A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post in response to a reader’s question about the unfriendliness in Berlin. Within that post I wrote about the reasons behind Berliners’ and Germans’ frosty attitudes. What I didn’t reflect on is the fact that it is not only due to the qualities of others and the world that we see things how we do. The way we perceive the external world is very much dependent on us and on our thoughts, feelings and actions.
My experience in Berlin offers a wonderful metaphor for how these processes work.
Initially I found Berlin to be a hostile and unfriendly environment. As a newcomer to Berlin, I felt lonely and unwelcome. I had many difficult experiences that reinforced these feelings and I struggled to see the positive. I was drowning in my own negativity and it seeped into my daily interactions with people I met.
The following is a short list of the things I did, felt or thought that helped me shift my view and thus helped me see things I never saw before. I hope it inspires you to feel empowered and to take action so that even the loneliest and unfriendliest place can start to feel a little more comfortable and manageable. It’s not all in your head but there are definitely ways in which we can change our realities.
- Gratitude lists
Right from the beginning of my trip, shortly after completing the Blogcademy workshop, I started the practice of writing down gratitude lists. I would write down absolutely everything and anything I was grateful for that day, like sunshine or a smiling stranger.
- Learn German
My experience in Berlin changed dramatically when I started to feel more comfortable speaking German in stores and on public transport. My German is far from perfect but it is good enough to converse with the man on the street and to feel empowered enough as a citizen of this country/city. I think more than anything it legitimized me. Whereas before I felt like an outsider and unwelcome, my limited German helped to make me feel more like a local.
Obviously learning German is not going to help everyone in all circumstances but the lesson is universal. Find something to keep you busy that also helps you feel a part of something. Joining a community is key to finding happiness in a foreign place.
This should go without saying but Berlin has this way of kicking the smile out of you. I am naturally a very smiley person but I found myself being super down the first year here. I had to consciously learn to smile at strangers again. I think that I used to take unfriendliness personally but when I realised that this was just how some people are and that it had more to do with them than with me, then I learned to see the comical side in their behaviour. Smile, smile, smile!
- Greet people
Again, might sound like an obvious one but I think that sometimes we are in too much of a rush. We walk into a store or the post office and we immediately ask for what we want. Why not stop to say hello first and ask how the person is doing? They are human too after all.
- Make eye contact
People are also animals. We respond to non-verbal cues on a primal level. I have found that Berliners really respond to people who are gutsy and who stand up for themselves. I think this is quite a good life lesson. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and to stand your ground. Feeling confident might not come naturally in difficult situations but making eye contact and standing up straight and proud goes a long way.
- Say no to people who are wrong for you
I have learned the hard way that you can’t be friends with everyone. Some people are great but they don’t really stimulate you or bring out the best in you. I found that spending time with people who were wrong for me (because of personality differences or different value systems) made me feel alienated and alone. As soon as I started to be selective about who I chose to spend time with, my life dramatically improved here. And don’t go to events or clubs you don’t like either! If it doesn’t make you happy then why bother? Life is too short to spend your time chasing someone else’s idea of a good time!
- Stay at home
On that note, I really think that being a homebody is underrated! One of the things that made Berlin exponentially better was finding an amazing apartment and learning to spend time on my own. I used to get anxious if I was at home too often because I felt like I wasn’t making the most of my life. Now I absolutely crave me-time and love spending time alone. It’s important to feel like one’s home offers security and protection, as well as being a sanctuary away from outside pressures. It also means that when you do go out, you’re in better shape and have more energy to face the world with a confident and friendly attitude
- Don’t take it personally
As I said before, one of my biggest lessons here was the discovery that people were rude and unfriendly because of them and not because of me. I used to take every little comment and slight personally and this would often leave me feeling frustrated and hurt.
After I realised that other people had experienced the same thing and that this was not a personal attack on me but just something about the experience of being an expat in this city, I felt a huge sense of relief. I could see the humour in all of it. I began to see that these things are truly funny when you take a step back and see them from a distance.
Remember not to give others too much power. In relationships, all relationships, we can depend too much on what people say and do. When we rely on other people’s perceptions of us, we lose sight of who we really are. No one should have the power to make you feel you are unworthy or unwelcome. If they do, then try to remember that this behaviour says more about them and their fears and blind spots than it does about you. Stay brave, stay fiercely you!
- Find like-minded people
This is the biggest piece of advice I would give any expat or anyone living anywhere. Find people who get you. Find people who you don’t have to explain yourself to. Yes it’s fun to meet people from different walks of life and from different places in the world, but it’s also great to just be understood. Try find people who (no matter where they’re from) have the same value systems as you and who share the same interests and beliefs about the world. And if they don’t share all of this with you then at least find people who are accepting of other people’s differences. Spending time with judgemental and pretentious people who look down their noses at you or anyone else is going to make you unhappy.
- Be who you are looking for
At the end of the day you are going to spend more time in your own head than anywhere else. Be your own best friend, your own biggest cheerleader. If you are struggling to find friendly people then please don’t also be a dick to yourself. Make a conscious effort to be there for yourself and give yourself all that you need and maybe aren’t getting from the outside world. Take yourself on fun excursions. Let yourself have that last piece of pie. Make yourself popcorn and hot chocolate and watch that Rom Com you’ve already seen 15 times! Make being with yourself feel like a treat not a punishment.
And look out for the magic in the world. There are always going to be moments of light and clarity, even in the darkest places. Seek them out and they will appear for you.