The first time I spent 2 months in Ethiopia by myself, I returned to America and announced to my parents that I wouldn’t go overseas for an extended period of time until I was married because it was just too isolating. That was almost 10 years ago, when I was in college.
But life has a way of making me do things that I vowed to never to do. I graduated from college and got my first real job as an executive assistant. Before long, my boss was asking me to move to Malawi for a few months and manage some exciting projects for him. I didn’t even think as I jumped into the opportunity and a few months turned into a few years.
Those 3 years living in Malawi, single, were some of the most complicated years of my life. It was the best of times and the worst of times; my career was soaring but my soul was decaying. I hate to admit this now, but I did everything wrong that could have been done wrong. I forgot who I was and where I came from. I became a person I never wanted to be; someone I did not recognize.
Here are 8 lessons learned the hard way from someone who did living single overseas all wrong.
1. Find community that has similar values. I was strong. Or so I thought. I didn’t go to Malawi with a mission organization and I was working for the government. Though I had a lot of friends, I was never able to plug into a community of believers. Mostly that was because I was stubborn about the type of people I hung out with. In expat circles I find that there are two types of people: the believers and let’s just say the very non-believers. I thought that I could be a believer but hang with the non-believers. Part of the problem with most of the believers I encountered is that they were married and were homeschooling and had 5 kids. I know I am making huge generalizations with my comments but there wasn’t a lot for us to relate to. I wanted friends that I could go out with and dance with and travel with.
2. Live with safe people. Never underestimate how your environment can begin to wear you down over time. I lived with a male co-worker who didn’t have the same values and poked fun at me for not going out more and not wearing enough make up. My parents encouraged me a number of times to find a new living situation but he was fun and had a lot of friends and I felt cool hanging out with him. We had a great house with a pool and it was hard to make the changes that I needed to. I should have moved in with some good girls. I didn’t need the added stress of my home feeling unsafe. Your home needs to be an oasis not a war zone.
3. Stay connected with people that love you. It’s hard to stay plugged in back home with the time change and the expensive internet connection going in and out, but I wish I had made more of an effort to talk to my family and close girlfriends back in the States. It would have helped me stay more grounded in who I was and where I came from.
4. Know why you are going to live overseas. You need to know why you are living isolated in a different country and making all these sacrifices. In retrospect, I see that I was running from my real life to this exotic job; I wanted to be this international woman of mystery. Even though I played the part well, being an international woman of mystery isn’t a good enough reason to live overseas all alone. There are too many cracks in that identity where doubt and fear and loneliness can creep in. Honestly, there is only one reason good enough to live overseas: you have to be called and know it is part of your vocation. There are a lot of doubting moments and in those moments you need to know your purpose and not be fumbling with a mysterious identity.
5. Know what gets you into trouble. Is it drinking? Is it when you are lonely or feel rejected? For me it was traveling alone, which I did a lot for my job. I should have had a strict no going-out policy, but of course, I was lonely and wanted attention and always found my way to the dance floor. There is no reason not to have a great time on the dance floor, except when it leads to poor choices. Know your limits and be honest about what you can handle and where you need support as well as boundaries.
6. Know your values. Write them down and make a plan for how to stick to them. I thought I knew my values, but when push came to shove my apparent values came crashing down. First, I was a little vague about what I believed to be right and wrong. Second, the further I got from community and the lonelier I became, the more those values seemed to fade into a distant memory. The truth was, I really wasn’t sure what I believed. When put to the test, I got a big fat F. I should have done some soul searching to figure that out, but I was in a self-discovery phase of life that I didn’t want dampened by rules or regulations. Which, by the way, really got me into trouble. Knowing what you believe and what you believe in and how that plays out in your life is extremely important.
7. Remember that we are all just one degree away from being someone that we don’t want to be. Humility is important. You are going to mess up, and there is grace for you. Living overseas single is one of the hardest life trials, and it could make you question everything that once seemed certain to you. Life in a foreign country is hard enough with a spouse, but alone it can seem impossible at times. Rest in grace; make friends with redemption.
8. Know when it’s time to go home. I figured that part out too late. I was stubborn and determined to make Africa work for me. I loved the continent, and I ran my life into the ground before I was willing to wave the white flag of surrender. It was humbling to go home. I felt like I was giving up a dream. I tried to save myself and my situation by every means I could think of, and finally I fell into the arms of God and his salvation for me. I wish I could have acknowledged sooner that I was not in a strong enough emotional place to make Malawi the right place for me at the time.
I have learned much from my mistakes and experienced the sweetness of salvation and redemption in a way I never knew before. Singleness can be an incredible gift to understand who you really are, and living overseas single can heighten that understanding further. Push into God and who He created you to be without fear.
For those of you who have lived overseas single, what challenges have you faced?
What did you learn about yourself and about God through them?
Elizabeth Spencer and her husband Greg live in the desert highlands of Northern Ethiopia where Greg manages a clean energy company that manufactures wood-burning cook stoves. Elizabeth buys local because that’s all there is, and she’s an avid cook because it’s the only dining option. She travels with her husband to tiny mountain towns distributing stoves while writing about the grace that has been birthed in her life through loss, rejection, and her own poor choices. Before living in Ethiopia, Elizabeth lived in Malawi for 3 three years working for President Joyce Banda. Elizabeth and Greg met miraculously on overlapping projects in Rwanda almost 4 years ago. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog Making Me Brave.