There are many reasons why some of us choose to set up life in a new country. The prospect offers numerous benefits, such as satisfying a yearning for exploration, self-improvement or a higher standard of living.
Living abroad is undoubtedly a highly enriching experience, it broadens your mind and provides exposure to different ways of life; it offers a more immersive language learning opportunity and your self-sufficiency will come to know no bounds as a result of having to jump through strange and complex bureaucratic hoops in a foreign language.
Despite how beneficial life as an immigrant can be, there are some very real side effects. A combination of triggers mean that you are frequently reminded of that fact that you are a foreigner and don’t really fit in.
Speaking the language like a beginner, or even fluently, but just not like a native, is a significant one. How you look and act can also draw attention to you, both positive and negative, as you and those around you notice that there’s something off and that you probably don’t belong here. A culmination of these factors serve to contribute towards feelings of ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ A term more frequently used when referring to feelings of unworthiness in the workplace, Imposter Syndrome is one of the very real and discomforting side effects of life as a foreigner.
What does Imposter Syndrome mean?
Imposter Syndrome is defined by experiencing constant feelings of self-doubt accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud.
The type of Imposter Syndrome one deals with as an immigrant can be influenced by numerous factors. Living in an increasingly globalised world, we as a society are becoming more and more aware of the benefits of multiculturalism and integration.
Alongside these developments however, has been a corresponding wave of international conservatism. Narratives of xenophobia and racism are ever present within politics and the media, filtering their way through to public opinion. In a world where some of the most powerful leaders are vocally making the equation that foreign equals evil, could an increasing presence of xenophobia be one of the main reasons that foreigners living abroad are prone to feelings of Imposter Syndrome?
This anti-foreign mindset goes hand in hand with contributing towards notions of national stereotypes. It’s easier to condemn a nation if it’s populace all behave in the same negative manner, which is how harmful stereotypes come to emerge and be held against people. Being aware of how the citizens of your nation are regarded overseas can often lead to feelings of guilt and shame when living abroad, along with a responsibility to challenge these perceptions, never daring to fit into any national stereotype.
Stereotypes and feeling the need to fight them only serve to reinforce feelings of Imposter Syndrome due to an overwhelming awareness of being a foreigner.
What are the triggers?
In less ideological terms, many Imposter Syndrome triggers are things that are often encountered in daily life. Upon announcing a move overseas, many of us are met with the response that we will pick up the language of our new home country in no time.
Of course, there is arguably no better place to learn a language than in a country where it is natively spoken, but as a foreigner you are often harshly reminded that the language learning process is a long one that takes time. It can be unbelievably frustrating not to be able to express yourself in the way that you wish, or how you could so easily manage in your mother tongue.
Going shopping and trips to the doctor or the bank become far more complicated due to fears of not being understood and not being able to understand. Imposter Syndrome can also create feelings of guilt, guilt that you don’t speak the language well enough or guilt that you rely on others to speak English on your behalf. Having English as your native language is a huge privilege, but can also contribute to feelings of Imposter Syndrome. In an international group of friends, the common language is usually English and native speakers therefore have the luxury of conversing while thinking in their mother tongue.
A lack of linguistic ability serves to further contribute towards feelings of Imposter Syndrome as you feel unable to utilise a huge tool of access to national culture. Language is one of the foundations of culture and national identity, and not being able to understand or speak the language of the country you’re living in to any degree leaves you feeling alienated and like you’re missing out on something.
Experiences of Imposter Syndrome can be ignited by numerous triggers with feelings of unworthiness contributing towards day to day inconveniences, which make life as a foreigner challenging. A nagging sense of not belonging may lead us to feel that we are not a valid member of the society we are living in. We may find ourselves questioning our entitlement to resources, such as healthcare or state welfare, and whether this entitlement is as worthy as that of a national citizen.
Whilst all of the above may appear solely negative in focus, there are in fact ways in which Imposter Syndrome can be overcome to make life abroad all the more rewarding. From an outsider’s perspective, my own position as a white British female is one of extreme privilege, and that’s true. My experiences of Imposter Syndrome are nowhere near the degree of what others face when immigrating to a new country, but they are still real, and valid.
This leads to the point that feelings of unworthiness and not belonging are so often intensified in our own heads. In no way am I denying the presence of xenophobic discrimination, but feeling guilty for merely existing and taking up space in a foreign country is something we can try to combat within ourselves. It’s easy to focus on the negative, like how our language skills aren’t good enough or how we are always the odd one out. What we so often see as negative, however, is all down to perspective.
Efforts to integrate are undoubtedly appreciated by countries’ national citizens, but the presence of new cultures is also welcome. Those who feel threatened by anything foreign should not be satisfied by triggering feelings of Imposter Syndrome within its nation’s immigrants. After having lived abroad, many of us may go on to experience Imposter Syndrome when we return to our native lands.
We come to consciously, and unconsciously, adopt new cultural practices which just seem alien to those back ‘home.’ Feeling like you don’t belong where you now live and feeling like you don’t belong where you originally come from, highlights that none of us really belong anywhere, and that’s not a bad thing.
I have personally struggled with my national identity for years, but have come to make peace with the fact that I don’t have to align myself with one singular citizenship. Despite how we may sometimes feel, we all have a right to be where we are and xenophobic attitudes should be the problem of those that preach them.