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  • Henriette Johnsen

Attachment style and culture shock

Updated: Sep 18, 2018

And then, one day, reality comes crashing! Just like that! The honeymoon is over, and what were experienced as charming, quirky or quaint idiosyncrasies, now appear tedious, annoying and even depressing. In fact, many immigrants and expats develop signs of depression at this stage; and as such, it becomes extremely challenging to remain positive, explorative and open to meeting new people which are all crucial abilities at this stage of settling in.


Whereas moving abroad may have seemed like an opportunity to start afresh; in this phase, most realise that everyday life isn’t much better in another country. If anything, it may be more challenging. As one client put it: “It feels like my gremlins have unpacked themselves. They have come to haunt me with increased force now that I’m away from my usual environment. And I no longer know how to keep them a bay.” Many people living away from home feel that their usual defense mechanisms no longer serve them as well as they used to and as such, they start to feel at sea.


At this stage, one’s personal values can seem of significant importance as well as relentlessly tested, and many clients speak of an identity crisis feeling perplexed of their role, their sense of self and agency in the world.


In my therapeutic experience, I find that how people deal with this phase tends to be related to their style of attachment. Attachment theorist John Bowlby proposed that for survival, infants have an innate ability to form attachment, a deep emotional bond, to their primary caretaker, most often the mother/mother figure.


If the mother is sensitive and responsive to the needs of her infant, the child will grow up with a strong sense of a secure base from which he/she will be able to explore the world and return to when needed if upset or anxious. People with secure attachments tend to be able to better control their emotions, are more empathic and benefit from fundamental trust in other people’s intentions. As such, they tend to adjust well to new circumstances, including life in another country. They may experience loneliness and homesickness, but rest in knowing that life is good and trustworthy, that relationships back home are intact, and that new attachments can be formed to positively enhance the experience of living in a foreign country.


If, however, an infant has not had his/hers needs met sufficiently, but has experienced largely mis-tuned, dismissive, distant or intrusive caretakers, he/she might develop an insecure attachment style.


Some have fearful-avoidant attachment styles and though craving intimacy and close relationships, the overwhelming sense of risk in relation to being dismissed or even abandoned makes it seem dangerous to truly connect with (new) people. Expats/immigrants with this attachment style often find relief in living far away from loved ones as contact is less anxiety inducing; however, it may also mean that lots of energy is spent worrying if relationships back home will survive the distance. Adding to that, making new friends can be difficult and in protecting oneself from disappointment, one can feel isolated.


Others may be ambivalent attached suffering from separation anxiety, and for such expats/immigrants, the settling in phase can prove extremely difficult as one may experience a yearning for life back home making it difficult to create a meaningful new life.


Most often, people are not aware of their attachment style, and awareness alone is not necessarily helpful. What may be helpful is seeing a therapist with experience of attachment style in connection with expat life. Exploring how early experiences and the lessons learnt from these still influence one’s way of viewing the world and beginning to challenge these beliefs can be useful to living a more authentic and meaningful life. In my experience, working towards changing one’s attachment blueprint is possible. How your narrative if constructed and/or deconstructed will prove important as will the opportunities for personal growth and change that occur throughout life.


My personal experience was one of profound homesickness and loneliness; the latter on a much deeper level than I had ever experienced before. Like many others, I started comparing everything with life back home, and where the host country was viewed through rose tinted glasses in the honeymoon phase, everything in my home country now seemed better. I experienced a painful yearning for my old life; and found myself longing for aspects of my life that I had used to feel completely indifferent about or had looked forward to leaving behind. Sometimes, I would look at the clock and imagine what I would be doing if I had still been living my old life.


Picking up my children from the local school, I felt like the odd one out and I was somewhat apprehensive about making contact to the local mums as I was approaching people at the gym, sports events etc. All my insecurities were causing internal havoc.


In hindsight, I realise that I was shifting between the poles of insecure attachment: At times, I’d be in my avoidant self, at other times, in my ambivalent self. This was a very confusing time indeed, but also an opportunity to find new inner strength to grow and develop.


As time went by, I found that those tendencies declined, but whenever life became challenging, like in the case of my divorce and, some years later, my repatriation case, my homesickness and existential loneliness seemed fueled.


Whilst I was happy to leave some aspects of my life behind me, I soon realised that I needed to confront others. In fact, I found that having moved far away enabled me to look at difficult issues which I hadn’t had the courage to confront at home. Over several years, I experienced depression and anxiety, and only after having had extensive psychological help, including training to become a therapist, did I find a way to make peace with myself and my past to fully embrace my present life. I went from feeling stuck and without any agency to gradually feeling more alive, more present, authentic and true to myself as well as being fully able to enjoy satisfactory relationships be it with colleagues, friends, family, my children and my partner; abroad and back home.


I’m not sure I would ever have embarked on such a powerful, affirmative and life changing journey, had I not moved abroad. For having had the courage to doing just that and to looking deeply into myself, I’ll be eternal grateful.


Given that each experience of life, and living in a foreign country, is different, it is difficult to make recommendations as how to deal with this potentially difficult phase of settling in. However, I will say that keeping a routine and trying to create a life around one’s interests and hobbies, preferably meeting new people and remaining open to new experiences are key in successful integration.


It’s tempting to seek out friends from one’s home country or from the local expat/immigrant community; and as much as these serve a purpose, can relate to the struggles in this phase of settling in and can turn into lifelong fulfilling friendships, I’d like to encourage everyone to approaching the locals too. Not only does this offer one a sense of belonging in the host country, it offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the cultural values and life in the chosen country, and perhaps most importantly, locals don’t have the same tendency to move on after a couple of years in one place like expats.


Finally, it's important to acknowledge that it's okay to feel confused, lonely and homesick. These are all normal aspects of the process of living in a foreign country. Your feelings and emotions are trying to teach you something about your current life situation; be gentle with yourself and try to embrace the positive the best you can as well as look for the change necessary to start enjoying the adventure of life in a new country. Rest in knowing this is a phase; like grief, you have experienced a loss and need to adapt to a new way of living.


For more on therapy, please visit my website www.henriettejohnsen.dk


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