Photo credit: Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

Are you living abroad? Do you feel like you “suddenly” don´t know yourself anymore? Are you feeling insecure and don´t know how to behave in your environment? If so, you might be experiencing the so-called culture shock, which is part of adapting to a new place, culture, and environment. In this article, I will explain what culture shock is, how you find out if it affects you and what you can do to deal with it.

First of all, let me tell you that you are not alone in this! Culture shock is a natural phase of adapting to a new environment. Especially if you move somewhere that is very different from the culture you grew up in, but it can even happen in your neighbouring country. It´s nothing you did wrong, it can happen to everyone. The important thing is how you deal with culture shock and how mindful you are as you go through it.

Why culture shock happens

We are all born into systems. The system we grow up in shapes the way we think and behave. During our lives, we get in touch with different systems such as our family, society, school, peer groups, work, and more. As long as we stay in the environment, we have been brought up in we know how to behave, how to act around other people, we know what´s ok and what´s not and that makes us feel safe and secure. We don´t have to think too much about how to behave but feel free to do it the way we have learned to. And then, we move abroad and everything changes.

Suddenly we cannot identify as much with the people around us, we think differently, have other values, and do things distinct. Uncertainties arise – “am I right? Is my behaviour right?”

It starts with small things:

How does social interaction work?

What´s the process to get a doctor’s appointment?

How much personal space does everyone take?

There´s a long list of differences we run into when moving abroad and those differences often lead to problems. 

Some people feel like they lose their identity and experience feelings of anxiety, home-sickness, low self-esteem, negativity and others that turn the adventure they thought they would be living into a nightmare.

The phases of culture shock

The term culture shock represents a psychological reaction to the unknown. People who move abroad and get in touch with another culture often experience a shock-like state of uncertainty, being uncomfortable and different. But although shock sounds like a momentary or a short-lived experience, culture shock has several different phases.

1.    The honeymoon phase

In the honeymoon phase people are excited about the new place and are open to make new experiences. This is often the phase where they say yes to every occasion to get to know places and people, go out, have fun and feel like this is the best experience they have ever had. In this phase of culture shock people soak up their environment and the new place and are in a happy place.

2.    Crisis

Then comes phase two of the culture shock: crisis – a phase that people perceive as problematic. That often happens when people run into problems they feel are caused by rules and behaviour prevailing in the new country. Occurring problems lead to a comparison between the home country and the new country and often lead to the feeling of “at home, everything is better”. Since learned behaviour and learned rules don´t apply in the new environment people often feel lost because they don´t have the resources to deal with occurring problems. That´s when insecurities come up, people might have the feeling they are “wrong”, that they don´t belong. In this phase, people feel lonely and alone. Some describe it as feeling like “aliens”.

3.    Relaxation

Once people have gone through the crisis phase they have built resources on how to deal with different cultures and on how to feel fine with themselves. They have even gotten to know themselves in a new way. Also, have they made the effort to understand the new culture, they now understand social rules and traditions and know how to navigate things in this sea of difference. And since they have fallen apart and built themselves up again, they might know themselves better than before.

How to deal with culture shock

If you experience culture shock, I have some steps for you that you can take. As a change to a new culture and a new environment is a very personal experience there is no one who will experience it the same way as you do. You might make the same experiences and it helps to talk about it and know that you are not alone. It might also help to learn how other people have overcome the adaption process to a new environment, but at the end of the day, the process is all yours and only you are going through it with you. You are the key to your well-being. That´s why I will concentrate on steps that you can repeatedly take for yourself.

Take time to check in with yourself

It doesn´t matter if you go abroad together with someone, move somewhere alone or move to be with someone. In the end, your experience is very personal and you should be your best friend and always be there for you. A great technique is Mindful Self-Compassion, developed by Kristin Neff, PhD and Christopher Germer, PhD.

Three principles of self-compassion are:

  • Be kind to yourself in the midst of suffering.
  • Self-compassion springs from the heart of mindfulness during moments of suffering.
  • The quintessential self-compassion question is “What do I need?”

What that means for the different phases of culture shock

In phase 1 of culture shock, the honeymoon phase, this means:

Check in with you and ask yourself – Am I doing what I really want to do? Do I feel tired? What do I need right now? You might need rest instead of meeting people, but you are afraid to lose touch if you don´t go.

In phase 2 of culture shock, the crisis, this means:

Whenever you feel overwhelmed, down, or when you are doubting yourself, take time to close your eyes, breathe, and ask yourself: What do I need right now?

This way you give yourself the chance to feel the solution or way out of the current feeling. If you feel lonely and overwhelmed and take the time to ask yourself what you need, you might feel, that you need a phone call with someone who loves you unconditionally or that you need to do something that gives you confidence like painting or sports.

In phase 3 of culture shock, the crisis, this means:

In phase 3 of culture shock, the relaxation phase, you can support yourself too by being there for yourself. In this phase you might be more relaxed, more sure of yourself, you might have experienced the “new” self and are fine with it, but in any case, it´s always good to check in with yourself. As an answer to the question “What do I need right now?” you might get: I feel great. I have everything that I need right now. I am at peace.

Isn´t it great to feel that so consciously?

Life is constant change

The only thing that we can be sure of is, that life means constant change. As much as we are trying to hold onto something, nothing will ever last. And I don´t mean that in any dramatic way, it’s just how life works. We are constantly changing. We are growing, we are getting to know more and more things, we are developing, we are leaving people behind and get to know new ones.

When you accept that and know that nothing is forever, changes feel easier. You always have one constant in life and that is you. So, take care of yourself. Be there for you. Because when you are aware of yourself you have access to all your resources. When you are self-compassionate you can deal with anything.

Everything we experience is an invitation to get in touch with ourselves. We are always there; we just need to take our time to listen. By that, we can, and will, grow. And we will bloom.

Culture Shock and How to Deal With It

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