How Living Overseas Drained the Extrovert out of Me

Living overseas changes you, though not always in the ways you expect.

For example, I knew that in order for me to adapt to life in China, my preference for advanced planning would need to be adjusted. I knew my time-orientation would need to shift towards event-orientation. I would probably even need to tone down my sarcasm and dead-pan comments (still working on that).

But, there is one part of my personality that I never dreamed would change: being an extrovert.

All my life, I’ve loved being around people. According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I had an incredibly high preference for extroversion, but I didn’t need an assessment to know I processed my thoughts externally and was energized by being around others. I never got tired of people-people-people.

I thought being an extrovert was a permanent part of me, like my height, or my inability to remember phone numbers. So, I naively assumed that living overseas would be great because there would be LOTS OF PEOPLE. A dream come true for an extrovert, right?

Wrong.

There was no way I would have been able to imagine the sheer number of people who would soon be flowing like a rain-swelled river through my expat life, stretching the limits of what would be enjoyable even for someone like me.

Who were all these wonderful folks in my life?

First, there were other expats: my classmates, coworkers, and commiserators. Expats are the most transitory people on earth. Not a month went by without somebody moving into or out of our lives, often many somebodies. New relationship after new relationship, then good-bye after good-bye became a hallmark of our time with other foreigners. It made me think of being a summer camp counselor, with a new batch of campers coming in every week or two. Enthusiastic hellos, sad farewells, rinse, repeat.

Then, there were the friends and family in the States. Expats often juggle an impressive number of relationships back in their homeland, despite needing to be very present in their host country, too. When our family had the chance to visit the States, we tried to see everyone we could. Our times in the U.S. were a torrent of catch-up conversations, too many dear relationships crammed into too short of a time.

Lastly, there was the most obvious group: the locals in our host country. We were building relationships with friends, neighbors, teachers, and more every day. In addition to spending time with these important friends, I had loads more conversations than I normally would while going about daily business. Walking down the street, shopping at the market, playing outside with my kids—activities that involved only the briefest exchange of greetings in my passport country—now involved full conversations with strangers. Each day, I would be peppered with questions from curious onlookers, who were seldom satisfied with a quick answer. There was a whole lotta talkin’ goin’ on, and it was happening in Mandarin (and sometimes Zhuang, a minority language of China) which made it that much more tiring.

At first, this constant flood of relationships was not a problem for extrovert me. I loved having so many people in my life, no matter what location or language the relationships occurred in.

But after years of people-people-people, I realized I had more relationships than I could have imagined and more than are probably healthy for one human to sustain. Dream come true, it was not.

Something was slowly changing in me. I was starting to feel overwhelmed at times, knowing I could not cram any more partners onto my dance card. More than that, I was needing breaks to get off the dance floor completely.

The extroversion was draining out of me. I began to have distinctly introverted thoughts, such as, “I just want to be alone,” or, “I need some cave time.” I started asking my (introverted) husband, “Can you run to the store instead of me? I can’t deal with facing people right now.” Once, I shocked myself by saying out loud to a close friend, “I don’t even want to consider going to the women’s retreat because I will have to meet new people.”

What? Was this really me?

It was. My preference for extroversion had slowly been worn away, like granite slowly eroded by years and years of rushing water.

To be clear, I’m still an extrovert, just less so. Most days, I’m still very happy to be around people-people-people, I still prefer to process things externally, and I am still mostly energized by being around friends. Perhaps, instead of 99% extroverted, I’ve been drained down to about 85%. Not what it once was. Not who I once was.

I’m not the only one to feel a shift like this. I hear expats talk about things changing in them that are deeper than just learning to take off your shoes at the door, or filling the other person’s teacup first. Extroverts become more introverted, quiet folks become more talkative in a new language, hardliners become more compassionate, homebodies take a few steps down the spectrum towards “social butterfly.” We all have something we can point to that shows how living in another culture has changed us.

Being an expat in China has certainly changed me. Some of the ways were expected, some weren’t. And I’m okay with who I’ve become, even that means I’m no longer a raging extrovert. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a little cave time.

What part of the “ever-present you” has changed to “not so present?” Have you seen a spouse or a child change in personality?  How has that affected your relationships at home and abroad?

P.S. In case it’s been bothering you the whole time you’ve been reading this post, there are two accepted spellings for the E word. The older spelling is “extravert” (and “extraversion”), but these days, it’s more common to see “extrovert” (and “extroversion”). Now you know.

Drained Extrovert

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Emily Steele Jackson was born and raised in the U.S., though she's spent much of her adult life traveling and living overseas. Wherever she travels, she tries to pick up some of the local language, and learns to cook at least one local dish. She has lived in China with her husband and two kids since 2005, and records their adventures at www.smalltownlaowai.com.

60 thoughts on “How Living Overseas Drained the Extrovert out of Me

  1. I shared this on my personal facebook page as well as my facebook page (One Bird’s Nest) for my blog as an expat, as it so perfectly describes me. It’s something I really am having to learn to reconcile with to keep from going in the direction of depression and feeling like I’ve literally lost myself in one of the countries somewhere along the way. Thanks for putting it into words.

    • It is strange and hard to have yourself change in such a deep way. Thank you for sharing, and I hope you have some good listening ears around you to help you with the reconciling. Just know you’ve got a lot of folks with you in the same boat. Blessings to you!

  2. I have never thought about it quite like you’ve said it. Me being the extrovert have definitely changed my approach towards friends and friendship. At first I had many, all over, but that constant saying good-bye wore me down. Then the keeping in touch as the friends moved on to other countries just wore me down. I have become more sarcastic, and people actually interpret that as me being funny. Diplomacy? Nah – if you ask me does this top make your arms look flappy, the word batman might come up…

    • So many of my expat friends have talked about how hard the constant good-byes are. It wears on your soul after a while. It’s hard to find healthy ways to cope with it. I avoided good-byes the last time I was in my home country, telling people, “oh, I might see you one more time before we fly out, so I won’t say good-bye yet.” Just about as good as sarcasm. 🙂

  3. Emily, this article made me feel more sane. I really could have written it. My husband and I joke about how he has become the extrovert and me the introvert. I once was told that extroverts often struggle with language because they are use to being able to communicate with confidence and when that is taken away it is harder to cope with while an introvert has often faced “pushing through” in communication and is use to having to work at being affective. It is true for us. Curious if anyone else experienced that while language learning?

    • That is really interesting to think about, Denise. On the other hand, extroverts have a pretty big motivation to work at language learning because we REALLY want to be able to communicate with the people around us, much more than just “how much are the bananas?” I’m also curious to hear what others have experience with language learning.

    • I have never heard this about extrovert and the language learning struggle but I do feel like that describes my life. I love to talk and be around people but not as much as I used to and particularly if they do not speak English. Not being able to communicate clearly and confidently is discouraging and so I find myself being much quieter than I would have expected. And, of course, we need to be life-long learners but once you don’t have that student visa any more, life easily gets filled up with other things besides language study and so 14+ years down the road, I’m still fumbling through certain conversations or just not having them because I can’t have them with confidence.

  4. I agree with Denise that I could have written this as well! This year (my sixth year of being in Thailand) showed a drastic change in my extroverted tendencies. I guess having a zillion kids will do that to you as well.
    Like you, I have been craving alone time (or, at least, quiet time to myself even if I am “by myself” in a mall full of people) more than I ever have before. I almost think that my out-loud words have just run out sometimes. I guess it goes to show that even the highest of extroverts still need that “quiet place” that Jesus always ran off to after the crowd just got too much for him. 🙂

    Alina @ Overseas Mama

  5. Thanks, Alina! Yes, even Jesus needed alone time!

    For me, one big difference is how I now process things. In the past, I needed to be able to process emotions and experiences outloud to figure out how I was feeling, what I was thinking, etc. Thinking about them in my own head was just too muddled. (My poor husband was usually the one that got processed to.) Even though that is still the case for some things, I find that I now need quiet, alone time to process some things internally. That simply would not have happened before.

    I kept wondering if maybe this change was simply part of getting older, and maybe that’s partially true. But the more expats I talk to, the more I think living in another culture really does have a big affect on this change.

  6. I can relate so much! It’s funny, I’ve been feeling this shift ever so slightly and had never put words to thoughts. We’ve lived overseas for 3 years now and this post describes me perfectly. I’ve definitely “lost” some of my extrovertedness – I’m still adjusting to the new me (and so is my husband). 🙂

  7. I have a friend who expressed this same thing- that she had changed from being an extrovert to an introvert while living in Africa.
    I’m an introvert, and that didn’t change being in Congo. But I did learn what that meant, and how I needed to limit responsibilities or social activities sometimes to recharge a little. We lived right on a hospital compound, and constantly had expats and locals around or in our house. I love people, and I love being around them, but it can really wear me out. I had to learn that it was healthy to step away from group activities or social settings at times. I’m not sure if I would have learned this lesson in the US, because I have tended to live in some more isolated places, so I have had to make the effort for social interaction rather than being overwhelmed by it.

    • It would be fascinating to take a poll to see what percentage of expats experience something like this, wouldn’t it?

      I think you’ve hit on something that is so true: living overseas teaches us more about ourselves than we probably would have learned had we never left our passport countries. It’s great that you learned your healthy limits–something I am learning, too. Thanks for sharing, Anna!

  8. I definitely agree with you on this, and it’s hard to explain to people now that I’m back living in the U.S. after 10 years in Mexico. My first two years back, I literally could’ve gone to class (was studying a Master’s degree), come home and not talked to anyone for the rest of the day. There was so much to process, is still so much to process, and for the first time in my life, it doesn’t help to do it out loud. I think, though, that might have something to do with the fact that I don’t have any other people who’ve lived overseas near me…and talking on the phone has always been hard for this extrovert. People who’ve never lived outside of the U.S. have a hard time understanding, even if they’d like to, and it just feels like a lot of work to tell me story over and over. So yes, I agree…living outside the U.S. definitely changed my personalty some.

    Also, on the language, I think that being an extrovert helped me, since I always wanted to be with people and learning the language was the only was to communicate. I don’t think this is the only thing that helps, but it was definitely part of it. I learned much quicker than some others on my team, especially those who were introverts. Just my two cents. 🙂

    • “…and for the first time in my life, it doesn’t help to do it out loud.” YES.

      I also agree that it’s much easier to process overseas experiences with those that can relate. Not just friends who have traveled, but friends who have actually lived in other places.

  9. This is an interesting read for me, having just recently moved country and language again after almost a decade back home. I can already see some changes in myself, although I suspect they are mostly short-term reactions to the sudden instability of life, and I await the coming new equilibrium with reserved intrigue. I was a kid at school, living with my family last time, so who knows what this new season will bring?

    For much the same reasons you lost some extroversion, Emily, much of the work I’ve done these previous years to moderate my naturally strong introversion has been eroded and I find myself back in some sort of unstable extreme – flipping between begrudging any sorties whatsoever and then finding myself desperate for someone to talk to. I suppose I have to laugh at that.

    Thanks to all for sharing here – it’s great to get a larger perspective, and some sort of understanding of what might lie ahead.

    • Thanks for your comment, Matt. It will be interesting to see how much of what you are experiencing is more like culture shock because of a new situation, and what is a longer-term change. It’s also really interesting to think of the different between your experience as a kid with your family vs. as an adult.

      I just had an introvert expat tell me she was shocked to discover that she finds herself desperate to talk to people! You’re right–it’s good to laugh about these things. Thanks again for sharing!

  10. Oh my goodness – change the word China to Philippines and Mandarin to Tagalog and I could have written that! Word. For. Word! Thank you. I totally understand. I never thought I would not enjoy going to a party and meeting and talking to people, but it was SO HARD at times! Thanks for this.

    • Thanks, Karin! Yes, it’s so weird to see oneself so changed. A friend just mentioned that he is an extrovert in English, but an introvert in Mandarin. I thought that was really insightful. Maybe that’s similar for you, too, but in Tagalog?

  11. I am an introvert that has lived in China for 15 years. I agree with what you say. We often talk about how we all move further up the scale towards introversion in China. The introverts need more space too and have to find ways to cope here.

    • Kyla, thanks so much for posting your comment. I’ve actually heard from quite a few introverts that they became more extroverted after living overseas, but it is interesting to hear your perspective that being in China actually made you, an introvert, more introverted. I guess we all treasure our ‘cave time!’

  12. Like others, I thought it was just me! We’ve lived overseas for 14 years. I find myself more and more just being content to sit in a chair and read a book. Years ago, I would’ve been antsy to get among people. I do believe language learning did have something to do with it (and still does). As an extrovert, I enjoyed quick banter and spontaneous conversations with many people all at once. That’s so hard to do in a new language. Even after all this time, it is still draining to have more than one person speaking at the same time around me. No problem in my native tongue, but not in my second language. And there will always be gaps with second language – not picking up on all of the subtlety, nuance, and other “inside” aspects of the language. Maybe, as extroverts, we feel “left out” of things, so we turn away from it.

    My husband, like others, is an introvert, but has bloomed here! He can be with people all day in this culture and loves it!

    Thanks for the great insight!

    • This is great, Julie. I think you might be right–in a new language, we’re not as able to jump into conversations, joke around, etc. I guess we learn to be content to listen and process instead of more actively participating. It’s great that your husband has gone the other way. Balance, right?

  13. Wow and I thought I was the only one getting fed up with making new friends. I am now sticking to the local people here as they don’t move that much. Most people I met I now see as temporary acquaintances and when they leave most of the time also the contact gets lost within a year.
    Thanx for sharing this article I feel less weird now;-)

    • Maria, I guess we are all weird together! 🙂 One of the first expat friends I had confided in me how much she HATED the good-byes of overseas living. I couldn’t relate at the time, but I quickly came to understand the sentiment. It’s hard to make the effort at connecting when you know the relationship may not last long.

  14. Yes! I could have written this! I’ve lived in Amsterdam for the last five years and am still amazed that my raging extrovert has mostly vanished. I did experience the struggle with language learning because I felt like my strength was connection and communication. All of the sudden I perceived those strengths as weaknesses and experienced mental blocks instead of brilliant conversation skills (or at least the ability to be funny). I am still trying to live within the new boundaries of my altered personality. Learning more every day. Thanks again for the great read!

    • Thank you, Alycia, I think you are right on the money. Excellent thoughts. I’m in the same boat–I’m not very funny in Chinese, apparently. Oh well.

  15. Imagine what it could do to an introvert!! I knew something in me changed during our 4 years in Singapore but I’ve never put my finger on it. I think you’re on to something here! Thanks for sharing.

  16. I totally understand but for me it was the opposite. I’ve become more extroverted and learned to love it. Prior to university I moved every 3 years of my life and now I find that staying in one place abroad is very doable for me because instead of me being the one coming and going others do.

    • Joe, thanks for your comment. I also moved about every 3 years growing up (and even past growing up, I have still moved way too many times). I hear ya. It would be fascinating to tally everyone up and see how many introverts feel more extroverted now, and vice versa.

  17. I can relate to the nth degree. I served in Turkey. Came back in 2003 and knew that I was not the screaming extrovert I use to be. I actually enjoyed being by myself upon occasion. But I had no idea to relate it to being overseas. Yet it fits. Thanks for that piece of the puzzle in my life.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Cheryl, and I’m very glad to have helped you find that piece to the puzzle! It’s interesting to hear that your new-found introversion stayed with you, even when you were no longer overseas. I am curious to hear if that is true for most people.

  18. This has certainly been true for me but not just externally. I love writing…or shall I say I have loved writing. I used to journal regularly, especially when traveling. Now, I’m too exhausted to think about writing and when I have to write (monthly newsletters) it takes twice as long as it should!

    • I hadn’t thought of that before, Beth! I really hadn’t been writing for years, but recently started blogging and re-discovered how much I enjoy writing. I also found that it is a really helpful way for me to process our experiences here. Interesting how the same things might wax for some, but wane for others.

  19. Like so many, I enjoyed your exploration. I’ve been a “high-performing introvert,” who now finds myself less and less so (11 yrs outside the US this stint, and counting). This morning’s prayer was around discernment of God’s current invitation, whether it is to press on with high levels of people engagement and trust Him for the strength and Spirit-filling, or to shift perspective on what His priorities for this season might be–towards more contemplative space for prayer and writing and fewer people in and out in the constant stream that we have seen as normal for many years.

  20. Your words are so true. After serving in two countries and now serving in a stateside ministry I find the extrovert in me is quieter, I listen better, I need less people and less time with them. I love more quiet time. I find having a purpose for being quiet still helps me in our daily life. Interesting my husband, the introvert learn to be an extrovert for the sake of the gospel. Those who know him well cannot get over how easily he can talk about his passion and what God has taught us through the years. I always thought Jesus was the perfect blend of both personalities and since He is our example no matter where we live being both when appropriate was attainable with His help. Great post.

  21. Totally understand! I have been a missionary in a few places over the past 20+ years (mostly in Asia) and am continuing the journey in Japan. Many things you shared were spot on and I felt like I was looking in a mirror. Thank you for sharing and I will be sharing this on my FB and a newsletter, as well.

    When you said, “But after years of people-people-people, I realized I had more relationships than I could have imagined and more than are probably healthy for one human to sustain. Dream come true, it was not.” I thought, that’s it, that is how I have been feeling…maybe even the way Jesus felt and that is why He went off by Himself to pray and commune with His Father! I need this same mentality.

    Thank you for your candidness.

  22. My wife went to China for 5 years as a 98% extrovert (Myers/Briggs). After five years she tests consistently as 60% now. She says a lot of it actually had to do with increased isolation, and coping/adjusting to that. Great article, she felt like she wasn’t broken after reading it.

    • “…she felt like she wasn’t broken after reading it.” Wow, I am so happy to help! I hope she can also see from all these comments that she is far from alone. We could probably even form a club. We just need T-shirts. Thanks so much for your comment, Daniel!

  23. I went through the same thing. Super extrovert who now finds herself wondering if she really wants to go be around a bunch of people instead of just staying in and watching movies. I still love talking to strangers and I do love to be around others, but not in the same way. I was just thinking about this very phenomenon today, so I’m thankful you put it into coherent words!

  24. Wow you hit the nail on the head!!! We live in Shanghai and OMG! this used to be very over the top extrovert girl, has become a recluse! I am so glad to read your post and know I am not alone! It is so nice to read this and know I am normal!

  25. spot on! I loved reading this and felt that you perhaps read my journal, that hadn’t been written yet:) I lived in Spain for 4 years and am also married to an introvert. I think others saw it before I did, I remember people saying even early on in our time overseas, that ” you’re wife is so quiet and private” HA, the first time in ALL my life to hear those words.
    Also I have noticed that all the depending on others for help I had to do there, has effected who I am now even in my own country. We’ve been home for one year today; and I am still working on becoming as independent as I once was.
    Loved reading your thoughts. Thanks for sharing

  26. Agree tip to toe with it all. If you add in those of us who have full-time maids in the house, (which in theory is great), that alone time becomes so so valuable. I’ve been an extrovert my whole life, craving people and the energy the bring, but wow, I have had to back off just for my own sanity. Thanks for ‘labeling’ how I feel. Much appreciated.

  27. When I took one of those test to go into min, I found many answers I wasn’t sure if they were learning or natural. We are 2nd career after the army and many moves. I did not anticipate how this new career would change me. This was an interesting post; I clearly need to revisit how I was changed. And how my relationship here that were close ones, changed. Thank you.

  28. I’ve found the opposite in two different ways: (1) As an introvert, I found it MUCH easier in Spain, Peru, or Turkey to be alone; yet (2) in spite of being an extreme introvert, I love languages, and relish opportunities to attempt to communicate in languages I can barely understand.

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