Moving to a foreign country has an emotional impact which can be more or less strong according to our own way of reacting to it. Some people are immediately enthusiastic about the country they moved to and adapt to it smoothly. Others, after a difficult initial period, overcome the stress and find their way.
However there are also people who feel blocked, confused, and experience psychological and/or physical pain when they “land” in a foreign country. They suffer what is commonly called a “culture shock.”
What is a culture shock?
A culture shock is a psychological, emotional and behavioral short-circuit, that takes place whenever an individual feels a gap, between his/her cultural and social identity and the one of the country he/she has moved to. They feel lost, alone and don’t know how to address this gap. Culture shock usually shows acute and/or chronic anxiety symptoms, depression, frustration, irritability, isolation and even physical symptoms. These symptoms vary in intensity according to the individual psychological condition.
Culture shock: Inner or external cause?
First, it is important to understand if the main cause of the culture shock is internal or external. If it is the former, this person is suffering because of an old pain already present in his/her system that the new context simply uncovered (see more below). If it is the latter, this person is in pain because he/she was not ready to emigrate, did not want to do it or cannot find his/her way in the country he/she has moved to.
We can outline three cases: a hurried choice, a wrong choice or an overloaded choice.
A hurried choice
We make a hurried choice when the decision is right but emigration happens when we are not ready yet. Emigrating can be a good opportunity to break old patterns and bring new energy in our life, but sometimes we want to change things too fast. Here there are two main possibilities: a) we are unsatisfied and emigrating seems the solution to all our problems; b) we are happy and emigrating seems an exciting experience.
In both the cases, we need to check if we are really ready for that! Are we emigrating to understand ourselves better or just to avoid problems? Is our motivation strong enough? Are we conscious of all the difficulties we will have to face?
A wrong choice
Once “landed”, we can realize that we made a wrong choice. Work, relationships and local culture do not work out for us. We have a clear and precise feeling we are out of place. Our outer life doesn’t satisfy our inner needs, and no matter how much we try to adapt to the new context, we just feel unhappy. This happens when we forced ourselves (or were forced) to emigrate without really wanting to. We did not evaluate things correctly and now come to realize that what we renounced is exactly what we want! In a sense, making a wrong choice made us understand what we really love.
An overloaded choice
Sometimes we have too many expectations. We expect that we will find the house, the job and the partner of our dreams and that everything will be smooth and effortless. Emigrating is not easy and it will be different from what we can imagine. It is not a magic solution to fix everything in one’s life.
Expectations are a psychological compensation of our inner insecurities. It is a way to avoid them. The more expectations we have, the more the culture shock will be painful.
Go over the gap
If we find ourselves in a culture shock, it is up to us to decide to stay or go back to our home country. If we decide to stay, we must challenge ourselves. Sometimes we strongly hold onto a position of rejection as mechanism to protect our insecurity. To reverse the culture shock, the only cure is openness. Its tools are self-inquiry and an open dialogue.
Self-inquiry is a way to be less and less busy with the other’s behavior and more and more with our own psychology. It is necessary to shift our attention from the external world to our inner world. It’s a little bit like going, for example, from the position: “I am annoyed by their clothing style”, to the position: “Why am I annoyed by their clothing style?”.
An open dialogue is based on judging the other’s behavior less and on using the same energy to connect instead. Going beyond our mental blocks requires many efforts at the beginning, but it will bring a great fulfillment. We will start to relate not just with “them” but with real individuals, and friendship will be the outcome.
Culture shock: something was already there?
If we discover that the pain we feel is old and it has no direct connection with emigrating, it means that it was already in our system and that the culture shock just uncovered it. When we leave our security behind and cross the borders of our homeland (comfort zone), all our hidden emotions, feelings and sensations can find space to express themselves. In this case, culture shock creates an emotional gap though which our subconscious can be heard.
The first thing to do is not to panic. We need to accept the situation and tell ourselves: “Some old pain is here and it is ok. It wants to communicate with me and it is happening because I am ready to face it”.
Now we are going to see why we repress emotions, what the nature of our inner wounds is and what message they carry with them.
Why do we repress emotions?
Painful emotions come from negative experiences: expectations that were not met, unfulfilled needs, physical/emotional/psychological abuse, loneliness, rejection, lack of love, etc.. If the pain is too big, we repress it and isolate it, waiting for the right moment to deal with it. The emotional pain awakened by culture shock is an opportunity to reclaim a part of us that was denied for too long. It can be difficult to go there again, but the way of true healing is always based on union and integration, never on separation.
The nature of inner wounds
The nature of inner wounds is the same of body wounds. When our skin is cut, we feel pain and start bleeding. Instinctively we cover the wound with our hand in order to protect it. Pain is the language our body uses so that we turn our attention to it. But if we don’t take our hand away, after a while, we will get the opposite effect: an infection. In fact, the wound can be healed only when it is in the open air. The same applies to inner wounds: they need to be stripped of our resistances, expressed and shared in order to let the old pain go.
A message of change
Repressed emotions are fighting to be free. They come up when we are ready to deal with them. Their message is to change old emotional, behavioral and thinking patterns, to establish our identity on a deeper, wider and more authentic level. Our emotional wounds naturally go towards healing but they need our active help to be integrated in our system.
Dealing with culture shock: an opportunity for freedom
Dealing with culture shock takes you on an inner journey of self-discovery. There will be obstacles, mishaps and difficult moments but also beautiful moments in which you can experience your inner strength.
The shape that this journey will take is different for each one of you. There are those who begin therapy, a spiritual practice, a journey, self-inquire, while others change their life plans: relationships, work, personal projects, etc. These are all ways to channel this energy of inner change: it pushes us to let go of some old pain in order to be open to something else. We need to trust that nothing is against us in life: all problems are an opportunity to feel more free and open.
Previously published on Expat Therapist and on InLivin-Amsterdam If you like the article, feel free to share it and leave your comment below.