”If I lived here, it would be so hard to find something wrong with this place,” I announced to my husband as we walked through a beautiful grocery store in a neighboring country.
I walked by all the the things I normally couldn’t find in our host country: pork, deli meat, bagels, Life cereal. And the bread selection, so abundant!
”Give it some time and you’d find something,” my husband reminded me. “It’s our human tendency.”
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that sad fact to be true. Everyone complains, at some point, at least a little. But if we start to let complaining get the best of us, we can actually re-wire our brain and cause it to default to negativity.
Neuroscience teaches us that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you’ve ever found yourself in a season where negativity and complaining seem to be your default response to everything, well… that’s probably because you really are in default-mode. A vicious little cycle has been created and it’s up to you to help yourself and your brain get out of that rut.
So how do we do it? When complaining and discontent is on the tip of our tongues (and our brain has simultaneously made it easier to steer our thoughts to the negative), how do we fix this issue?
We get after grateful.
A couple months ago, I learned about the hashtag, #getaftergrateful. As social media platforms continue to grow and expand, I still favor Instagram. I’m a picture person. I like looking at the pictures and I like taking the pictures (and yeah, I heard you the first time, iPhone…I might want to update my iCloud storage). Second in line to the photos, I enjoy exploring the hashtags. I appreciate how it allows me to put the mass amount of photos on Instagram through a filter so I can see the things I want to see. In a world full of unsolicited advice, opinions, and photos of someone’s gut before and after doing some kind of “wrap”, it’s nice getting to choose what pops in front of my eyes every once in awhile. “Getting after grateful” is the kind of reminder I need when I decide to pick up my phone and scroll — especially when I’m trying to escape the reality of my life. My expat life, to be more precise.
I know we expats are not the only ones who can slip into auto-pilot when it comes to complaining. As my husband stated, it’s kind of in our blood as human beings. However, it doesn’t help matters when you add on cultural stress, language learning, major government corruption, cooking while having to substitute half the ingredients, paying bills and thus having to waste your entire day… — I could go on but I think we’d be getting ourselves right back into a negative rut.
The fact of the matter is, we are not going to re-wire our brains overnight. Repetition is what gets us in this predicament in the first place, and repitition is what’s going to get us out. So when you’re tempted to complain, catch yourself, and express gratitude for something instead. Go ahead, I dare you to try and be grateful and complain at the same time. It’s impossible.
In an effort to jumpstart my neurons and get them firing in a more positive direction, I started jotting down all the things I’m grateful for in this expat-life of mine. I’ll admit, I had to really dig in the beginning (thanks to the bad attitude and spirit of pessimism I was sulking in at the time), but eventually my gratefulness began to flow.
I’d encourage you to do the same, ESPECIALLY if you find yourself in a complaining rut. And just in case you need a little help getting started, I’m going to share five items of gratefulness from my own list which you might be able to relate to as well (no matter where you find yourself in the world).
The chance to reconsider what’s most valuable to you. When you’ve put some distance between you and your home country, you might notice all the reevaluation that begins to take place in your life. Traditions, holidays, material possessions, religion, values you stand for and and the issues you stand against — once you’ve removed yourself from an environment where everyone, for the most part, shares and celebrates the same things as you and then plant yourself in a place where you might stand alone (and apart), it really causes some self-reflection. How much do I really value the things I own? How much effort (and possibly blood, sweat, and tears) do I want to devote to recreating holiday traditions and meals? What are the hills I’m willing to die on and the causes I’m willing to fight for? Is my faith strong enough when I’m suddenly the minority religion?
Resilience. “Blessed are the flexible for they are not easily broken.” Change happens a lot in this kind of life we live. We could let it break us, but I’d like to believe most of us have learned, over time, to bend and bounce back.
The trade-offs. The longer you live overseas, the harder it is to answer the question, “which country do you like best?” While culture shock usually brings all the things you don’t love about a country to the surface, longevity ends up showing you things about the culture you wish you could take with you everywhere you go. Sure, there are things we might just have let go of, but there are also new things we can pick up along the way. Maybe I don’t have Chick-fil-A, but I can feed my family of six a very hearty local meal for about 10 bucks. Maybe I don’t have central AC in my house, but I do have a house helper that comes and helps me take care of household chores three days a week.
A new appreciation for the fellow foreigner. Yes, there are a handful of foreigners who enter a country with bad intentions. That is a sad fact I wish were not true. But I also know a bunch of foreigners around the globe who enter countries with intentions to learn and help, to serve and equip, to offer their skillset where it’s needed most. Yet still, these same foreigners are refused a visa extension. Despite their best efforts to follow the rules, they still have immigration officers show up in their house to interrogate them. And sometimes, simply because they are disliked by a person with some power, they are kicked out of the country. So if you’re looking for someone to vent to about “all these foreigners taking over,” sorry, I’m not your gal.
The expat community. What I love most about this community of people is that, given a different set of circumstance or a change of setting, we might not have pursued friendship with one another. I’ve formed some of the sweetest friendships with people I probably would have kept at acquaintance status in the States — people of all ages and stages, people with different religious beliefs (or no religion at all), people with different home countries, people who maybe don’t even laugh at my jokes. But none of that seems to matter when you find one another in a foreign land. Much like the third culture kid community, we find some common ground in one another which we can’t find in anyone else. And that, my friends, is certainly something to be grateful for.
Now it’s your turn. Make a list. Get after grateful. You can share some things here in the comments section or tag us on Instagram with the hashtag, #ExpatsGetAfterGrateful.
“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” – Melody Beattie