This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.
We all move to a new country for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are clear and tangible (e.g., for work), other reasons are not so clear and less defined (e.g., “a change of pace”).
Regardless of your reason for moving, it’s normal to feel off-balance after relocating to a new country. It can be helpful to first understand why this happens.
New Country = Psychological Shake-Up (Culture Shock)
The feeling of not being completely yourself is what’s commonly known as culture shock. And culture shock is a significant shake-up to your psychological well-being.
You can think of culture shock simply as stress that occurs when a person encounters a culture that is different than their own.
But, why is encountering a new culture even an issue? Why does it cause stress?
At home, our brains have spent years constructing a template for understanding social interactions. Our brains learned a language and created meaning out of others’ body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
The result is a streamlined, extremely efficient way of converting social input into meaning. We hear or see something, and we instantly know what it means.
However, when we step into a new country, with different rules and values, our template of understanding isn’t as useful. In fact, the template works against us.
Even though logically we understand we’re in an environment with new rules and values, our brains still assume they know what people mean. That is, we unaware that we’re misinterpreting and misunderstanding social cues.
For example, an American starting work in Japan continues to turn down late-night drinking invitations by her coworkers. She interprets this as unprofessional and a threat to personal boundaries and her productivity at work. Her Japanese coworkers, on the other hand, interpret her declining their invitations as cold and not being a team player. However, in many Japanese work environments, drinking after-hours with colleagues is pretty much expected.
When we’re new to a culture, these misunderstandings are constant and build up. As a result, they cause us a lot of stress and disorientation.
The Adjustment Dilemma
What can be most concerning to us about culture shock is not just the initial stress it causes, but the feelings of hopelessness that can result from not seeing a clear path back to balance and psychological well-being.
Foreigners usually find themselves in a dilemma: Do I melt into this new culture and lose myself and my own values? Or do I maintain my own values and remain an outsider?
It’s easy to slip into this either/or mindset.
It’s not uncommon to find foreigners living overseas who only mingle with other foreigners. Living inside their small expatriate bubble.
Or there’s the other extreme: Foreigners who refuse to socialize with other foreigners and melt completely into the new culture. Losing themselves and rejecting their own culture.
Luckily there is a middle ground.
Integration = Full Adjustment
John Berry, a psychologist who has studied cross-cultural adjustment in-depth, identified 4 theoretical strategies a person can adopt when adjusting overseas:
- Assimilation – A person rejects or loses their home culture and identity and fully adopts or melts into the new culture
- Marginalization – A person rejects or loses their home culture and identity and also rejects or is prevented from integrating with the new culture
- Separation – A person maintains their home culture and identity and rejects or is not allowed to integrate with the new culture
- Integration – A person maintains their home culture and identity, while also interacting and adopting aspects of the new culture.
In 2016, Berry’s research found that foreigners who find a balance between their home culture and the new culture (that is, becoming bicultural), not rejecting either and embracing both, have better mental health and well-being overall, long-term.
Integration Takes Time
Integration, or becoming bicultural isn’t easy though. It’s a balancing act.
Integration also takes quite a bit of time because it’s very much dependent on becoming aware of your own cultural template of understanding and making it more flexible so that it becomes functional in the new culture.
It’s important to be easy on yourself and understand it’s normal and healthy for the process to take time. You’ve spent a lifetime learning the rules of your own culture and all of a sudden the entire game has changed. The rules are completely different.
Culture Shock Stages
Before thriving in your new country, you need to allow yourself this time to adjust. Though there may be some things you can do to speed up the process, there’s no way to avoid it altogether.
A popular way to understand the cultural adjustment process is through the 4-stage model:
The Honeymoon Stage
This is when we are infatuated with the new culture. Everything about the culture we view as positive. In this stage, it’s common that we even begin to negatively judge our own culture. We put the new culture above our own. The honeymoon stage is all about idealizing the new culture.
The Crisis Stage
The crisis stage is a big crash we experience. It’s when we realize our cultural template which we developed back at home doesn’t work in our new culture. We are stuck in constant misunderstanding; simple trips to the grocery store can make us feel stressed, irritated, or isolated. Opening a bank account or sending a package feels impossible. In the crisis stage, we begin to harshly judge the new culture and idealize our home culture. Homesickness is common and the urge to return back can be strong.
The Recovery Stage
The recovery stage is when we begin to see that adjustment is possible. We begin to realize the limitations of our black and white thinking in the previous two stages. Though cultural misunderstandings are still common, they don’t impact us as much as they did during the crisis stage.
The Adjustment Stage
This is the final stage where we find balance. We become bicultural. We understand the new culture enough to function well enough within it, while still maintaining our own heritage and cultural values. We see the advantages and disadvantages of both cultures.
It’s important to understand that this is just a model. Not everyone will go through all these stages or in this particular order. Regardless, it can be a helpful tool in understanding yourself during the adjustment process.
Getting Through Culture Shock
Balance Between Immersion and the Familiar
After the honeymoon stage, we are very susceptible to either/or thinking:
- “There’s nothing good about this culture”
- “I’m not capable of living overseas”
It’s common that we have urges to escape or avoid the new culture, which we can do in a number of ways:
- Spending more time on the Internet
- Calling home to friends and family excessively
- Alcohol misuse
- Porn misuse
- Video games
The trouble with avoiding is, if we do it too much, we’re actually avoiding the adjustment process altogether. Living in a bubble.
As mentioned before, if we really want to be more balanced and feel more fulfillment, we have to go through the painful process of adjustment. There’s no way around it.
And the longer we wait, the stronger the urge to avoid, and the harder it is to start integrating.
While some of us are avoiders, others of us like to dive in head-first attempting to quickly power through the adjustment process. We meet tons of people, we stay out late, we overbook our schedules, we can forget or avoid calling home, and we soak up the culture at every chance we get.
The problem with this strategy is that if we dive in too deep, we run the risk of burn out or cultural exhaustion. When we look back we realize we’ve forgotten to take care of ourselves. We’ve neglected our heritage side. As a result, we can start to feel overwhelmed, confused, exhausted, or that we’ve lost a sense of self and identity.
So, what to do about this? The answer is trying to find a balance between these two strategies.
Chances are, your personality resonates stronger with one of the two strategies above. Knowing your tendency is useful information to have so that you can counteract it.
If you tend to isolate more and avoid, find ways to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Make it a goal to talk to one stranger per day. Or maybe make it a goal to not make contact with anyone from home today and instead spend the entire day outside of your apartment.
If you tend toward jumping in headfirst without looking back, slowing down is critical. Remind yourself to take care of yourself. Remind yourself to stay in touch with your home culture, whether that be making a friend with someone who has a similar cultural background or contacting friends and family often. Also, make it a habit to reflect often. Give yourself time to meditate or journal as a way to recharge and stay in-tune with yourself. This gives your brain time to process, consolidate, and understand all the information it’s taking in.
Acknowledge (and Accept) Your Emotions
The experience of living overseas brings with it high, highs and low, lows. The emotional swings are big and they can occur out of nowhere. It’s important to remind yourself that these sudden shifts are normal.
It’s important to acknowledge these emotions and accept them, without judgment.
Here are some common emotions associated with culture shock and adjustment:
Talk About Your Emotions
It’s very important to open up and talk about your experience with others. This isn’t always easy to do.
It’s common to have very little if any, social network when first moving overseas. Making it hard to find opportunities to talk about feelings.
And back home, friends and family can project their emotions onto us, imagining that our time overseas is an action-packed adventure or like an extended cushy vacation. We can feel pressure to report back only positive things in order to avoid disappointing them.
Or friends and family might put pressure on us to come home, using any negative emotion we report as an opening to guilt us into returning back home.
It’s important to find at least one person you can be 100% honest with. Reach out to them on a regular basis to talk about your experience and the ups and downs you’re having. If that person is hard to find, or if you just want to get a little more insight about yourself during this process, reach out to a professional.
Adjustment Needs Book Smarts and Street Smarts
If you just watch YouTube videos in an attempt to learn how to ride a bike, you’re not going to be able to ride a bike. And if you just jump on a bike without some kind of knowledge on how a bike works and balance techniques, you’re going to struggle for a long time.
Learning a culture is the same. It can only be done with equal parts of reading about it and getting outside and experiencing it.
It’s important to know, though it’s not necessarily bad to ask other foreigners and expats about how your new culture works, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt as self-theorizing and accepting untrue rumors as fact within expat communities isn’t uncommon. So, talk to other foreigners, while at the same time, do some research yourself. Buy a book or read a reputable blog or article about your new culture.
Now that you’re equipped with managing your massive transition overseas, what about being happy and thriving, longer-term in your new country?
What Would Happiness in Your New Country Look Like?
Though having a goal of being happy is great, it’s also extremely vague. And when we have vague goals, it does two things:
- We don’t know when or if we arrived at our goal
- As a result of #1, we are never satisfied and always wanting more
In short, having a vague, elusive goal of being happy is a setup for failure. Our brains become a hamster on a wheel always after more.
So, an important place to start is to first identify what happiness would look like. One of my favorite questions to ask clients is the miracle question:
Imagine yourself going to sleep tonight as usual. As you’re sleeping, something big happens. All of your challenges disappear and this question of “How can I be happy in this new county” is no longer. It’s solved. When you wake up, nobody tells you the miracle happened, but you slowly become aware of it. What sort of things do you notice that tells you this miracle happened?:
- What do you see?
- What do you hear?
- What do you experience?
- How do you act?
- How do people act toward you?
- What are you doing?
By answering the miracle question, you define your values. You become more clear on the things that are most important to you. You also create real, tangible, measurable goals to aim for.
As you answer these questions, be careful about your focus going exclusively towards things you don’t want anymore and that are vague: “I don’t want to feel confused anymore,” “I don’t want to feel sad and alone.”
Instead, focus on specific positive things that would be different: “I would get up in the morning and do yoga,” “I would have 1 planned activity with a local friend every week.”
Psychological Well-Being Model
To help get even more specific with your goals is a theory developed by a psychologist named Martin Seligman. His PERMA model describes 4 pillars to psychological well-being and happiness:
- P – Positive Emotion
- E – Engagement
- R – Relationships
- M – Meaning
- A – Accomplishments
Fairly self-explanatory. Positive emotions are emotions that make us feel good and they counteract the negative emotions and thoughts we have.
This is being in-tune and completely present with what you’re doing. When we do these certain things time goes by quickly and we are completely absorbed and focused on what we’re doing. What sort of things do you get absorbed with and time flys by?
We are social by nature. Some people thrive on a few deep relationships, others need a large group of friends. Regardless, relationships are important. Relationships give us feedback and when our relationships are positive and thriving, usually we are too. What can you do to improve existing relationships? What can you do to develop and deepen relationships?
Mr. Seligman describes this as “belonging to and serving something bigger than what you are.” Meaning is also synonymous with purpose and direction. Goals. What sort of purpose do you have? What purpose do you want?
When we pursue something of value and achieve it, it’s extremely satisfying. It’s also extremely important to our well-being. What do you need to do today to get closer to achieving the things you value?
Using PERMA to Help Identify Your Goals
PERMA is a great tool to help break down happiness into smaller chunks. This way the goal of happiness starts to become more manageable and attainable.
These five pillars also help direct your mind to what’s important and most likely to contribute in increasing your happiness and well-being overseas.
General Happiness Misconceptions
Yale opened one of it’s well-known classes, The Science of Well Being, to the public for free on Coursera (you can find that course here). In the course, Laurie Santos addresses common misconceptions we have about happiness.
In short, she explains that us humans aren’t so good at knowing what will make us happy. We spend a lot of our physical and mental energy pursuing things we think will make us happy, which actually doesn’t increase our level of happiness much or at all.
Getting a good job
Santos describes that getting a good job is a very common pursuit. Though important, we often overestimate how much it will make us happy.
Santos cited one study that asked participants to predict their drop in happiness if turned down from a job they really wanted.
The findings were that on average, participants predicted, a drop in their level happiness by 2.10 points (thinking about their level of happiness on a scale of 1 to 10). Their actual drop in happiness was actually only .68 points. In this scenario, participants were told the decision for them to not get the job was based on a fair decision (e.g., education, experience, etc.).
Researchers asked the same participants what their level of happiness would be after not getting the job based on an unfair decision. Participants predicted, on average, a drop in the happiness of 1.9 points. However, the participants’ actual drop in happiness was zero. There was no change in their level of happiness when turned down from the job.
More Money & Stuff
One of the most common pursuits of humans is more money.
Santos cites one study that asked survey participants how much salary they need in order to be happy. Participants who currently made $30,000/year, on average said they’d need $50,000/year in order to feel content. Participants who currently made $100,000/year said they’d need $250,000/year.
Santos points out, though we think we are being rational when we believe a certain salary level will make us happy, once we reach a higher level, what we want increases; no matter how much we make, we want more.
What they found was that yes, there is a relationship between money and happiness. However, more money doesn’t mean more happiness after a certain level. And that level is about $75,000/year. After that amount, according to the study, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, you’re not going to find more happiness with more money.
True love & Perfect Body
Santos also addresses the illusion that finding “the one” and having a perfect body will lead to happiness.
According to the research she uncovered, couples find an increase in happiness 2 years before marriage with a peak the year they get married. Immediately after marriage, the level of happiness begins to come back down. 2 and 3 years later, you’re at the same level you were before marriage and before you even met.
Regarding your body, Santos points to research that shows an initial lower level of depression for individuals who lost weight compared to those who have stable weight or gaining weight. However, after follow-ups, on average, the individuals who lost weight are more depressed than those with stable or an increase in weight.
Happiness and Self-Care
We often sacrifice self-care in pursuit of things we think will make us happy: “Once I achieve [blank], I’ll have more time for self-care.”
Self-care often gets put on the backburner during transitions (like adjusting to a new country).
Self-care is crucial because it’s a foundation for happiness. Without it, happiness isn’t able to grow.
And what’s the foundation to self-care?: adequate sleep, exercise, eating right, and avoiding risky activities (drinking, drugs, unprotected sex, etc.).
Here are some things to consider for yourself:
- 7+ hours of sleep
- Exercise for 30+ minutes every day
- Eat plenty of vegetables
- Avoid junk food
- Take a walk
- Draw or color
- Listen to music
- Deep breathing
- Organize/declutter something
- Start counseling
- Read a book
- Listen to a podcast
- Start a gratitude journal
- Avoid negative people
- Turn off electronics
Finding happiness in your country doesn’t come overnight and it’s important to remind yourself that’s it normal to feel out of place and go through waves of strong emotions. Adjustment takes time.
It’s also important to know that you don’t have to navigate the adjustment process alone. Clients usually reach out to me for one of the reasons below:
- There are no major problems and the person is just looking to get further ahead or get through a transition a little quicker
- Emotions are getting stronger, but day-to-day things are still ok. The person seeks help to prevent things from progressing to something more serious
- Functioning day-to-day is a challenge and solving the issue doesn’t seem possible on his or her own
This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.