work for purely financial reasons, we want to make money because we believe the money would make us better as a person, thus making us happy. We want to be productive because it makes us feel useful, thus making us happy. If eventually, not having a job or being less productive makes us unhappy, doesn’t it diminish all the essential purposes of our desire? Isn't it counterproductive with the main reason behind it?
Being Selfish Might be The Least Selfish Thing We Can Do
Interestingly, oftentimes the only person who is asking so much from ourselves in the family is none other than ourselves. My husband openly told me that we don’t need to have exceptional gourmet every night, we can have a regular plan on our travel, we could hire a cleaning person from time to time; better yet -- he can help with house chores. In the end, the last thing our partner wants to see is having us sacrificing our happiness and sanity for uncertain matters. We decided to move abroad to get the best of our lives, not to be miserable from day to day challenges.
"Find a community that would understand your struggle and listen to you. You’re not and never alone."
Therefore, to take care of yourself is never a useless advice. Give yourself a break from having to be perfect all the time, as no one even knows what the definition of perfect is. Make a schedule of things you want to do and make sure to do them, even if you have to neglect one or two house chores. We also should probably ask ourselves whether it is really the current situation that makes us wary, or is it the uncertainty of the future? If it is the later, then slowly start planning on your future, without the rush. Perhaps brushing out your resume, looking for related voluntary activities, or even joining courses to get certificates to better your chance of landing a job in the future. Feel free to check out this article if you need some ideas to stay productive in the current predicament.
On top of that, find a community that would understand your struggle and listen to you. You’re not and never alone. Helping each other to figure out how to navigate this uncharted territory can not only empower each other, but also open up new perspectives and opportunities. Thriving Aliens has a community forum where it is safe for us to share our day-to-day challenges as accompanying partners.
Forgive Yourself and Move On
What I cannot stop emphasizing is to remember that our situation isn’t 100% normal, and it isn’t easy. It is always fine to look for help and give yourself a break from time to time to reflect. It is okay not to be happy all the time, and it is okay not to be productive 24/7. Although it sounds counterproductive, it is even okay to dwell from time to time. Give yourself 5 minutes everyday to address how you feel about the situation. If you find sadness and desperation, treat your emotions gently, then move on. There’s no better partner than a happy and fulfilled one. There’s no better acceptance than self-acceptance. Life can’t always be pretty, but we should never be the one to make it worse. We have all the choices in the world to make the best of our time, for today and tomorrow.
“It's all right to sit on your pity pot every now and again. Just be sure to flush when you are finished” -- Debbie Macomber
Stoeber, Joachim (2003) Self-Pity: Exploring the Links to Personality, Control Beliefs, and Anger. Journal of Personality, 71 (2). pp. 183-220. ISSN 0022-3506.