I remember, with an incredible degree of detail, stepping on the plane for my first, true international adventure. It was 1997, and I was in my sophomore year of college.

As I found my seat on the plane, I looked around at the other students who were also flying out of JFK that day – headed to study abroad programs in Spain. They all looked much, much cooler than me…or at least they looked much, much cooler than I felt.

They all had large travel backpacks. I had a hand-me-down suitcase from my mom. Most of them were smoking. I stifled coughs and gags and burning eyes as the cabin filled with second-hand smoke. Most of the students didn’t speak a word of Spanish…and apparently didn’t intend to learn any. I not only spoke a fair amount, I thought we were actually going to Spain to learn more.

As a rather extroverted Texan from a small town – I suffered a crisis of comfort zone. I felt completely out of my element. I feared I wouldn’t fit in or find friends and that I’d end up on a big (and scary) solo adventure. I suddenly realized I’d lived a very, very sheltered life.

I remember thinking at one point, “Well, I’m just going to have to do this on my own.” Then, little by little, I began to find the people with whom I connected. I made friends. I improved my Spanish. I traveled. At each step, I was stretching to the outer limits of what felt comfortable to me and to my surprise it felt really good.

As is the case with most expats – with time (and miles), the process has become easier for me. For all expats, it’s second nature for us to expand our definitions of comfort. We take on broader and broader views of what feels right and we become experts in things that once seemed unfamiliar. The gap between fork and chopstick, English and Arabic, handshakes and kisses on the cheek narrows. This is good for us, I think.

But, it’s also important to remember that this is just a start. Knowing that you’re comfortable in lots of different situations is one thing – understanding how the experience is affecting you is completely another. This is, in my opinion, one of those wonderful things about being an expat – the opportunities for personal development and growth are built into the lifestyle. And, while it can take time to find your own style (be it journaling, meditation, reflection or just plain talking it out with a friend), there are so many options for making an expanded comfort zone a true learning opportunity. Gets you thinking doesn’t it?

Are you interested in the idea of getting the most out of your expanded comfort zone? Do you want to take the strengths you’ve gained living abroad to the next level, but you’re not sure where to start? To get a better sense of what your expanded comfort zone really means for you – try this activity. It’s a FREE sample of one of the exercises from my new book The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are. The complete book is also available on Amazon, Amazon.uk and Amazon.eu.

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