Relocating to another country is extremely difficult, but for whatever reason, no one talks about this. I found out how challenging living abroad is only after I left my country and started building my life in The Netherlands from scratch (read the whole story here).

Two years ago, I felt utterly overwhelmed with figuring out all of my life’s aspects at the same time. Learning the language, finding a job, making friends, going through culture shock and realizing that I’m nowhere “at home”. Neither in my country of origin nor in the country I chose to live in.

Furthermore, for a while, I thought that I’m the only person in this world who has difficulties adjusting to a foreign lifestyle. That the other expats don’t feel so lost or lonely.

Thankfully, the period of adaptation is finally over, and all of these issues are behind me. But I want to break the silence and encourage more people to take special care of themselves when they start living in another country. That’s why I decided to feature the Expat Wellbeing project in The Zen Freelancer.

I spoke with Irene Anggreeni, an international Rotterdammer from Indonesia, dance movement psychotherapist and founder of The Expat Wellbeing Project.

As a former expat who has struggled with depression, she values human connection, community, and creative expression.

Irene wants to make mental health problems less of a taboo so that people find it easier to reach out for help.

Here’s what we discussed…

Hi, Irene! You define yourself as “a licensed dance therapist and mindfulness practitioner with intercultural and corporate experience”. What was your experience in the corporate world and why did it end?

My first job after graduation (in 2003) was in software consultancy, at an Australian company based in Bali, Indonesia. Within 1,5 years of working there, I had an opportunity to study for my master’s degree at Linköping University in Sweden with a scholarship.

I took this opportunity and carried on afterward as a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Twente in The Netherlands. So I had a taste of the academic world as well.

Since 2011 I went back to software consultancy. In the last company I worked for, I found it challenging to imagine myself doing this for much longer. I felt disconnected with who I am.

It was also quite a stressful environment with multiple significant reorganizations within the 3,5 years I was working there. All those, in combination with my emotional loneliness, led me to an existential crisis and eventually, a depression.

In 2015 I said bye to the engineering and corporate world to focus entirely on my dance therapy education.

Related: 50 Little Things That Will Make You Instantly Happier

How did you get interested in mindfulness activities?

Psychological counselling has helped me at my lowest moment, but I felt it was not enough support. My energy was low, I was barely surviving.

A good friend of mine from Indonesia is a Buddhist practitioner. From her, I knew about mindfulness teaching in the Plum Village tradition. That summer of 2012 I first joined a week-long mindfulness retreat in one of their centres in Germany.

It was great support for cultivating my self-love, allowing myself to stop and slow down, not only while meditating but also in daily activities. After this experience, I mustered my courage to ask my boss for extra holidays (unpaid leave) to go to a month-long winter retreat in the Plum Village monastery in France.

It has been a very healing experience that carries on into my life up until now. Coming home to myself, feeling that I can have inner space, getting to know who I am, these have led me to decide to study again and become a dance therapist.

You’re both an expat and an entrepreneur. What are the biggest challenges you face?

My own insecurity is a biggie. At first: not knowing where to start, not knowing anyone who can help me with all the practical business necessities. Lack of accessible information, in general.

For moral, emotional and even practical business support, a community is quintessential for me. No entrepreneur should stand alone; that would make me depressive and lonely. As an expat, I had to re-grow my roots and network. So it has challenged me to be more daring in putting myself “out there”.

Luckily for me, Rotterdam is a thriving entrepreneurial city. I’ve made meaningful connections with other professionals. Recently, I joined a co-working collective and I’m looking forward to what’s going to develop from this.

Insecurity still plays a part. But I’ve learned to take it easier these days. Nothing needs to be perfect. Every offering I put out is an opportunity to get feedback, and it will be ongoing iterations to improve it.

Related: 6 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism That Really Work

Where does the project take place?

During the launch in the autumn of 2018, I still had the sponsored workspace from CIC Rotterdam (I won their pitch contest through Operation Launch!). So the first tryouts of this project took place at CIC in the Groot Handelsgebouw.

Since November 2018, I collaborate with Codarts Arts for Health – outreach research & education platform for creative arts therapies by Codarts. So our group sessions are hosted at the beautiful dance studio of Codarts, very central in Rotterdam. And we welcome current dance therapy students for their fieldwork study.


What’s the concept of the project and what means do you use to help people who need it?

The program is for people who are feeling lonely, despite having a busy social life. Having lots of friends, but still missing their support network. It’s also aiming at expats who are doing their best, adapting to a new culture, learning the language, growing their network… yet still not feeling at home.

Adaptation process can be hard, especially when you feel no one’s got your back. When not addressed healthily, it may lead to stress, anxiety, depression and other mental (or physical) health problems.

The participants in the wellbeing program learn an integrative body-mind approach to address their stress and life themes, practice soft skills & effective communication in a safe group, create more awareness and choice in their life.

Related: 8 Simple Ways to Take Care of Yourself

How would you define your approach?

Creative – physical play, improvising dance or movements, get out of the head basically. This is about exercising our choices in the here and now. About expression, being seen, giving form to our emotional journey.

Embodied – I facilitate my clients to experience a theme with their whole being (body, mind, flesh & bone). If we are engaged and involved in the process, we can reflect in a more integrative way, not only intellectualizing things. We cannot learn swimming by reading a book. And it’s important to practice life skills in a safe space such as therapy.

Mindful – aware of what’s going on inside and in our surrounding. By being aware (of our patterns) we can have more choice in life.

In group therapy sessions, we follow this structure:

  • Group check-in
  • Introduction & sharing of the theme (reflect on/connect with your personal story)
  • Experiential exercises (individual, pair or group)
  • Reflection & feedback sharing
  • Group sharing
  • Closure / check-out

You communicate with a lot of expats. What are the biggest struggles an expat in The Netherlands has, according to your experience?

Next to the practical things (e.g. affordable housing, job satisfaction), I hear quite often the struggles of making friends. That’s why Meetup, Facebook or online dating are popular ways to meet people.

At some point though, the real longing is on creating meaningful connections that are supportive and giving a steadiness in our expat life. And that’s a real challenge since we’re all having our own life going, tend to be very busy and despite our good intention, may not always be there for our friends.

Related: What No One Tells You About Being a Freelancer

What would you like to say to the people who don’t believe that therapy can help them feel better?

You’re entitled to your belief. No one can guarantee you that therapy will make you feel better. It’s about creating awareness. And from this awareness, you have the choice whether to change something in your life or not.

Change tends to be painful, and that’s why it’s easier to stay the same in our (unhealthy) patterns.

If you’re ready though, know that therapy can help you make your own path to where you want to go in life.

What is wellbeing for you?

It’s not the absence of any illness. To me, it means a state of being, in which I feel alive. Being connected to my self and my surrounding. Having a sense of being part of something greater. living each day full of meaning be it there joyful, inspirational moments as well as frustrating, sad ones. And it’s a delicate, balancing process from moment to moment to stay well in my being.

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