Home » How to be yourself and thrive abroad: Lessons from living in Denmark

How to be yourself and thrive abroad: Lessons from living in Denmark

by Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen
Being yourself when living abroad comes with intense personal-growth. The initial euphoria of moving abroad can morph into a brutal transition rife with frustration and loneliness.
A few years ago, I received an invitation to perform at a poetry festival in Aarhus. I wanted to write a poem that resonated with my Kenyan culture.
Yet I was afraid that the Danish audience would not relate to my poetry.  My husband sensed my conflict and gave me his tried and trusted pep talk. “Be Yourself. The audience will love your poem.”
As a creative extrovert, I never felt the weight of these two words until when I moved to Denmark six years ago. The first three years of living abroad felt like an emotional carousel.
I was putting too much energy into fitting in – integrating and even assimilating – that I forgot to be myself. I was afraid of facing judgment and being misunderstood.
Uncertainty, doubt and fear of losing my individuality became my strange bedfellows.
I had to choose to step out of the self-imitating thoughts perpetuated by fear. I had to let go of the person that I thought I should be when I came to Denmark.
Instead, I had to refocus on reinventing and blooming in this new space, realising that every human spirit, including mine, is capable of accepting change. Nothing is cast in stone.


Be Yourself

The phrase’ be yourself’ is a simple piece of advice, yet it stirs a mixture of emotions.
The struggle between identity and self-concept intensifies with the making sense of oneself. Who am I? Where do I belong?
Furthermore, every person living abroad comes with a label: Immigrant, an expatriate, refugee, migrant. Each hierarchical migration term carries its weight, based on social perception, and, sometimes, stereotypes.
The term expat often appears as a prerogative term for westerners in well-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, immigrant appears in contexts referring to non-caucasian groups or low-income workers.
People from African, Arabic, and Asian backgrounds lump into migrants or immigrant labels.  Take a look at this article in The Guardian, it describes in greater detail, the ironical lexicon of human migration.
Yet, while these semantics may seem trivial, they play a vital role in the transition of one’s identity abroad. Arguably, the way we define ourselves can determine our challenges and opportunities abroad.
As your sense of self-concept becomes clearer, don’t fret if you can’t fit into any of these labels. You likely had a strong sense of how you are before you moved abroad and where you are going in life.
The more you reframe your identity, the less it becomes vital to attach your sense of self to labels.
By following my intuition, I am discovering how easy it is to be myself. Discovering that my old self doesn’t have to limit me in the present.

Be an Authentic Person

Be authentic and trust in your ambitions and dreams (even when they go against the grain). Feeling lost is part of the process of settling into life abroad. 
Yet, self-care is essential in mitigating the changes in your identity. The clash between the old vs new you can be stressful, resulting in social alienation, low self-esteem as well as mental health issues
Integrating or assimilating can challenge long-held beliefs of your identity and culture. Not to mention, looking for a job, building a social network and learning a new language can leave you feeling overwhelmed.
It is imperative to feel that you are in control of your life even as you navigate into a foreign culture. Let go of old assumptions, don’t beat yourself into fitting into a label.
Choose, instead, to carve your path. Never apologies for who you are, or your heritage. You can thrive abroad while retaining your authentic self.  
The more you get out of your limiting comfort zone, the better you will be at being yourself.
Strive towards finding your balance and embrace the real you. Freeing up your mental space will leave you with the energy you need to thrive abroad.
Finally, be yourself, that’s the most powerful and liberating thing you can do.
You have the potential to unlock all your talents and abilities in your new country.
In other words,  if you feel like it’s getting harder to be yourself, don’t beat yourself up.  Change takes time to happen, so don’t give up.
Embrace this season of your life. Go through it and grow from it.

“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow. – B.J. Neblett

You got this
Photo by Sydney Rae on Unsplash

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S. Sioux March 4, 2020 - 2:51 pm

Hi, I have read your article and I liked it! It’s very comforting to see that there are other people who can understand what you might go through. I wish you the best in life

Susan Knudsen March 25, 2020 - 11:11 pm

Hey Judy Jørgensen! What a refreshing read! Couldn’t have come at a better time! I recently moved to Melby Denmark, about half an hour from Copenhagen. And yes all you’re expressing is spot on and timely! Thank you once again and I look forward to reading more from you! Yes im from nyumbani.

Let’s keep in touch!


Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen March 29, 2020 - 7:52 pm

Asante sana, Soozie for reading. I am so glad you could resonate with what I wrote. Home is indeed where the heart is! Baraka tele kwako!

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