What to do when things get tough

I am going to be real with you. Last week being an expat in Ouagadougou was a pain in the you-know-where. After I share my story, I will offer you ideas on what you can do when parts of your expat life start feeling like a pain, and how you can keep a balanced perspective.

I´d recently written a post called One Way to Trick Fear which focused on fear´s bizarre ability to get in our way when we want to do great things. I did my “soul strip tease” and shared with hundreds of my readers how I was afraid to do video but was determined to “act as if I were not” and do it anyway.

So it is normally hard enough to “jump over your own shadow” (as they say in German) but when you are an expat you sometimes have a few more obstacles.

Shooting a video on my own in a room that was nearing 40C / 105F without actually passing out was my first obstacle.

I did my first take and it was out of focus. Nice.

So I changed my clothes, took a deep breath and really went for it. Excited I finally had something good, you can imagine my reaction when I discovered all of the video footage was me with my head cut off. If my children had been present when I realized this, I would´ve had to pay 1,000 West African Franc into the swear jar. Classy.


(I have to admit, up until now only the heat can be attributed to being abroad.)

After triple checking my camera angle, the next two 7-minute long video takes were fine, so I hopped downstairs to load them up to the editor´s online system.

Estimated upload time: 41 hours. This is upload speed, Sahel style.

So much for my Monday deadline. I reached out to my video editor and explained (complained?); she patiently adjusted.

Still determined, I monitored the upload for the remainder of the day, right before I went to bed that night, and then first thing in the morning. I awoke to this message: “Interrupted upload. Please try again.” Deep breath. (Choke back tears.)

My mind raced, searching for a solution to keep my commitment. I asked a dear friend to come over and act as my film director (aka person who can monitor if my head gets chopped in the shot). An hour later, we had a handful of two-minute video sequences that were “certain” to upload more quickly that their seven-minute cousins.

Then I got a 103 hour upload estimate for 370 MB:


By this time I was contemplating taking a plane to Paris to upload the flippin´ files just to keep my promise to you.

After a public plea to my lovely community in Ouagadougou, I warmly received empathy and ideas on how to get faster speed in the Sahel.

My 103 hour wait turned into 6.5 hours. Now we are talking!

After a day of uploading six 1.5 minute video clips, this deceivingly monumentous task was finally complete. Victorious!

What would take someone in Los Angeles or Seoul six minutes took me six days. But in the end I found a way. This is just one small example of when expat life can get to you.

These are some of the tough times

These kind of moments illustrate how expat life can be a real pain in the (-ahem-). So even after we battle fear and convince it not to hold us back, we then may encounter unexpected challenges in trying to get what we want – both big and small. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • You move abroad to be with your sweetheart only to discover that your professional credentials are not recognized.
  • You want to cook some comfort foods and cannot seem to explain what “baking soda” is using your hands and feet in a way that is understood by the locals.
  • You want to be more connected to your friends and family back home, but only think about calling them when it is 3 am in their time zone.
  • You finally muster up the courage to order a beer in the local language only to have the bartender respond, “Wie bitte?” (or some other local variation to express not understanding).

These are the times when we tell ourselves that we can’t have what we want because it is too hard. These are the times when we are tempted to call it quits and move back. These are the moments when we don’t try new things because we are already convinced they won´t work out.

Sorry to be frank, but these moments suck.

Before you throw in the towel, you might be served by an important reminder.

Hard Stuff Often Breeds Good Stuff

Make these two quick lists to keep things in perspective.

1. List of all of the things in your life that are great, but were hard work.

A sample from my list:

  • Adjusting to life in Switzerland in my 20s
  • Getting my master´s degree
  • Staying awake without ten cups of coffee during the first six-months of my newborn´s life
  • Flying across the planet to introduce our baby to my extended family
  • Learning German
  • Getting reliable Wi-Fi installed in my office in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

2. List all of the things in your life that are great AND were easy.

A sample from my list:

  • Falling in friend-love with my college roommate
  • Noticing progress during my Djembe lessons
  • Eating a grilled cheese sandwich

If you are like me the full version of the “hard” list is much longer than the “easy” list.

Doing something “hard” takes more energy than doing something “easy” so that is why you have to get crystal clear on what you really want – and why you want it.

Knowing this will serve as fuel when things get tough.

How to Get Through the Tough Stuff

Here is some unsolicited advice for you:

  • Stop doing the things that take your time and energy but are not part of your “what and why” list.
  • Save your energy for the inevitable and sometimes unpredictable steep climb that comes with accomplishing even minor tasks due to an expat life
  • Focus on the journey (not just the destination). I know the view at the top is beautiful, but if you are only looking up – and not around, you will miss some good scenery.

So back to this torturous video experiment…

What is my “what and why”? First, I want you to get to know more about the woman behind the writing – because she is funnier in person than in writing (see what I mean?). I´m also up for experimenting with a new way of sharing my messages. Most importantly, I´m choosing to get out of my comfort zone because that is where growth resides.

What do I have in store for you?

This is the first of a 4-part video series, where you´ll learn:

  • Proven vacation “Dos & Don’ts” for expats and international families
  • How to deal with the ups and downs of visiting “home”
  • Top strategies on beating the (reentry) Expat Blues

This is my effort to help you get through some of the tough stuff of expat life.

The result of this experiment in overcoming fears and testing my patience is below. Not only am I happy with the video, I am so grateful the ice on my video fear has broken and I feel more free.

A big thank you to Emmy, expert editor from Emmy Wu Media! I am proud to name her as part of the sundaebean.com community.

I´m chomping at the bit to go deeper with you during the coming months on topics so central to our international lives. Even more exciting for me is that I´ll simultaneously take you along on my own journey over the next few months from West Africa to the Midwest, USA onto the heart of Europe before heading back to Burkina Faso.

If you know others who can relate to these upcoming topics, please share!

Now it is YOUR turn, share in the comments section below one thing you think is harder because of your expat life. Go ahead, get it out – it´s cathartic!

I can´t wait to hear from you.

Sundae Schneider-Bean, Expat Coach

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